PL: Fantasy trilogy to cyberpunk police procedural - that's a big shift. What led to you writing Loose Circuit?
TEB: I’ve always been fascinated by and written both scifi and fantasy, so hopping back over to cyberpunk wasn’t so much a shift as just moving onto my next project. I’d written many stories (and even older novels!) in both genres, and it just so happened that my fantasy book was the first one to be published. When I knew I wanted to do a trilogy, that set up two more fantasy books, which led to three fantasy books in a row. Had I gotten a scifi book published first, I may very well have been doing scifi for the last few years.
Ultimately I enjoy both genres, but I think I actually have more fun doing scifi, as it allows me to spend less time worrying about anachronisms and just writing fun prose, whether it be dialogue or author’s voice. Since scifi allows me to use modern language, I feel like my voice comes through more clearly in scifi than in fantasy, where I’m more reserved and formal. I just have a great time writing it.
My writing of Loose Circuit (the aforementioned cyberpunk police procedural!) was actually inspired once I finished watching one of my favorite anime series, Psycho-Pass. Psycho-Pass is incredibly dark, twisty, addicting, and thought provoking, especially in how it deals with one of my favorite concepts, which could be summarized as “Should we allow everyone to have free will?” I wanted to explore that in a story of my own.
It sounds like an easy answer at first, doesn’t it? Of course we should allow people to have free will. It allows us to do good things ... and also, allows us to do some of the most horrific things imaginable to one another. Things that are evil in the purest sense of the word. Think of the worst, most horrific, most terrifying story you’ve heard about what one person has done to another (or many). Someone chose to do that. Free will allowed that to occur.
So given free will allows as much bad as it does good (if not more so) would it be acceptable to limit free will? What if we could take away free will, or at least ... the free will to *harm* other people? Would it work? And even if we did do it, how would society change?
Ultimately, that led to the idea of PBAs (Personal Brain Assistants, which forbid us from harming or killing other human beings), which are central to Loose Circuit – my protagonists (cops with the CID, or Cybercrimes Investigation Division) are responsible for dealing with cases where PBAs don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is stop violent crime. I had a ton of fun coming up with ways people could still commit crimes despite PBAs, and then exploring how each crime occurred (and how my protagonists “solved” each case) in detail. Fun!
At its core, Loose Circuit was me wanting to write my own anime, essentially, about a world where mind control exists ... and whether that’s okay. The episodic format was a natural fit for that. Multiple self-contained stories that build a larger narrative.
PL: So you're an anime fan - where else do you draw your inspirations from, both fantasy and sci-fi?
TEB: My interest in anime started young (though it wasn’t necessarily marketed as anime at the time) with the serialized stories of Robotech (Macross in Japan) and Starblazers (Space Battleship Yamato in Japan), which I watched in 30 minute blocks every afternoon. Despite being watered down and edited for American audiences, they were still groundbreaking as far as “children’s television” was concerned, particularly in how they featured a large cast of interesting characters (instead of just one “main” character with sidekicks) and characterization and plot that developed over seasons, rather than resetting at the end of each episode. As a child, having a story that played out over such a long period of time unlocked an interest in extended narratives.
I enjoyed many of the 80s cartoons so many other kids did (G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, etc) but while I found them interesting, I think it was Robotech and Starblazers that truly inspired me to write both short fiction and long. Looking back, I think this is because of the depth of the character roster and the introduction of characters who weren’t clearly cut “good” or “bad”, but just people fighting for what they believed in.
Other than Psycho-Pass, which I’ve mentioned previously, Ghost in the Shell (the episodic series, Stand Alone Complex and 2nd Gig) was what really got my mind fired up in regards to cyberpunk and how many cool stories you could tell in the genre. Standard science fiction (particularly space opera) was cool, but cyberpunk added a dimension of grittiness and interest that grabbed me more than anything I’d seen before, likely due to my fascination with computer programming and videogames.
Of all the anime I’ve enjoyed, Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass are the two most direct inspirations that inspired Loose Circuit, and much of their DNA is ingrained in the story. Loose Circuit is also the first time I’ve tried to tell a long story in an episodic fashion (with 12,000~ word episodes that stand alone while also building a larger narrative) and it’s been really fun in that regard.
PL: The best part about doing these interviews sometimes is all the recommendations I get. So let’s fish some more! What about the Tales of the Five Provinces, your fantasy trilogy that starts with Glyphbinder? What inspirations lay behind that?
TEB: Glyphbinder actually started with a single idea for a scene that isn’t even in the book! It involved a mage and a warrior who had been fighting some sort of difficult campaign against a devious enemy (very, very basic – just an inkling of an idea). I had the idea that the warrior had lost his memory and been told his wife was dead.
During the book, the warrior and the mage had started to develop feelings for each other over the course of their adventures. Just when they are close to giving into those feelings, they would camp at a town with the rest of their party and discover the warrior’s wife was living there, still alive, having survived the burning of his village. She would remember him (he wouldn’t remember her) and turn everyone’s world view upside down. It was literally just imagining that scene and thinking how dramatic it would be, without the context of any larger book or even much about the characters.
This scene, of course, never takes place in Glyphbinder or the other two books – it didn’t even make it into the first draft. But the idea of a warrior who’d had his memory erased by magic (Trell) and a scrappy young female mage who is determined to help him (Kara) remained, which planted the seeds for the rest of the book. The first actual scene I wrote with Kara and Trell (still in the book, but in a much different form) had Kara reminiscing about her time learning glyphs in Solyr’s library while enjoying a hike through the woods, at the end of which she finds Trell’s bloody body and protects him from attack. That scene survived all the way to the final draft, though in a dramatically different form.
The biggest improvement in Glyphbinder’s final draft came from adding Kara’s quest to find a cure for her mother’s terminal disease. My editor at McBryde Publishing, which released the first version of the book, was unsatisfied with Kara’s motivations and insisted I answer the age old question “What does your character want?” Saving her mother was the answer. It was a far more personal quest than “saving the world” and informed so much of the final draft. It allowed all Kara’s choices to make much more sense, and as I see it, allowed me to make her an even more compelling character.
Coincidentally, incorporating Kara’s quest to save her mother was the last of many changes that fully flipped the narrative relationship between Trell and Kara. In very early drafts, I’d envisioned Trell as the main character with Kara supporting him, but by the middle drafts (and certainly by the end) those roles had flipped entirely, with Kara taking the lead.
As far as inspiration, it’s safe to say that JRPG plots (and, of course, the plots of literally hundreds of fantasy books I’d read growing up) all mixed together to form the plot of Glyphbinder. The inspirations are likely too many (and too mushed up in my head) to pick out clearly, but JRPGs are definitely in the mix.
As far as revisions go, Glyphbinder is probably my most revised book (not uncommon with an early novel) having gone through no less than 6 complete revisions, several of which were total rewrites. Though elements remain that came all the way from the first draft (and the main characters stayed the same throughout) the final draft is dramatically different from the original draft that started it all.
PL: You mention the JRPGs and I know your day job is in the gaming industry. How much of a gaming influence in the Spec Fic worlds we see being created today?
TEB: Most of the influence on my written work actually comes from playing other people’s games, rather than the work I do in my day job. I’d easily admit that videogame plots and storylines all the way back to Crystalis and The Legend of Zelda (NES) have had a heavy influence on my writing, because those were the stories that had the most impact on me when I was young. I played games before that, of course (my first console was an Atari 2600) but the limitations of those early games meant actual plots were non-existent. It was more about mechanics, bleeps, and boops.
It’s fair to say that the plots of a number of RPGs (which, themselves, were often derived from fantasy and science fiction books of the era) have influenced (and still influence) my work, and continue to do so. So books and movies inspire videogames, which I play, which inspire me to write more books. It’s the circle of inspiration! (or theft, depending on how you look at it).
As far as Tales of the Five Provinces (my completed fantasy series) the biggest influences would be the early Final Fantasy games on the SNES, particularly Final Fantasy II (IV in Japan). I can point to three specific ideas that I stole (*cough* I mean, was inspired by!) in that particular game.
First, the idea of a magic academy where magic is taught like anything else. The city of Mysidia (the mage city where you meet magic students Palom and Porom) gave me the idea for Solyr (Kara’s magic academy) *long* before Hogwarts was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The Magic Academy of Vane, from Lunar: Silver Star Story, was also an inspiration.
The second thing I borrowed (er, was inspired by!) was the magic/elemental system of the Final Fantasy games, using Lit/Ice/Fire/Quake as my base. These changed to Fire, Water, Earth, and Air up until the very last draft of Glyphbinder, at which point I saw Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (I was introduced to the series by a friend) and just about had a conniption.
Avatar had the exact same idea as my book (characters wielding fire, ice, air, and earth in cool ways) except Avatar’s characters wielded elements while doing martial arts, which was ten times cooler than blood glyph magic. Dammit. It was a bit of a kick in the gut, honestly.
Eventually, I got over it (there are no original ideas out there, after all), but I did end up doing a find/replace on my elements, turning Fire, Water, Earth, and Air into Life, Heat, Breath, and Land, in the hopes of not being seen as *completely* derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But, for the record, I officially stole my ideas from Final Fantasy, not Avatar! (Wait, that doesn’t sound much better)
The final element that’s stuck with me through decades is Kain’s arc in Final Fantasy II, where he is turned against his allies (through mind control) not once, but several times, and then feels incredibly guilty as a result. He was a tragic (but awesome) character, and the game ends with him on a “journey of redemption” to try to make up for the wrongs he did while under Golbez’s influence.
That plotline was a *huge* inspiration for Jyllith (the lead in Demonkin) and pretty much the entire origin of her arc. I wanted to present a character tricked into going against her better impulses who, upon being shown the error of her ways, set out not to redeem herself (which she sees as impossible) but to do as much good as she can before she willingly goes to her inevitable punishment. Jyllith (like Kain) has no hope of being forgiven for her crimes, but wants to do all she can to atone anyway.
The idea of a regretful character atoning with no hope of forgiveness was a noble, melancholy, and interesting idea I wanted to explore, and comes directly from seeing Kain’s journey in Final Fantasy II.
PL: Since before Hogwarts was even a twinkle! That's a long time to nurture a story. How much about your technique and approach to writing has changed in that time?
TEB: I’d like to say I’ve improved as a writer since I finished the first draft of Glyphbinder (in 1998). I’ve been writing pretty consistently since middle school, but I didn’t actually start selling work until 2013, when I finally sold my first story, a horror short called “The Mumber”, to a small horror market. I do feel that my writing today is tighter and more entertaining than my writing from 20 years ago, so there’s that!
As far as my approach to writing, it’s remained basically the same – I get a scene or pivotal plot point in my head, then write a story that gets to that point, does it, and shows the aftermath. For novels, I do outline in bullet point style from start to end, which allows me to avoid writing myself into a corner and also, if I’m stuck, even write scenes out of order. For short stories, however, I still mostly improvise.
As far as writing technique, I’d say my “author’s voice” (and a snarky one, at that) has more prominent in the past five years or so, and that my writing has become less dry as a result. I can’t take sole credit for this, as I’ve been submitting my stuff to (and having it improved by) one critique group or another for decades now.
So, in all those years since 1998, I don’t think my approach or technique has changed drastically ... I’ve just gotten generally better at writing clean and interesting prose.
PL: Nothing beats a good critique group - how did you find yours?
TEB: Conventions, actually! I met my first critique group when I was still in Texas at a local writer’s convention. We started chatting about our shared interest in writing, and all three of them were local to my area. This was my first exposure to editorial style critique, and while it was initially depressing (what? How can you not believe my story is the best in the world?) I soon found that their critiques were making my stories *better*.
Once I realized my stories were improving every time I took advantage of author insights given to me for free, a switch flipped. I suddenly became hungry for feedback (does this work? How about this? How can I make it better?) instead of being “hurt” that my story wasn’t perfect.
The challenge many young writers face is separating their craft (their ability to tell a story) from their identity as a “good” writer. You can write a terrible story and still be a talented writer and an awesome person. When people in a critique group say your story isn’t working, it’s not an attack on *you* ... it’s them providing feedback as to what might work better, for them, as a prospective reader.
Feedback is how we learn, and writers new and experienced should remain hungry to learn. Even today, having been writing for 30 years, I still get stuff critiqued and consistently find ways to improve it.
I currently have two active critique groups (one that meets every two weeks, and one that meets every few months) and both have combinations of other writers at various levels of experience and success, ranging from fledgling authors to folks who’ve published multiple books through traditional press. Often, the feedback from the new writers (things that bother them, or that they point out) is as valuable as that from the seasoned pros.
As of now, I would never send out *anything* that hadn’t been critiqued at least once, not even as a rough draft. I just get too much valuable feedback.
PL: Also, what's the best piece of writing advice you've received, and the worst?
TEB: I would say the best piece of writing advice I’ve received is to use a “scratch” file when editing a short story or novel. I keep an open file when editing, and ruthlessly snip and cut stuff that doesn’t work out of the current draft. The feeling of safety a scratch file provides (the words are simply moved, not gone) helps me be a much better editor of my own work, trimming and cutting as needed.
As writers, we have a tendency to cling to our hard fought words, and fear deleting anything because we can never come up with something “so brilliant” again (or maybe that’s just me). That’s why a scratch file is so useful ... it lets you feel safe removing anything from your story. If you decide later in the editing process that you want to bring that idea/scene/dialogue back, you can paste it right back in.
As far as the worst advice I’ve ever heard? That would be tough, as I’ve never actually heard anyone say to do this ... but I’d warn against it anyway.
The flipside of critique groups (for those who don’t know how to best use them) is to treat outlying opinion as gospels, and treat *all* feedback as valid. Writing is incredibly subjective, and what one person likes, another person may loathe with every fiber of their being. When listening to feedback, writers must look for the reasons *why* things don’t work, rather than simply taking feedback verbatim. It could be that it’s not your idea that’s the problem, for example, but how you’re presenting it in the story. Always analyze feedback carefully before making any huge story change.
This is why critique groups are so valuable (to me). I get feedback from multiple advance readers whose reactions I can compare and contrast. If one person hates something, and one person likes it, I use my best judgment. If eight people hate something, and only one person likes it, that’s incredibly useful, as I can be very confident something doesn’t work, even if I personally don’t have a problem with it.
So, some really bad writing advice would be “do everything your critique group tells you.”
Your critique group provides insight, feedback, and data on what is working and not working for them, but it up to you as a writer to interpret that feedback and filter out the noise. Critique is data, not a mandate. Ultimately, you need to write the story you want to write, so while you should always seriously consider feedback from critiques, you should never feel compelled to act on *everything*, especially if the suggested change comes from one person rather than multiple people.
|Sketch art of Kara from Tales of the Five Provinces|
PL: Okay - final question - well, questions - what future plans have you got for your books? And what do you see in the future for the various Spec Fic genres?
TEB: As far as future plans, I’m really excited about doing more writing in the worlds I created for Supremacy’s Shadow and Loose Circuit (my two most recent novels).
Right now, my plans are to continue to write books in the world of Supremacy’s Shadow (with its dueling planets, spies vs spies, bounty hunters, overbearing space government, and ruthless resistance). These books were *heavily* inspired by the Star Wars Expanded Universe, except without the clear cut lines of good and evil, so it’s really like having my own EU to play around with. It’s a huge amount of fun.
My Supremacy is similar to the Galactic Empire, but with actual good folks mixed in with the bad (instead of everyone down to the janitors being pure evil, like in the movies). Opposing them are the Patriots of Ceto, who are like the Rebellion, except many have accepted collateral damage as an acceptable price of freeing their planet from occupation.
Neither side is exactly evil, and neither side is exactly good. The world and situations that result from their conflict (and forcing my characters to navigate those situations) are a joy to write. I have a lot of fun poking fun at classic sci-fi tropes, including my own, which allows for comedy in both prose and dialogue. There’s a reason I’ve dubbed the books “grimsnark”.
Between writing more Supremacy books, I’ll also take breaks to diverge into short fiction set in the universe of Loose Circuit (which is basically Ghost in the Shell meets every police procedural ever). While I have no plans for a “Season 2” of Loose Circuit right now, I’m sure I will at some point. At the moment, however, my plan is to publish new Supremacy books the same way Marvel does movies – each book will stand alone with a different central character, but those characters all exist in the same universe and occasionally cross over. I’m looking forward to writing my version of The Avengers one day.
As far as the future of speculative fiction, I think it’s here to stay. New nerds are created every day, and with all the great IPs now flourishing (more Star Wars, the Marvel universe, a dozen great videogame worlds, and hundreds of fascinating fantasy and sci-fi worlds in print) I think we’re lucky to live in a time where there’s so much cool stuff to view/read/play. I feel like twenty years from now, the current generation will look back on all the cool stuff we have now as fondly as many of us older folks look back on the 80s/90s.
If there was one thing I’d change about today’s speculative fiction audience, it would be excising the toxicity that has emerged as our fandom has expanded. Excluding people sucks, and my hope is that the folks who currently expend all their effort trying to chase off those they consider “other” with either cut that shit out (no, seriously, cut it out, guys) or that it will grow so culturally unacceptable to harass your fellow fans that the repercussions will force our current crop of trolls to either accept newcomers, or at least stop trying to chase them off.
Also, I would love to see the “stop liking what I don’t like!” crowd chill out a bit. Entertainment is subjective, and everyone likes different stuff. There’s too many fans these days who see it as their mission to tell others what is “good” or “bad” spec fic. It’s unhealthy, and seems increasingly common now that social media has us all closely connected. As fans who are all in this together, we should let each other enjoy what we enjoy and spend time boosting the stuff *we* like, instead of expending so much effort tearing down the stuff we don’t like (and, quite often, the people who enjoy it).
Ultimately, however, I think speculative fiction of all sorts will continue to grow and thrive, and future stories will be even more diverse and interesting as new fans turned creators contribute work based on a wider pool of experiences, viewpoints, and interests. I’m excited for the stories of the future, and I can’t wait to find the next one I really enjoy.
PL: Am I a complete doofus or is this the first you've mentioned Supremacy's Shadow to me? Okay, actual final question, just tell me a little about it!
TEB: My elevator pitch? “Half Han Solo, half Deadpool, Hayden Cross tries to stop an interplanetary war while relentlessly mocking everyone involved.”
Supremacy’s Shadow is book one of my new Dueling Planets series, a “grimsnark” sci-fi espionage thriller set on two habitable planets, the larger, temperate, and water-rich Phorcys (where all the rich people live) and its smaller sister planet, Ceto, where the working class and poor make do.
These two planets are locked in a barycentric orbit (meaning they rotate like a bolo as they orbit their star together) and human settlers have colonized both planets in the far, far future. This setup let me do an interplanetary story without the scientific headaches of calculating planetary orbits and month long journeys, and without resorting to impossible tech like endless fuel or faster-than-light travel.
At the time my book starts, tension is high between the natural-born (the first human colonists to arrive in the system and stake their claim) and the Advanced, a second wave of colonists who arrived fifty years later and soon took over the government of both worlds. This tension gives me an excuse to blow things up.
The worlds of Phorcys and Ceto have clunky spaceships (tech closer to Firefly than Star Wars), hover bikes, smart rifles that fire smart bullets (basically, bullets that can aim themselves), powered armor with jetpacks and stuff, brain-mounted computers known as Personal Brain Assistants (stolen from my other sci-fi work, Loose Circuit) and one character that wears black powered armor and a creepy mask, who uses his giant heatsword to slice people in half when he’s not mimetically cloaked.
So basically, every cool sci-fi trope I ever loved, mashed together in what I hope is an interesting story with compelling gray characters and a decent number of unexpected twists.
The book’s protagonist, Hayden Cross, gets caught up in the cold war between these factions while trying to find out if his wife faked her death, and as a result basically everyone tries to kill him. Subsequent books will focus on other characters in the same universe, including a talented bounty hunter, a ruthless assassin, and the aforementioned black armored heatsword-wielding cloaked guy. All of this is delivered with a healthy sprinkling of snark and genuine love for the many sci-fi shows that inspired it, including Star Wars, Babylon 5, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and about a dozen others.
I have a great deal of positive feedback on the book so far from fellow authors and advance readers, and I hope people will enjoy it! The book will be released at Farpoint Convention’s Book Launch Festival in February 9, 2018, and then (hopefully) going on tour after that.
Also, it’s got a cover. Which we’re revealing for the first time here, on this blog. How about that?
|Its a pretty sweet cover alright. Thanks to Eric for revealing here! And kudos to Shen Fei for making it.|
Thanks to Eric for taking part. If you want to know more about his books, visit his website or buy them on Amazon US and UK, where the Tales of the Five Provinces are on sale for the rest of the year.
Loose Circuit cover - Mat Yan https://thebookcoverdesigner.
Glyphbinder cover - Greg Taylor http://gregtaylorart.com
Kara sketch - Jin Kim http://www.jinkimart.com/
Supremacy’s Shadow cover - Shen Fei https://shenfeic.deviantart.