The Really Big Idea

I’ve long been an admirer and follower of the Big Idea series at John Scalzi’s Whatever. I have bought more books based on a reading of a Big Idea post than from any other source. The only thing that even comes close is Cory Doctorow’s reviews at Boing Boing.

Hearing straight from the author why they wrote their book, and what issues they wrestled and pinned to the ground to get it done is a far better introduction than, well, just about anything short of actually reading the book. What it comes down to is that getting an insight into the mind of the author is far better than getting a look inside the mind of the marketing drone writing the back cover blurb.

The only downside to the Big Idea is that the Scalzi, in his wisdom, has limited participation: “The feature is open to all authors regardless of genre, fiction and non-fiction alike. …so long as their works are distributed to major bookstores on a returnable basis and are available on the following three American online book stores: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s.”

Well, that sucks.

I see what he’s doing, and why – and were I in his place I could imagine having similar restrictions. It’s a good filter.

Since I’ve become an independent author – all of a month and a half, now – I’ve been amazed at the help and advice I’ve gotten in the really short amount of time that I’ve been out here. Even among the independent publishing crowd, my method is a little outre – I’m serializing The Great American Goblin Invasion Novel, for free. A friend characterized my business plan in a way that you might find familiar:

  1. Get readers
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Given that the Veil War has only been up for a few weeks, it is perhaps too early to judge the soundness of my plan. However, the fact that I do not, at this time, have a salable product – even an electronic one – has made me doubly ineligible for Scalzi’s estimable series. And, experiencing first hand the frustration of not meeting Scalzi’s qualifications for inclusion in his Big Idea series, it occurred to me that if I can’t do his Big Idea, maybe I can roll my own.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this is some pretty awesome flattery. Here, then, is a nearly exact duplicate of John Scalzi’s Big Idea, with the sole difference being that the authors we are focusing on are the independent authors – ones who are not producing physical books being placed in the few remaining bookstores. Smaller presses, pure kindle sales, smashwords – the fringe of the publishing world.

It is my feeling that that the publishing industry is in the throes of great changes. Five years ago, a budding author’s course was obvious – get a finished manuscript into the hands of an agent and get a book printed and distributed. Five years from now, the new author’s couse will be equally obvious – and completely different. What that will end up being is being decided and created right now.

So here’s a big idea for the future – and we start with Ian Thomas Healy.

I’ve read a couple of Ian’s books with The Milkman being my favorite, a ripping funny yarn with swords, UFOs and flatulence.  I think Just Cause is moving up the list.

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How my Really Big Idea became a Smaller, Successful Idea

Just Cause has been the backbone of my creative expression for the past eight years, and has consistently been the one thing I return to when I feel the call for the comfort of familiarity instead of the exploration of the unknown. It started out as a Really Big Idea. I wanted to take the joyous feeling of reading a superhero comic book and stretch it out into novel length fiction. There was always going to be a full series of books, but Just Cause was going to be the really epic beginning. The original novel covered some sixty years of history, with historical chapters alternating with the Mustang Sally story set in the present day. Each “flashback” chapter included key plot points that tied into the modern era. When it was all done, I had a burgeoning incomprehensible mess that I didn’t yet have the skills to repair.

After some lengthy discussions with a skilled beta reader, it became apparent that I’d overwritten the darn thing. It needed to go on a serious starvation diet, and so I broke out the metaphorical scissors and went to work. I cut every last one of the historical chapters, setting them aside with a promise to myself that they would in turn become seeds for future projects. When I was finished, my manuscript was some forty thousand words shorter. Think about that, writers. That’s half a book, and I just axed it.

If you need to go get a stiff drink, I’ll wait.

What I was left with was an anorexic tale that only barely scratched the surface of who Mustang Sally really was. It needed a sandwich and milkshake, and so I started writing more. Twenty thousand new words fleshed out the manuscript into a tight, fast-paced story that earned accolades from my beta readers. That manuscript, originally called Just Cause, was renamed Mustang Sally, and made the rounds of agents before once again earning a solid batch of rejections. I’d since continued writing, both in the JCU and outside of it, and by that time I had completed four more books in the series (with tantalizing titles The Archmage, Jackrabbit, Deep Six, and Blackout). I was a better writer, no question about it. Deep Six was a Top 100 Semifinalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. I went back through Mustang Sally with a red pen once more, this time with intent to make it the first novel-length ebook I released, and early in 2011, I did just that.

Mustang Sally had only been on the market for a couple of months when New Babel Books reached out to me, asking if I would consider making a deal with them for the series. Contracts zipped back and forth between us, and in May of 2011, I took Mustang Sally off sale. Six months later, the book has a swanky new cover that I really like, a sharp design inside, is available for sale from the publisher (http://newbabelbooks.com) as well as on other online retailers, with the strangely familiar title of Just Cause

Funny how things work out that way.

So why write about superheroes at all? What about them appeals to me? Maybe it’s the bright colors of their costumes that make me go all “Oooh! Shiny!” Or maybe it’s the simplification of morals—the perpetual good-guys-versus-the-bad-guys stories that have their foundations in the earliest storytelling done around campfires at the dawn of civilization. Or maybe I just love a good yarn about people with special abilities that make them different—not necessarily better, mind you—than the average schmoe with a mortgage and a job and the requisite 2.1 children. And since there’s been kind of a dearth of those sorts of books, I thought perhaps I’d like to be the one to write them. I’ve loved superheroes as long as I can remember, and the more I write and improve my writing skills, the more I want to apply myself to telling those kinds of stories. I write the stories that I would want to read. And in the end, what could any writer possibly do better for his or her readers?

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Just Cause: Published by New Babel BooksAmazon | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords

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The Really Big Idea will be a weekly feature – every Tuesday, we’ll have a new author telling you about their book, so click on the RSS button, sign up for email updates – we’ll have lots of great stuff and great authors for you. And I would be foolish not to encourage you to look around while you’re here, and check out The Veil War free of charge.