September 20, 2006
Thoughts on The Last Colony
As I often do when I finish up a novel, I have a couple post-writing thoughts on The Last Colony. Here's what I'm thinking about it at the moment.
* First, I like this book, which was not a guaranteed thing, let me tell you. There was a fair amount of time at the beginning of the writing where I was sure I didn't like this book, and, naturally, that would have been a problem. This book ending up having to prove to me that it was worth liking, and worth me writing. I think eventually it made its case pretty well, and once it did, I had to make sure that I made the case for the book to the readers. I've been very lucky that Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades have been well-received, and I didn't want to trip up here at the finish line. I don't think I did.
* Spare a moment, if you will, for Sameer Desai. Who is he, you ask? Well, he's the main character of The Last Colony whom you will never meet. Originally, I was going to do in TLC what I did in OMW and TGB, which was to introduce a new main character and then have some recurring characters in the background. In this case Sam was going to be my new main character: A young American of Indian ancestry who through various turns of plot found himself herded onto a colonization ship one step ahead of the law and to a new colony, which would be headed up by John Perry and Jane Sagan. While there, he and Zoe Boutin (now 18 years old or so) would make a discovery that would threaten the safety of the entire colony, complete with a possible interstellar war. You know, like you do. Eventually he and Zoe would figure out what the Hell to do and off we'd go to the happy ending.
The problem was, the more I wrote Sam -- and I got about four chapters into the book with him -- the more I didn't like him. Fact was, he was something of an unlovable, whiny twit, and eventually I found myself pushing the plot along without regard to story quality just so I could get to John and Jane and Zoe. At which point I thought, well, crap, if I'm really interested in John and Jane and Zoe, what the hell am I doing with this jerk? So, as I believe I mentioned before, what I ended up doing is taking Sam for a walk to that old abandoned well I have on my property (metaphorically if not literally) and pushing him down into it. Then I went back to my office and wrote an e-mail to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor, which went as such: "My main character was an annoying putz. I've pushed him down a well and you'll never meet him. I'll need a couple of extra months to finish the book." To which PNH's response, to his credit, was: "Fine."
I don't know how much I should really blame poor Sam for this; in some ways he's the victim here, and not just because I've pushed him down a well. It's entirely possible that someone else could have written him better; it's possible that he was the right character, just in the wrong book. Whatever the reason, however, I just couldn't hang with the boy, and now he's gone. If you ever visit the Scalzi Compound and hear a muffled yelling, as if from a desperate voice somewhere underground, do try to ignore it. Don't want to encourage Sam.
* Once Sam was out of the way, I got it into my head to do something I thought was clever, which was that I planned to alternate first-person chapters, with John Perry as the main character, with third-person chapters, which would feature a new character, an alien named General Tarsem Gau. And I wrote four chapters of that book before I realized something, which was that if I kept writing the book like this, the book would end up being 200,000 words long. And there were two problems with that: The first was that I was contractually obliged to turn in a book about 100k long, and the second being that if I tried to write a book that was 200k long, I might have to murder myself (to give you perspective, the book ended up being 91k long, and both OMW and TGB were in the 94k-96k range). What I was writing was good, in my opinion; the problem was it was just too much. Thus, another craven e-mail to PNH explaining the situation, and then another overhaul of the story. Out went the third-person chapters, and in came a new focus on John Perry and his point of view.
This frankly turned out to be a blessing. One of the mechanical aspects of the book is that it employs just in time plot, which is to say that as John Perry goes along he keeps uncovering new information about his situation which gives that happened before new context (as I've explained before: it's twisty). If you keep yanking the reader around from one character to another, and from first-person to third-person narration, that sort of "reveal more" mechanism doesn't work as well -- or at least, it wasn't working as well for me. Once I settled down and stuck with Perry's point of view, things came rather a bit easier. And as a consequence, the book became better.
* And indeed, I think this is a good book. One of the things that I like about it is that although it has more than enough action in it -- ships blowing up, people bringing guns to knife fights and so on -- it's less of an action story and more of a poltical thriller. The first two books in the series have hinted at what sort of government the Colonial Union is and why; this book goes rather a bit deeper into that aspect of things. I won't go too much into it because I don't want to give away much about the book; I will say that I think the folks who wanted to learn more about the CU and how and why it does things will get a kick out of this book.
* As many of you know, when I wrote The Ghost Brigades I wrote it so that people who hadn't read Old Man's War would be able to read it as a stand alone. When I started The Last Colony, the intent was to do this again -- in effect, have three stand alone books in the same universe. But once John Perry and Jane Sagan became the lead characters, I rethought that philosophy. Also, when I was writing TGB, I was working under the assumption that not a whole lot of people would have had the opportunity to read OMW yet. Here and now, the assumptions are a little different; OMW was Hugo nominee, TGB is selling very well in hardcover, and when TLC comes out in hardcover both OMW and TGB will be in mass-market paperback. It's safer to assume some of the folks interested in TLC will have read at least one of the previous books, or that one of the other two books will be on hand from them to grab as well.
So: The Last Colony is a sequel. I think it's possible to read it without reading the other two and still have a good time with it, but this time around, reading at least one of the other two will help, and having read both will be best of all.
* Yes, this is the last book in the "Old Man" series. This is not to suggest I won't come back to this particular universe; I may. Indeed, I've been giving some thought to writing some shorter work in this universe, just for fun. But this is the last novel that will feature these particular characters, in this particular time, and, as it happens, I do something in the novel that pretty much assures that I can't go back.
Bwa ha ha ha ha! That's right! I did! And I won't tell you what it is! You have to wait until May! Bwa ha ha ha ha!
No, really, I did. No, really, I won't tell you now.
But even if I hadn't, three books is sufficient. I like this universe I've created, and I like my characters, particularly Jane Sagan, who is the only character to appear in all three books -- indeed, you could make the argument that these three books are about her journey in this universe -- but I think the secret of building a successful SF universe is like the secret of attending a good party: Leave while you're still having fun. I've had a great amount of fun in this universe. It seems like a good time to head to the exit, at least as far as the novels are concerned.
* For those of you wondering, the illustration above is the one which -- I think -- will be featured on the book cover. It's by John Harris, who did the trade paper cover of OMW and the hardcover for TGB. It's keeping with the theme and all.
Also, for all those who want to know, the current plan is to have The Last Colony in the stores in May 2007. It's a birthday present to me!
* What I'm going to do now: Take a break, man. I'm taking nap through the rest of September, and then it's time to start The Secret Project I Can't Tell You About Yet. But I will tell you this about it: It's complex enough that I'm going to do something that I've never done with a book before:
Yes, boys and girls, when I decide it's time to outline a novel, you know things are getting weird. I hope you like it, when it comes out in late 2007.
Posted by john at September 20, 2006 01:05 PM
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