Ferrett Steinmetz’s urban fantasy Flex was an unexpected treat earlier this year. Blending Breaking Bad with the magic of bureaucratic paperwork, he created an intriguing urban fantasy that broke from the genre’s vampires, werewolves and magical private dicks. You can read my review here.
And on Tuesday the sequel, The Flux, hits stores. Steinmetz stopped by my humble blog to chat about his series and share some of his inspirations and insights into the writing process along the way.
One of my favorite aspects of Flex was how you created a pair of heroes who were decidedly non-heroic – an insurance adjuster and a plus-size gamer geek. Any real-world inspiration for Paul and Valentine?
Valentine was inspired heavily by convention appearances. Conventions are this delightful bubble space where you get to reinvent yourself for the weekend – and in particular I met a lot of kick-ass women with bold opinions who were not quote-unquote “conventionally” beautiful, but had grown so comfortable in their own skin that they exuded a bubble of confidence that shifted people’s opinions around ’em as they walked. Maybe they were, according to some fashion magazine, seventy pounds overweight, but they dressed stylishly to show off their curves, they laughed loud enough to draw people’s attention, and they never had any troubles dating.
And I wanted that shown in a book. I wanted someone plus-sized, geeky, unashamed – and goddamned heroic. Granting her videogame-related magic powers was just a bonus, really.
Paul was a tougher sell – but you asked a really astute question later on, and I’ll get into him there. But it was important to me that yeah, they both were heroic. They may not be equipped in the traditional sense to go out and take on the world, but they’re motivated strongly by friendship – and when trouble goes down, they step up.
In fact, I think they’re bigger damn heroes simply because an amputee claims adjuster and a plus-sized kinkster aren’t the people you’d normally turn to to save a small girl’s soul. But here they are. And they are strong.
You write extensively about your longtime failures as an author before your Clarion experience. What advice would you give someone starting out as an author?
Be ruthless. I sucked for a good twenty years before I got into the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ workshop – it’s a six-week writers’ boot camp – and what I realized was that I’d been mentally shrugging off my flaws for years. “Aww, that dialog’s good enough,” I’d say. “My prose is decent.”
The problem is, there are so many flaws in your writing that you won’t see them all. So not fixing the things you DO know aren’t 100% gold will bite you in the butt. A good story isn’t a single thing – it’s about a hundred different bits, from pacing to tone to prose to characterization to character arc to sentence structure to tension – and a great story gets maybe 80% of those right. It’s all percentages, so don’t do what I did and think you can get away with it. Make everything as good as you can until you don’t know how you fix the flaws…
…on the second draft. To quote my masters at Viable Paradise, the other writing workshop I took, “It’s a first draft, it can suck.” Finish the story, discover what it’s about, and then get ruthless.
Actually, Valentine was from Stranger in a Strange Land – which isn’t even my favorite book, but Valentine strikes me as being an updated version of what Heinlein would have liked to see had he not been born in a sadly male-centric era. And yeah, I loved the pulp of Harrison’s the Stainless Steel Rat, and that was a purposeful homage.
Flex and The Flux are largely based on, weirdly enough, Eddings’ “Belgariad” – not the structure, or the backdrop, but the sense that magicians are these weird iconoclasts who nevertheless forge a friendship despite all their differences. Friendship is the core of what drives everything in the series – everything – and I think the reason people have reacted to it as positively as they have is that they see that love everyone develops for each other.
Authors often talk about their characters pushing the story in a different direction than originally intended. Flex has some obvious Breaking Bad parallels — had you initially conceived Paul Tsabo as more of a Walter White anti-hero, but the character dictated a more heroic arc?
Good call! And yeah, when I wrote this, my initial script was “Breaking Bad with magic,” as Paul the bureaucromancer brews magical drugs. And originally, he was a bitter ex-politician whose ambition had curdled after he’d lost his foot in a battle with an illustromancer. (She loved Titian, and sent the Emperor on horseback charging out from his painting to crush Paul’s leg.)
I wrote 50,000 words before I got to a critical scene in Flex – if you’ve read it, I’ll say “buzzsects” and you’ll know which one I’m talking about – and realized that when the universe was coming unravelled, Paul was not an angry ambitious man, but a quiet bureaucrat who loved order, and proper placement, and justice. His special power was, in fact, that he genuinely believes that paperwork is how humans create fairness in the universe – for Paul, one ordinary man can use the right forms to file lawsuits that will topple banks and presidents.
And I realized I personally hated anti-heroes. It’s easy to have an anti-hero. Selfishness is simple. Having someone who cares about something greater than themselves is what I loved, and so I spent a couple of weeks rewriting everything to make Paul the compassionate nebbish he is today.
Can you talk a little about The Flux?
At the end of Flex, Paul’s daughter had… some very strange things happen to her. She’s got powers, now, really frightening powers no eight-year-old girl should have. And suddenly you have this very potent, very angry young girl propelled into a premature adolescence, because her father really can’t stop her any more, and she’s got a whole world that’s terrified of ‘mancers. The government is trying to hunt down her father and brainwash him, and Aliyah is his even dirtier secret, and she is NOT happy about that.
The first book established that Paul can be obsessed with bureaucracy and still be a good father to his daughter. And the second book revolves around the question of what Aliyah is going to choose to be, and why, and what you tell your daughter when you know the ugly truth: some people need to be killed, and someone has to do that.
How do you shield her from that truth?
When is the finale coming? What do you have in the works after you finish the Flex trilogy? Any further plans in this universe?
There’s no finale per se, but Fix is coming out in 2016 – I’m writing it now, and it’s weird to talk about it, but it’s the further evolution of the family when they finally understand just how bad things are in Europe. You think that’d be an easy choice, but in fact it’s going to tear them apart in ways this book couldn’t quite manage.
I don’t know whether this is a finale, though. When I finished Flex, I thought, “Well, that’s done.” And there were a couple of hanging questions that could be answered, but I personally like ambiguity and thought it was a complete story. Except what had happened to Aliyah at the end of the first book had some ramifications to be explored, so in the last 20% of the book I thought, “Okay, there’s probably another story here.”
And when I wrote The Flux , I went, “That’s it, that’s all I got, this is the finale.” Except as I got to the last 20%, again, I started to see peeks of what would happen next, and the rough outline for Fix came spilling out.
Right now, I am about 40% of the way through Fix, and I cannot imagine another book in this series. But maybe it’ll pop up. Be interesting to see whether it does.
(Oh, and I’m working on a novel-length sequel to my Nebula-nominated novella Sauerkraut Station, potentially titled Savor Station, but that’s gonna have to wait until after the Fix is in.)
If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘Mancy be?
Pyromancy. No question. I can watch things burn for hours.
Finally, can you recommend some books. Could be new, old, favorites or friends’.
As mentioned, Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns is great. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is gruelling. I can never get enough of Dan Wells’ “John Cleaver” series, and Ramez Naam’s “Nexus” trilogy is magnificent.
Thanks for stopping by, Ferrett. And be sure and check back in the next week for a review of The Flux.