The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!
In the aftermath of the disaster that nearly wiped out civilization on Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat get set to throw the greatest birthday party of a lifetime—until alien death rains down from the sky!
Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, including the hard-rocking Psycho 78s and the teenage Dumpster Kittens, as they rage against the forces of law and order, struggle to control the future of the Asteroid Belt, and confront the total destruction of their beloved home on Vesta 4. Some will live, many more will die, and nothing in the Belt will ever be the same!
In fifteen episodes of relentless anarchy, sci-fi madness, and violent revolution, the pirate crew comes face-to-face with betrayal, annihilation, telepathic octopuses, evil space lizards, cybernetic murder wasps, game-changing technologies, objects of unlimited power, and much, much more! Strap on your battle armor and get ready to rock, because the asteroid-mining frontier is no place for the faint-hearted.
What readers are saying about the series:
“A violent, feel-good space romp. An irreverent, rocking series.”
“A lot of guns and bloody battles. Fast-paced and full of action.”
“Anarchy, asteroids, and rock music abound. A great read.”
“The swashbuckling spirit and generous—but murderous!—hearts of Mags and her cohort are endearing and engaging.”
(154,000 words plus illustrations).
An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.
Back in 2017, in the first few months of my writers workshop, I received feedback from a science-fiction writer I respect and admire. As you might already know, many of the first thirty episodes of the Meteor Mags stories take place from 2027 to 2030. The feedback I got was that science-fiction stories should be set at least forty years into the future.
I think the idea was that this buffer of time gives some plausibility to the development of “futuristic” technologies. It might be a decent rule of thumb for aspiring SF writers. But futurism isn’t a central concept or concern in Mags’ stories, and as a lifelong reader of comic books, I could list dozens if not hundreds of sci-fi stories set in the present or the distant past.
I won’t belabor the point but merely offer an example: The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra was published from 2012 to 2015, but that absolutely insane sci-fi epic was set in the 1940s through the 1960s.
You can probably think of many more comic-book examples, such as the 1980s Watchmen series set in an alternate 1980s universe. Or you can go back to early prose classics from H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley. Any fan of steampunk can come up with science-fiction tales set in the Victorian era, and any Ray Bradbury fan knows that many once-futuristic dates in The Martian Chronicles have long since come and gone.
Science fiction’s future is old news.
The Meteor Mags stories take place in a solar system that shares many aspects of ours but is clearly different. One of the more obvious clues is how asteroids are named with their number after their name: Our “4 Vesta” is Mags’ “Vesta 4”. Call it an alternate universe, an alternate timeline, a Marvel What If scenario, or, for you Robert Heinlein geeks, a “ficton”. I don’t care. It’s just where Mags lives, and while it sometimes offers a commentary on or satire of our solar system, it’s unique unto itself.
In terms of satire, a few examples come to mind. The Musical Freedoms Act of 2019 is an obvious satire of the “Religious Freedom” laws that recently plagued the United States. In Jam Room, Mags mentions that Ted Nugent ran for President in 2020 but was assassinated. In Hunted to Extinction, Mags concludes a parody of gratuitous female shower scenes in SF movies with a comment about the Alien franchise.
Her solar system and ours have a few things in common, but they also have many differences.
In terms of divergent timelines, the divergences go back at least a few hundred years in the backstories about how Mags’ ancestors affected the golden age of Atlantic pirates in the 1700s and the economic landscape of Europe in the 1800s. Some of those events have been specifically mentioned in the text, some have been implied or alluded to, and some remain in my massive pile of notes for unwritten historical tales.
The history of space exploration and asteroid mining were influenced by Mags’ presence in her solar system, especially in terms of her contributions to localized gravity control. I do not expect that humans in our reality will have a lunar base established in 2023 nor be mining asteroids on a massive scale a few years later. We certainly will not be colonizing Mars and building major metropolises there in our current decade. These “futuristic” concepts overlap our timeline and are a direct consequence of the existence of Mags and her illustrious and unusually long-lived maternal ancestors.
A futuristic approach to science fiction is based on the idea that readers expect a story that is set in the future of their personal reality where scientific and technologic advancements have materialized. It’s a place where our dreams and aspirations about tech have come true. It’s a fantasy about where our species is headed. We might be headed toward utopia or dystopia, but these are somewhat distant futures that science fiction speculates about; hence the term “speculative fiction”.
That isn’t my approach at all. My approach is to consider myself as being Mags’ biographer. That position gives me not just the future to play with, but the past. The events relevant to her life include—as Carl Sagan liked to say—”billions and billions” of years, from the earliest days of her solar system to the heat death of her universe.
Even that timespan and location is too limited. I’ve already published a story about Patches that suggests the end of the universe is not the end for Mags and Patches, and I have notes for a story where Mags gets a glimpse of every possible alternate universe where she existed.
So, we’re way beyond guidelines to set these stories at some arbitrary number of years in our future. They don’t take place there. They take place in the infinite playground of my imagination.
The series has always—first and foremost—been about the characters and their friendships through the insane adventures they encounter. The science-fiction aspects are far less important to me than that emotional core. My intent is not to make fantasies about future technology seem plausible. I only want each story to be fun—fun for me to write, fun for my characters to live though, and fun for the readers who might consider the adventures of a hell-raising, shotgun-wielding, piano-playing, feline maniac with an odd assortment of space pets to be a nice break from the drudgery of everyday life.
As I’ve said before: This isn’t science fiction. It’s rock’n’roll wearing science-fiction clothes. Feel free to take yours off and join the party.
An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.
In the recent stories Antipodes and The Martian Revolution, things have not gone according to Mags’ plans and desires. In Dekarna Triumphant, she runs into trouble at the South Pacific station she founded back in Small Flowers. Mags thinks she has the situation all under control and expects Dekarna and the baby reptiles will be part of her personal army, but that rug gets pulled out from under her, and Mags must battle a fearsome nemesis whose rage is completely justifiable.
The resultant story is an ass-kicking freakshow full of brutality, but with moments of descriptive natural beauty.
With The Martian Revolution, I had an absolute blast returning to the heart of the series by featuring Mags, Patches, and Tarzi in a series of violent, vulgar, comedic action scenes. But after that, I felt emotionally drawn to the plight of my evil space lizard and how she rages against it.
I love how Dekarna is so remorselessly evil but is all about her babies! I love how she would stop at nothing to protect and feed her young, but she is the last reptile you want to mess with.
I think that’s why she makes a good villain for Mags, because Mags is the same way—just a more mammalian version. Mags would happily bulldoze a billion people into a ditch if she thought it would save her cat. Dekarna would do the same for her babies.
Finding that heart of the heartless reptile really brought her to life for me. I also empathize with Dekarna’s quest to be free and happy. She has been used and abused by everyone in her life—from her former commander to Meteor Mags—and every time she almost achieved freedom, some other asshole came along to enslave her. It reminds me of trying to make a living in my twenties. All I wanted was to be free.
That’s Dekarna’s life in a nutshell, and I wanted to give her a story where she was, at last, completely free. Free, unleashed, and totally fucking evil.
In the confrontation, Mags faces defeat. While I love it when everything goes Mags’ way, struggling against overwhelming odds and sometimes failing makes for a more compelling story, especially in an ongoing series. I’ve often felt that many of the early stories in the series made it too easy for Mags to get what she wanted. Though they are fun adventure tales, the dramatic tension isn’t very heavy. It wasn’t until the tornado in Blind Alley Blues that Mags really began to confront enormous, high-stakes problems she couldn’t entirely overcome. And that is where, in my opinion, the series began a major improvement.
So, I was a bit shocked by the reaction when I told a member of my workshop group that Mags would be totally defeated in this episode. The response was, basically, “You can’t do that!” I have never in my life heard anyone get so angry over one of my plot decisions.
It didn’t upset me or sway me, though. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back would have been a much less significant film if everything went great for Luke Skywalker at the end. Instead, his secret base is destroyed, his training is interrupted before he gets any real skill, his best pal is kidnapped and frozen, his scumbag nemesis turns out to be his dad and kicks his ass, he gets his frickin’ hand chopped off, and he falls to his doom.
Now that’s a story!
So, no, I didn’t change my plans for Mags’ defeat. But the angry reaction to those plans made me happy. It made me happy to know that someone else in the universe loves Mags so much that merely the thought of her being defeated would upset them! Because you know what? It upsets me too. Every time I throw a dramatic monkey wrench into Mags’ plans or write her into awful situations where she suffers pain and loss, it upsets me.
I think it was Alan Moore who said that no matter how much you love your characters, you must do horrible things to them. But that advice doesn’t make it any easier to do. I go through a whole range of emotions when writing about Mags’ struggles, including anger and sadness.
The emotional payoff for me comes when she triumphs, or is rescued by her friends, or maintains her (mostly) unshakeable attitude of rage and defiance even when the odds are against her. I like seeing what she’s made of. I admire her strength—not just her physical strength, but her emotional and intellectual strength—and I believe her qualities are best illuminated when she faces the greatest challenges.
I confess that in this episode, I intentionally “painted myself into a corner” by writing Mags into a situation she could not possibly escape. I did it on purpose, to make things more dramatic, but it was not a decision that made the writing any easier! That was okay because both Mags and I needed a challenge. But the result was that I eventually had the entire story written except for half of one scene, because I didn’t have a clue about how to get Mags out of what happened to her.
One of the recurring themes in the series is how Mags’ rash and reckless overconfidence gets her into trouble she can’t escape without the help of her friends. So, confronted with an insurmountable obstacle in writing this episode, I asked a friend for help. I explained the situation to her, and we brainstormed ideas for about half an hour. At the end, we had come up with an idea so bonkers, so absolutely insane, that I knew I had to write it. Even though I had my doubts about the idea, I couldn’t not write it!
Anyway, I wrote it, loved it, and the rest is future history. But like Mags, I needed the help of a good friend to make it happen.
Dekarna Triumphant is a kind of Empire Strikes Back ending to what will be the second omnibus collection of stories. It concludes a story cycle that began after The Battle of Vesta 4. In my reflections on Battle, I explained how that story essentially wrapped up all the ideas I originally had for the series when I first started writing it seven years ago. I mentioned how completing that story left me with a solar system where anything was possible, and I was looking forward to indulging my imagination with subsequent tales.
The twelve episodes from Hunted to Extinction through Dekarna Triumphant represent three or four years of playing in those fields of imagination, taking characters in directions I never originally planned, incorporating different narrators and narrative techniques, exploring the consequences of what the early stories established, introducing new concepts and characters, and bringing additional depth and growth to old ones.
And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I had a lot going on in my life that I was unhappy about, but writing the adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was always a pleasure. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do, and I look forward to writing more. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together the second omnibus.
In case you missed my post from last month, I was invited by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to participate in the beta version of their new program for producing print-on-demand hardcover books. I promised you an update when the first, physical proof arrived. Guess what came in the mail today!
All I can say is that the book looks and feels amazing. It’s sturdy and way more substantial than I expected for a smallish 150-page book. The print options I chose were for white paper and a gloss finish on the cover.
Some folks believe you should use cream paper for fiction, but I have produced books in both cream and white, and the white paper looks and feels better to me. I also find the high contrast with black text makes white paper easier to read. I’ve produced books with both matte and glossy covers, and I tend to prefer the shiny gloss that really makes the colors vibrant. But matte finish is also nice, and I’ve gone with that several times when it felt right.
The binding is beautiful inside and out, and I love the way that about a quarter-inch of the cover color and design is visible inside the book when opened, where the cover wraps around the edges.
I think authors will be pleased when this hardcover option is available to everyone. I already feel the urge to make hardcover editions of about half a dozen of my books. I’d love to release the first Meteor Mags Omnibus in hardcover, but at more than 580 pages, it exceeds the maximum page count of 550 for a KDP hardcover.
Besides page count, authors will want to consider price points and profit margins. My paperback edition of The Singing Spell has a wholesale printing cost to me of less than USD $3. But the printing cost for the hardcover is $7.28. (Again, this is for a 150-page book. Longer books will cost more.) To sell the hardcover and make a reasonable per-unit profit on Amazon, I needed to price it at $14.95, as opposed to the $6.95 price for the paperback and the $2.99 bargain price for the Kindle ebook edition.
This doesn’t make much of a financial difference to me, since I design my own books, but authors who need to pay a designer to format the cover for a hardcover edition will want to consider whether they can recoup the additional expense with hardcover sales at a higher price than the other editions. Will their target market be willing to spend the extra bucks for a hardcover? It’s a question I can’t really answer for anyone without market research.
Either way, I expect my fellow authors and readers will be impressed with the quality of these hardcover editions, and I’m looking forward to the day when this program is no longer in beta testing but available to all self-publishers using the KDP platform.
Update: The hardcover edition of The Singing Spell is now available on Amazon.
An updated version of this essay appears in the second edition of Virtually Yours: A Meteor Mags Memoir.
My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.
First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.
Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.
As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.
Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.
As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.
In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.
I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.
Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.
The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?
To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.
All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.
But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possibility.
The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.
Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.
I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.
Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.
One of my favorite supporting characters to write in my fiction series is Donny. He’s uncouth, rough around the edges, blue collar, likes to fight, and sometimes says off-the-cuff, offensive things despite generally having a good heart. He’s a fun character when I need comedic relief, and he’s almost always played for laughs. Occasionally, he says something really wrong, learns a lesson from it, and grows as a person.
But Donny wasn’t cut from whole cloth. I spun him out of fond memories about a real-life Donny. Though I lost touch with the real Donny decades ago, I think he would be happy that his fictional namesake is a bad-ass musician and a valued crew member with hilarious scenes on the rock-and-roll adventure of a lifetime.
The fictional Donny combines the real Donny and his cousin Jimmy. I met Donny and Jimmy around 1998 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I was twenty-four and had my own apartment in a five-unit building on the edge of town where rent was lower compared to living near the college. Donny and Jimmy were fourteen, and I met them because Donny used to hang out with the even younger kids who lived next door: Dennison (literally the son of Dennis) and his little brother Jack. These kids were always playing in the yard and riding bikes up and down the street—as kids do—and I was often in my yard working on some visual art project that involved messy painting, or just playing guitar in the sunshine.
Kids are curious about that kind of stuff and ride by to check it out, so I got to know them. Then they found out I had a pet python who ate mice, and they wanted to see that, so I ended up spending a lot of time entertaining the neighborhood boys. My embarrassingly simple apartment was, to them, some kind of treehouse or clubhouse with a wildlife documentary, an art exhibit, and a killer soundtrack. And why not? At age forty-seven, I’ve accepted that part of my brain will always be fourteen and see my living spaces as exactly that.
To be fair, they entertained me, too. Donny and Jimmy were hilarious! They had the kind of insane tales of reckless adventure, injury, and embarrassment that working-class midwestern boys thrive on. I should know, since I was one and probably, at heart, will always be. But it wasn’t just stories and jokes. After Donny and Jimmy had dropped by a few times, they invited me and my girlfriend to meet their family in the trailer park down the road and hang out for an evening.
My girlfriend—who had endured a couple surprise visits from Donny and Jimmy, rolled with the situation, and found them as hilarious as I did—was beyond awesome and handled the evening with grace and aplomb. She dressed up extra cute for that night and was a hit with the girls and wives there. After a tour of the trailer, which was basically some rooms and a hallway, we ended up drinking cheap American lager and playing cards with the adults and teens all night long. It was a chain-smoking, midwestern good time, and I don’t think either of us will ever forget it.
Somehow, Donny and Jimmy—at age fourteen—acquired a piece-of-shit Datsun that they took on wild rides through the nearby fields. They would come over to my place after their hell rides and tell me Datsun stories. They were trying to learn to power shift it, because the clutch was broken. And what fourteen-year-old has money to replace a clutch?
That fucking Datsun. We laughed so hard about it.
One day, Donny came over with this idea to write a song about the Datsun. All the kids knew I played guitar, so he brought lyrics. I will never forget them. “Datsun. It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. DATSUN! DATSUN!”
That was it! I threw together some riffs and recorded it on my old cassette-based Tascam four-track. We did another song which was something like Donny’s imaginary wrestling theme song: Daemonic Don. He pronounced it “Die-monic Don”, and that cracked me up. You’ll find a nod to that in the Meteor Mags story Old Enough. I assembled some distorted, drop-D riffs. It came out surprisingly well, and Donny loved it.
In 1999, I moved from Ypsi to San Diego. For a little while, I tried to keep in touch with the kids by sending them postcards. I’ve long since lost their addresses and can’t recall their last names, if I ever knew them at all.
But a few years ago, when I needed a name for a supporting character, I remembered Daemonic Don and his cousin Jimmy, and I thought it would be fun to channel my memories of those two teenage hellraisers into that character. They also inform more than a little bit about the adolescent character, Tarzi. The way those characters’ dialogues bounce back and forth with their older but equally reckless and so-called “auntie” Mags has a lot to do with my imagining how Donny and Jimmy would chat with me as their older guy neighbor—a role that ended up being somewhere between an adopted big brother and an uncle.
I think I filled a role in their lives because I was into all kinds of art and music, and so obviously not like their parents. They felt comfortable just being themselves, asking awkward questions about adult life, or making off-color jokes. In that sense, it wasn’t all that different from hanging out with the people I was in bands with or worked blue-collar jobs with at the time. I think the boys liked that I talked to them in the same no-bullshit style as I did with my friends. I know I always appreciated that in adults when I was a teenager. At that age, you want to be talked to, not talked down to.
Even if you are stripping the gears out of your Datsun by trying to power shift.
It’s a good car. It’s a fast car. Datsun.
Anyway, I doubt I will ever hear from Donny and Jimmy again, but I like to think they’d enjoy knowing they inspired one of my favorite supporting characters and might even enjoy reading his adventures. Hell, if those two were here right now, they’d probably be pressuring me to plug in my baritone guitar and write a new theme song.
And I would do it.
These seven seven-line poems go with the short story The Singing Spell. The subjects relate to the story, and the first letters of each line spell out the poem’s title. It’s not a form I usually work in, but I thought it would be fun to try something different.
Pressed close to the ground,
a solitary huntress hungers
to taste what scurries and forages unaware.
Calico colors—brown, black, and white—
hide her in the sun-dappled forest floor.
Everything comes down to
I knew you
like a light or a
lyric or the
iridescence of a hummingbird.
nothing separates us.
Nurseries of infant stars,
expectant giants and
black holes hungering for birth,
ushered into a theater of
light and violent gravity where
all who ever lived await
Maybe next time,
I come back a stone.
Nowhere to go or
Sometimes you need to shed
everything to find the
emerge as something new.
No one ever mourned
the cell she escaped.
Fate remains silent,
only speaking in unsolved mysteries.
Road signs vanish, and
travelers lose their way
until that unexpected
everything at last makes sense.
How we got here
is less important than why.
Go as far as your
heart can take you, and
when you reach the
arid edge of time,
you will find me.
Some of Mags’ adventures began as basic plot ideas, some grew out of an idea for a scene or a piece of dialogue, and some started as a concept about an object or situation I thought it would be fun to write about. The Crystal Core is an example of all three of these possibilities combined.
The plot inspiration goes back to The Battle of Vesta 4, where I realized I had given my pirate crew a too-powerful object: the multidimensional “triglyph”. If I had included the triglyph in that story, the conflict would have been far too easy for the crew to overcome. Rather than address the situation, I decided to ignore it for a while and come back to it later—hopefully with a plausible explanation. Along the way, I wrote 1,000 words of notes on possible narrative paths to take with the triglyph.
While writing Small Flowers, I planted the seeds for the triglyph’s return. Plutonian questioned Mags about why she didn’t use it, and she revealed she had forgotten about it. The epilogue ended on a minor cliffhanger. Mags discovered the triglyph was missing from her armory where she placed it at the end of The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. By then, I’d reworked my original notes into an idea to use the triglyph to terraform Titan.
But as I mentioned in my reflections about Small Flowers, I watched a ton of documentaries that influenced that story and the shorter pieces published with it. I’ve been reading about space, stars, and black holes since I was in third or fourth grade, but I don’t recall learning about the diamond cores of white dwarf stars until early 2020. My mind was blown by the idea that these huge diamonds are burning in outer space, but I didn’t know what to do with that concept. So, I asked a friend what she would do with a huge crystal from space.
She said, “Build a radio.”
That was the moment my plot ideas and my “high concept” intersected, and I knew I needed to write that story. I started cranking out more notes and scenes around the concept, but I was confused by some aspects of crystal radios.
Fortunately, a member of my writers’ workshop (the illustrious Jeff Duntemann) is a ham-radio enthusiast, so I called him. He cleared up my misconceptions, enlightened me about a few missing pieces of the puzzle, and showed me where I needed to patch up the science to achieve some minimum standard of plausibility.
This is one of the best things about having writers, artists, and musicians as friends. I can call them unexpectedly and, without much preamble or small talk, say crazy things such as, “Can you help me build a giant crystal radio from a star core?” That’s how I end up having intriguing and educational conversations for an hour or more about things most people never think about.
The Crystal Core became a unique episode in Mags’ adventures. It has long passages of narration about terraforming Titan and building the giant space radio, scenes where I flexed my prose muscles to see if I could write about science but keep it poetic, beautiful, and interesting. Those scenes alternate with discussions that focus on dialogue and character interaction.
But I wanted to do something even weirder with the story: use multiple narrators. I wanted to get inside the characters’ streams of consciousness when they encountered the new rulers of Titan and got their minds messed with, telepathically.
I’ve read a ton of science-fiction prose and comic books that did similar things, but I sometimes find them difficult to follow. I like challenging narrative techniques in prose and film and comics, but I don’t like it when I feel the author is wanking instead of clearly telling a story in the most effective way possible. As I’ve written before in essays on narrators and points of view, the choice to get creative with narrators or structure needs to be more than a demonstration of how clever the author is. I’m not impressed by being incomprehensible. I’m impressed when the choice of a narrator or structure is perfect because any other choice would not tell the story as effectively.
You can judge for yourself how well I lived up to my own standard. Sometimes my reach exceeds my grasp, and that’s a normal part of growing and improving as a writer. Much of my writing in Mags’ adventures is a journey toward being able to live up to my own expectations about what makes a good story, or what makes beautiful prose, or what is entertaining to read. I feel I get closer to my ideals as the series progresses and, like most writers, I’m sometimes frustrated that I didn’t quite have the “chops” to do justice to some of my earliest stories. But with each story, I work on improving everything from descriptive language to comedic timing, from plotting to character development, and the myriad other things that make up a great story.
The Crystal Core continues a trend that began in the opening scene of Blind Alley Blues, which is a diary entry from Mags. In Small Flowers, I incorporated the idea that Mags writes letters to her somewhat-deceased great-gramma, which gives Mags more opportunities to narrate events in her unique voice. These letters have often been “behind the scenes” projects that never saw print. I wrote a good letter for Voyage of the Calico Tigress, but it didn’t quite fit the overall structure, so I cut it from the final version. With Small Flowers, I tried to weave the letters into the story in integral ways, and The Last Patches Story completely hands over the narrative reins to Mags so she can tell an imaginary bedtime tale about Patches. (One of my original ideas for that story involved using Patches as a first-person narrator, but I didn’t care for how that played out.)
With The Crystal Core, I wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible with using other members of the pirate crew as narrators, too. Other than Hang My Body on the Pier, which featured excerpts from Great-Gramma’s memoirs, Crystal Core is the first story where anyone but Mags gets a shot at narrating. Dr. Plutonian narrates a scene and, like the scene of Mags’ narration that follows it, it takes place while the telepathic octopuses are disassembling his mind. I set myself the challenge of showing this confusing state of mind while making it absolutely clear to the reader who was talking, what was happening, and why.
I feel like it worked, and initial feedback told me it worked, so I considered why it worked. The text contains details that help, such as Mags’ straight-up telling the readers exactly what she thinks is happening to her mind. But in terms of remaining true to a character’s unique voice when slipping into first-person internal monologue, I think the key to success was the amount of time I have spent living in these characters’ heads for more than half a decade now.
They might have started out as comic-book caricatures, but over the years these characters have become more complex and real people to me. I suspect any writer who spends a serious amount of time on long-form stories will tell you the same thing. When you, as an author, share and invest so much of your life and your thoughts and your feelings with your characters, they undergo what I think of as the Pinocchio Effect. At some magical point or phase in the journey, the characters stop being puppets on your strings and become real to you. They take on a life of their own. They place demands on you. They help you understand yourself in relation to them. You know they are mere fictions, but like the golem of Jewish mythology or the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, they become imbued with their own lifeforce, their own desires, their own path in this world.
I’m lucky, compared to some novelists. Many novelists go through the pain of creating and bringing to life a set of characters that will never be seen again after the novel’s final page. But because I am writing an open-ended, ongoing series with roots that stretch for hundreds of millions of years into the past, and branches that extend beyond the end of our universe, I don’t feel any need to finish working with my characters or close the final page on them. I have all the time in the world to get to know them—or at least, all the time I have remaining on this planet.
By the time I got around to giving Plutonian a scene to narrate, I had spent so many years with him that I felt confident I could write in his voice. He delivered an extended monologue in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX where he told Mags about an event in his past. That was the first scene I ever workshopped, about four years ago now. I love a good monologue, but that’s different from being inside the character’s head, which is what happens in The Crystal Core.
I didn’t know for sure how The Crystal Core would end when I started drafting scenes, but my workshoppers will attest to the fact that I am a big believer in writing the ending before the story is finished. As a writer, I’m not interested in taking a mysterious journey into the unknown by simply starting with the first page of a story and writing until it feels finished. The mysterious journey is the reader’s experience, not the writer’s.
People who write by the seat of their pants often encounter the same problems over and over again: not knowing where they are headed when they are in the middle of the story, and therefore not knowing what scenes or moments of character development matter, or how to advance their plot. They often arrive at unsatisfactory endings, assuming they don’t give up in frustration halfway through—something that’s happened to many writers I know.
My advice? Once you are clear on the characters and their motivations and central conflicts, write an ending! Know where you are going! Writing without knowing how your story ends is like trying to play a game of darts while wearing a blindfold. You might hit the bullseye out of pure chance or luck, but it’s doubtful. If, instead, you draft the ending earlier in the process, then you know what you are aiming for, and you can construct a story that inevitably leads to that conclusion. Yes, the ending might need to be revised by the time you finish the rest of the story, so don’t sweat too many of the little details. A draft of the ending is only there to give yourself the gift of direction and purpose.
For The Crystal Core, I had about half of it drafted before I tackled the ending, but I knew I needed a firm finish to guide me through the middle. I asked myself, “What would be the most logical and consistent ending for a quasi-intelligent and supremely powerful object, especially after it encountered my octopuses?”
The ending is influenced by my love of science-fiction comic books where the fate of the entire universe (or even the multi-verse) is at stake on a daily basis, and it’s a logical development of my push to constantly expand the scope of possibilities within Mags’ adventures. The Crystal Core, like The Last Patches Story, is an attempt to connect the lives of the pirate crew to huge, cosmic-level events.
It was a fun story to write. I enjoyed expanding the boundaries of what I could do with these characters and their universe, connecting the cosmic experience to the personal stories, and seeing how big I could go in fewer than 8,000 words.
My only question is, “What’s next?”