I want to talk about Mrs. Romney for a minute

June 23rd, 2017

Mrs. Romney was one of my teachers; I went to a six-year program, grades 7-12, and she was my 7th grade English teacher and my Senior thesis advisor. She was endlessly kind, helpful, joyous, and brilliant, in that special way that teachers have of imparting their brilliance to others. Last week she passed away from complications of Alzheimers.

I can’t really enumerate the many ways Kathryn Romney changed and affected my life, but I will tell one story. I’ve told this story before, so you may have heard it, but it’s a defining moment for me, and one of the touchstones that made me who I am, so it’s worth repeating.

IMG_0985It begins, as so many formative moments do, with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Seventh grade is the year when reading classes stop being “fun” and start being “academic.” It’s the year when your teacher says “Now, this book is a great read, but don’t just breeze through it. Try to look deeper. Try to see what’s going on under the surface.” Many students balk at this, and I was definitely one of them; by seventh grade I was already an avid reader, a voracious reader, reading books well above my grade level but, like she said, only paying attention to the surface.

The day we started TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD she handed out a huge packet of stapled papers with the header “Critical Analysis,” and told us that as we read we needed to keep an eye out for themes, archetypes, metaphors, and more. We needed to look for hidden meanings, and hidden connections, and capital-s Significance, and we were ruthless in fighting back against it. “It’s just a story!” we shouted. “It’s telling us that racism is bad, and why does it need any deeper meaning than that? Why are you trying to suck the fun–nay, the very LIFE–out of one of the greatest novels of all time?” (We were an accelerated class, so I’m pretty sure we literally said “nay.”) (We were insufferable.) Mrs. Romney was patient–in hindsight, immeasurably patient–and let us read, and kept asking questions.

I remember the key moment very clearly. We were in class, in what was called West High’s “Old Gym”–which isn’t even there anymore–having just read the scene when Scout’s neighbor is trying to kill crabgrass. She watches her lawn like a hawk all Spring and Summer, looking for any sign of crabgrass, and when she finds it she races over with shovels and chemicals and everything else she needs to root it out and kill it. Okay, whatever. But Mrs. Romney wouldn’t let it go.

“Why is this scene in the book?”

“Because…the neighbor hates crabgrass?”

“Obviously, but why is that in the book? The author can choose what she does and doesn’t want in her book, and she chose this. Why?”

“Because…it’s a detail that brings the characters to life.”

“Look deeper. Harper Lee filled a whole page of her novel with a description of a lady killing crabgrass, so the least we can do is pay attention to it. Why is it there? Why is it important to the story? What does it tell you about the rest of the book?”

I don’t remember who finally said it, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Somebody raised his or her hand and said: “Is it…the gossip? Like, is she trying to show that crabgrass can ruin a lawn in the same way that gossip has been ruining the town all book long? And that the only way to stop it is to find the gossip early and put a stop to it before it can spread?”

I don’t want to you to mistake this next point, so let me be perfectly clear: this was a revelation. The roof of the school opened up, and rays of pure intelligence shone down from heaven, and angels with heavy books and thick-rimmed glasses flew down out of the sky and sang “Critical Analysis!” in tones so sweet and perfect that literature itself seemed to weep in answer. Suddenly I GOT IT. Suddenly it all made sense–all the questions, all the themes and archetypes and metaphors and more. It seems so simple in hindsight–“kill the crabgrass before it spreads” is, as metaphors go, a pretty blunt instrument–but it’s what I needed, and it was when I needed it, and there’s a very good reason that we read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in seventh grade because it is unerringly effective at teaching these basic lessons. I am not exaggerating when I say that this changed my life in the best way possible. Reading was already my favorite thing in the world, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Mrs. Romney had taught me how to do it and experience it and love it on a whole new level. She wasn’t sucking out the life and the joy of books, she was showing us how to find more.

I know that some people, even after their seventh grade English classes, continue to object to this kind of reading. “If the curtains are blue that just means the curtains are blue” is an entire Facebook meme, and if that’s how you want to read that’s fine. That’s awesome, in fact: as long as you’re reading, I don’t care how you do it. For me, the ability to find depth beneath the surface brings a life and vitality to stories and literature that makes everything a hundred times–even a thousand times–more vibrant. It is everything I love about reading. It is why I am an author today.

A few years ago, on a baseless whim, I went to a certain restaurant in Salt Lake City where I have never been before or since. On that same day, and at that same hour, Mrs. Romney and her husband happened to make the same seemingly aimless decision, and thus fate gave me the chance to see her again, and to talk with her about our lives, and to tell her how grateful I was for the magic she had brought into my mine. I got to tell her that, thank in part to her inspiration, I was now an author; the second PARTIALS book, FRAGMENTS, was about to launch just a few days later, and I invited her to the signing, and she came and got some books. She had Alzheimers by that time, so I can’t be sure how much she actually remembered about who I was or how she knew me, but the joy practically shone from her face. In some ways it didn’t matter who I was: another human had written another book, and isn’t that reason enough to be happy? She took her books, and we hugged, and I’m grateful to this day because not everybody gets the chance to thank their heroes like that. I got to thank mine, and now I’ll do it again:

Thank you, Mrs. Romney. You changed my life.

Kathryn Romney’s viewing is tonight (June 23, 2017) at 6pm, at Stark’s Funeral parlor in Salt Lake City. Her funeral is tomorrow morning at 11 at the Holladay North Stake Center, 4395 S Albright Drive. I will do my best to go to both. If you or someone you love had Mrs. Romney as a teacher, I encourage you to do the same.

The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The JOHN CLEAVER omnibus is looking super awesome

June 21st, 2017

Last year we announced The Clayton Killer, a gorgeous special edition omnibus of the first John Cleaver trilogy. This will include I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU, plus an exclusive short story not appearing anywhere else. It will also be leather bound, foil embossed, Smyth sewn, and printed on 60# paper, making it one of the prettiest books you will ever see. Top that off with a foreword by Victoria Schwab, and you might think there’s no possible way it could be any better.

Well guess what: it’s also going to have a cover and full-color interior art, but the phenomenal Italian artist Daniele Sera. His dark, grisly, haunting style is a perfect fit for the book, and I’ve got some beautiful preview images to show off.

Pre-order your copy today!

First: the cover!

From Book 1: The death by the lake

From Book 2: The corpse in the water

From Book 2: The eyes in the wall

From Book 3: The mark of the Handyman

Can’t wait to get them? Neither can I. Pre-orders are open and waiting.

NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE book signings

June 6th, 2017

Want me to sign a copy of NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE? Want me to personalize it for you or a loved one? Want to say high, hang out, talk about Wonder Woman, and maybe even watch the I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER movie together?

Dependending on where you live, you’re in luck:

June 9: University Bookstore in Seattle at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 11: Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco at 5pm – Signing and movie Party

June 20: The King’s English Book Shop in Salt Lake City at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

If you can’t make it to one of these events, The King’s English will ship you a signed book! If you call them and ask, I can even personalize one for you!

My Schedule for Phoenix ComiCon

May 23rd, 2017

Thursday, May 25
4-6 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Friday, May 26
10:30-11:30 am – Signing in Room 124AB
12-1 pm – Panel: Option My Book! in Room 126AB
1:30-2:30 – Panel: Apocalypse Now? in Room 126C
3-5 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Saturday, May 27
10:30-11:30 am – Signing in Room 124AB
12-2 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth
3-6 pm – Signing in the Bard’s Tower Booth

Two contests for NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE

May 17th, 2017

Nothing Left to Lose comes out in just three weeks, and I’m running a contest to celebrate!

IMG_0772Win the Entire John Cleaver Series Plus the Movie!

We are giving away an autographed set of ALL 6 John Cleaver books in paperback, PLUS the DVD, also autographed, of the I Am Not A Serial Killer movie. How do you win this life changing gift? It’s easy! On June 6, when the book releases, we’ll draw one lucky name out of a hat. Here’s how you get your name in the hat:

One Entry: Sign up for the newsletter.

Extra Entry: For those who want extra credit and really really want to win, you’re going to have to pay attention to social media and answer some questions. Every week Dan will be asking trivia questions about actual serial killers; just write down each answer and save it somewhere. The final question will appear on June 1, at which point you simply send all your answers together to danwellsnewsletter@gmail.com. If you got them all right, you get in the hat again!

Newsletter subscribers also know that I’m giving out FREE SECRET stuff at my public appearances this year. Come find me in person and see what it is! Find me in person multiple times and collect multiple things! Hints: they’re limited in number, they’re collectible, and they’re gorgeous.

May 25-28: Phoenix ComiCon

June 6: NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE Release Day

June 9: University Bookstore in Seattle at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 11: Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco at 5pm – Signing and movie Party

June 20: The King’s English Book Shop in Salt Lake City at 7pm – Signing and Q&A

June 30-July 2: Denver ComiCon

July 28-August 5: Writing Excuses Retreat

August 7-9: Book Events in Hungary (more info coming soon)

August 17-20: GenCon

September 8-10: Rose City ComiCon

September 21-23: Salt Lake City ComiCon

November 25-December 3: Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara

Savage Rifts: A Review

January 12th, 2017

IMG_0783As you may have noticed, I’m kind of a Rifts fanatic. It’s my favorite RPG setting of all time, and I’ve written about it extensively, especially back in the day when I ran a game review website. I’m also a big fan of Savage Worlds, so I was delighted at the prospect of a merge between the two, and I backed the Savage Rifts kickstarter on day one. Possibly hour one. My books arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve read them twice through now (fanatic, remember?), and I have Opinions.

Short version:
Savage Rifts is a fantastic game and you should all buy it. It’s flaws are all little nit-picky things that a non-fanatic is unlikely to notice.

Long version:
Time to pick some nits.

This review is based on the three books that I own: The Tomorrow Legion Player’s Guide, The Gamemaster’s Guide, and Savage Foes of North America. I’ve also read a handful of the pdfs, but in general terms I dislike gaming from pdfs and have ignored them.

IMG_0784Let’s start with the combination of Savage Worlds and Rifts, which is easy to talk about because it feels smooth and perfect. Rifts is a massive game, with an enormous backstory and a ton of character options and more ideas on a single page than most games have in an entire book. It’s always been married to the Palladium ruleset, which is old and clunky and widely disliked; it works well enough, but it’s oppressively detailed in some areas and maddeningly vague in others, and gets in the way of the storytelling as often as it facilitates it. Savage Worlds, in contrast, is a settingless ruleset designed to be fast and cinematic. Take a look at the character sheets and you’ll see the difference: Palladium looks like an actuarial report in comparison. The single greatest triumph of Savage Rifts is that they’ve stripped out all the bloat, streamlined the presentation, and still managed to create a game that FEELS like Rifts. The Ley Line Walker, for example–the game’s main “wizard” class–has half the abilities and barely a fraction of the spells he had before, yet still manages to hit all the same notes. The flavor and the possibilities are all still there. Twelve of the original base game’s twenty-something classes have been translated into Savage Rifts, and they’re all fantastic. Two of them in particular–the Cyber-Knight and the Techno-Wizard–are the best incarnations of those two classes we’ve ever had. The game is slick, playable, and still deeply, intensely “Rifts.” They’ve done an incredible job.

And yet, reading through the books, you get a weird kind of mixed message about it. It’s attributed to a single writer, but it feels like it was co-written by two: one who loves Rifts and knows it intimately, and one who feels embarrased to be there. The gameplay sections all have a distinct undertone of apology. “This classic setting has cool ideas and a ton of incredible stories to tell, but of course I don’t LIKE it. I’m cool, like you.” Look, I get it: Rifts has a complicated history and a lot of people think it’s silly, but I would expect at least the writer to take it seriously. I don’t need to be reminded on every other page that the game is inherently ridiculous–or, to use their favorite word, “gonzo.” One of the things that made the original work so well was that the creator, Kevin Siembieda, always played it straight. Sure, there was some goofy stuff in it, and the power level was hard to control, but it also had high drama and powerful stories and ample opportunities for great roleplaying. A good group can find opportunities in Rifts that you can’t find anywhere else. And you can still find them in Savage Rifts, you just have to ignore the rulebook occasionally snickering at you for playing such a childish game.

IMG_0786And I have other problems, too. One of the iconic classes from the original game, the Shifter, has been left out of the Savage core rules. The Shifter is a magic-user who specializes in the Rifts themselves–a Rift, by the way, is a tear in reality through which words and people and horrifying supernatural monster can pass from world to world. The Shifter used this focus to travel between planes, and to talk to other creatures and beings, sometimes claiming the small ones as servants and sometimes becoming servants to the big ones. It’s a class that exemplified what Rifts was about, and which could not exist in any other setting, and I would suggest that the setting can’t/shouldn’t exist without it. But it was left out: the only core class, I should add, that didn’t make the cut. One can speculate as to why, and the prevailing theory online is that they considered the Shifter an “evil” class, or at the very least not “good” enough to be a hero, and I think there’s something to this theory, but I have another one. They released a pdf supplement about how to translate your favorite Palladium Rifts stuff into Savage Rifts, and used the Shifter as an example. They walk through what they’re doing, and how and why, and seeing their thought process really underlines the idea that they simply don’t understand the class. Gone is the focus on dimensional travel, and gone is the detailed take on supernatural negotiation. The original Shifter really delved into the idea of what it would be like to have a being from another dimension working for you–or a giving you power in exchange for your service–and yet the Savage Rifts version is pretty much just a standard summoner, identical to any old summoner in any old fantasy game. They have a special rule that lets them keep their summoned creature longer than normal, effectively making it a pet class, which is neat but misses the point. Taken with the weird, not-buying-into-it tone, you get the sense that on some level, the people making the game don’t actually “get” the game.

Savage Rifts’ last big failing, which is more annoying than game-breaking, is the Tomorrow Legion itself. This is their own invention, added as a way of providing direction to the players–you’re not just generic adventurers, you’re members of the Tomorrow Legion!–which sounds like a good idea except it’s so poorly executed you wonder why they bothered. The world of Rifts is overflowing with cool nations and kingdoms and organizations that your characters could be affiliated with, and most of them are varied and interesting and have a lot of complex motivations and story hooks. The Tomorrow Legion, in contrast, is about as vanilla as possible. It’s a group of people who live in a castle and do good things–that’s literally the entire story. Why do they live in a castle? Because some dwarves from a rift built one, and then weren’t using it for anything and decided to let the Tomorrow Legion have it. I’m serious. And why do they do good things? Because they’re good people, I guess? There’s no backstory, no texture, and barely more than a couple of pages of description–and most of that is just stats for some of the leaders, which makes the whole thing smack of “let’s put our player group into the setting” syndrome.

IMG_0787Compare this to some of the original game’s standard starting points: Arzno is a city in the desert beseiged by vampires; MercTown is a hub of dangerous work-for-hire and a criminal house of cards; New Lazlo is a mystic kingdom with a brave new plan to bring all peoples and backgrounds together; the Pecos Empire is a lawless wasteland filled with roving warlords engaged in constant battles for freedom and supremacy. Your group could be a salvage crew hunting for artifacts in the Dinosaur Swamp, or officers gone AWOL from the evil Coalition of Humanity, or refugees struggling to get by in the Burbs of Chi-Town–and that’s just North America. These ideas and countless more offer unique history, cool backgrounds, and compelling reasons to explore and fight and tell great stories, and even a one-page overview of the main ones would offer players something solid to work with. Instead we spend all of that space describing a Tomorrow Legion so thin you wonder how they filled the pages at all, and resulting in a story hook somehow even less interesting than “your characters meet in a bar.”

The good news is, the Tomorrow Lefion is SO underdeveloped that you can ignore it almost without even trying, and set your game in one of the parts of Rifts Earth that, you know, made the game interesting in the first place. I admit that not every player has a giant shelf of 60+ Palladium Rifts books they can draw on for information, but even the three core books for Savage Rifts give you enough ideas, and enough world info, to sketch out a great starting point and run with it. If you really want to dig deeper into the setting, the resources are out there–Rifts Aftermath in particular is a wealth of world and story info, with virtually no stats at all so you don’t even have to translate it to a new system. But at the end of the day, you don’t NEED it. The Savage Rifts core books are more than enough to start with, and new books are already announced.

Like I said, I’m a Rifts fanatic. And yes, that means I get passionate about it problems, but it also means this: when I say that I like what someone new has done with it, that means a lot. Savage Rifts has me more excited about the game than I’ve been in years, and that is a huge compliment. Nit-picks notwithstanding, Savage .rifts is a great game, and I can’t wait to dive in and play it.


November 10th, 2016

I think we all need a movie party, and what was the best movie of the year?


Yeah, baby. Want it watch it together? Me too.

This fine film is and will continue to be streamable through pretty much any VOD platform, but discerning fans will want to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray, which you can pre-order now or purchase directly on December 13.

To make sure you all have time to buy it, and to give it to each other as gifts if you want to, I have scheduled the twitter party for December 30, 2016, at 9:00pm MST. (That’s 11 Eastern, 10 Central, and 8 Pacific.) We’ll all synchronize our watches and press play on the DVD exactly at 9, so we’re all watching the same stuff at the same time, and I will tweet like a maniac the entire time: author commentary, adaptation stories, behind the scenes anecdotes, stuff I like and stuff I love and stuff that maybe I don’t love as much as I wish I did. It will be awesome. I’ve even created a brand new twitter handle for the occasion–@DanTweetsMovies–so that everyone not watching the movie with us doesn’t get flooded with messages they don’t understand. And who knows? If this goes well, maybe I’ll live tweet more movies in the future

So, yes! Mark your calendars, order your DVDs, and join me for this awesome Movie Twitter Party. It’s the best possible way to spend a cold Friday night short of actually embalming a body.

Always Do The Most Awesome Thing

November 8th, 2016

tron-legacy-armyIn the movie Tron: Legacy, the bad guy inside of the computer knows that there is a world outside of the computer, and he knows that people can move back and forth between worlds. He make hundreds of copies of himself and enacts a plan to send them all out into the real world, and I thought “Holy crap! That would be so awesome! Several hundred super soldier programs come into the real world! I am excited for this.” And then the good guys defeated him before he had a chance to do it, and yay I guess, but man. Nothing in that entire movie was as awesome as the thing they told us might happen, but never did.

Around this same time I was writing the book that would eventually become EXTREME MAKEOVER, which is a book about cloning. At one point in that draft a character was kidnapped, and learned that a rival group was planning to replace him with a clone of himself; the character talked his way out of it, and I was pretty pleased with the scene and the logic and the character’s cleverness, but my writing group was incredibly disappointed. “What the purpose of that scene?” they asked. “He starts in one situation, and then he avoided an obstacle, and then he ended up back in the exact same situation again. We didn’t accomplish anything!” My first thought was: they’re wrong, we did accomplish something, we revealed the existence of this rival organization. But then I thought a little harder and I realized that they had every reason to feel upset. If all I wanted to do was reveal the existence of a powerful enemy, I could have done that with a line of dialogue. Instead, I outwitted them in their very first appearance, which made them look weak and ineffective, but even worse than that I pulled a Tron: Legacy. I teased my audience with an awesome new development–main character replaced by a clone and forced to work for the bad guys!–and then yanked it away. Nothing that happened in that scene was as awesome as the thing I said might happen, but never did.

Extreme MakeoverI went home and took a good hard look at my outline. If I moved things around here and there, could I switch this branch from one direction to the other and just do the awesome thing? It would take a few rewrites, and the addition of a couple of extra scenes, but yes I could. I wrote up a quick new synopsis of how the book would go if I made the changes, and I liked it a lot. It even gave me the chance to solve another problem in a different part of the novel, which was a nice bonus, but most of all it was just cool. It took the book in an ambitious new direction, and added tension and conflict and change. Reading it now (the book comes out on November 15!) you’ll think that yes, of course this thing has to happen in this scene, but at the time it was a big change. And I resolved to carry that kind of change forward through the book: every time I had a choice of two or more things happening, I would choose the more awesome one. No holding back, no pulling my punches, no saving up for a bigger thing later. This is a book about the apocalypse–there will be plenty of room for bigger things at the end no matter how crazy I get with the middle.

The final manuscript ended up around 200,000 words, which is very big, and we edited it down to about 130,000, which is a massive cut. Almost a full third. A lot of those awesome things I promised myself I’d put into the book ended up on the cutting room floor, but even more of them stayed in, and more than that, the feel of the book was different. This is a book that goes for broke.

I sincerely hope that you like it.

You can buy the book here.
You can order a signed copy here and here.
You can find me on tour in these awesome places.

EXTREME MAKEOVER, and where it came from

November 4th, 2016

Extreme MakeoverSeveral years ago, I was writing a book. I had finished the first John Cleaver trilogy, and The Hollow City, and I was working on a new idea that, as much as I loved it, wasn’t working. Books are like that sometimes. I knew that the problem was dire when I realized I was so uninterested in my own book that I was literally looking for ways to avoid writing it. Which is how I found myself on the couch watching The 6th Day on TV.

The 6th Day is not a great movie, but it’s honestly not as bad a movie as you probably remember. It’s about cloning, and while most of it is fairly mindless there’s a scene that hit me really hard–hard enough that it not only inspired me to write a new book, but to mention the scene several years later in the acknowledgements of that book. The scene is this: Schwarzenegger crashed a plane in the wilderness, and everyone thinks he’s dead, but he makes it back home again, excited to see his family. As he walks toward his house, though, he sees himself through the window, talking to his wife and his kids, and he realizes two things. First is the plot thing: they thought he was dead so they cloned him. Second is the more profound thing, and the thing that smacked me in the brain and inspired the next several years of my life: he realized that he was no longer unique. That he wasn’t the only him. We are taught from birth that everyone is different and special, and that there’s nobody exactly like us, and that knowledge is a fundamental aspect of who we are and how we see the world. And this man was suddenly and irrevocably confronted with the fact that it wasn’t true anymore. There were two of him. His entire reality shifted, and the fact that someone was the same as him meant that he could never, ironically, be the same again.

I love that. I adore that. I wanted to write an entire book about that moment and that feeling, and pretty much discarded the other project I was working on right then and there. I would write a book about cloning. But, I told myself, there have been a zillion books and stories about cloning. How would I make mine different? We had recently recorded a Writing Excuses episode about developing ideas, and one of the principles we’d talked about was taking something normal and combining it with something weird–your main character is a spy, but he’s also a werewolf! Your magic system let’s people summon animals, but only animals you’ve eaten! So I sat on the couch during the next commercial break and asked what I could combine with cloning that had never been combined with cloning before. How about some kind of science, to explain how the clones are created? Sounds good, but what? We’ve already done genetic engineering and alternate dimensions and time travel and every other cool cloning technology. What was new and fresh? More to the point, what branch of science did I know enough about to come up with something convincing?

That last question was easy to answer: before I went full-time as an author, I worked in the health and beauty industry for eight years. I’ve described more lotions and shampoos and makeups than I ever thought possible, and written endless reams of website copy, box copy, ad copy, and more on the subject. I knew cosmetics inside and out, and it’s an industry practically overflowing with chemical innovation, so why not get something out of that? One of the big buzzwords in the beauty industry at the time was biomimetics–products that can intelligently adapt to your body and even your DNA–so it wasn’t a huge leap to posit a substance that flips that around and starts adapting you to it. A hand lotion that overwrites your DNA. That was new, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that it was a gold mine of fun and terrifying science fiction ideas. Want to look like a supermodel? We can literally just make you into a supermodel, down to the DNA, but maybe be careful about how you use the lotion and where you leave it–your friend wants to borrow some lotion for her dry hands? Now she’s a supermodel too. Your husband brushes past the bottle to reach something behind it? Better hope there’s no lotion left on the outside, or now he’s a supermodel too. And if your kids are anything like mine? Congratulations: your whole family are now supermodels, and not just that but they’re all the same supermodel, a whole little row of disconcerting duplicates. You are not the only you anymore, and nothing will ever be the same.

There are a lot of directions to take this idea, and it took me a while to figure out exactly what story to tell about that one exciting seed. What I settled on was, in hindsight, one of the most difficult: an epic, globe-spanning story that starts when the lotion is created and ends when it destroys the world. Because believe me: the world is not going to survive this technology. The apocalypse comes at the end, though, and in the middle I had the delicious opportunity to skewer the beauty industry I’d spent so much time in. The idea that you can sell beauty–that you can sell self-esteem–is unwholesome at its core. It’s an industry that feeds on insecurity, that makes its money telling people they’re not good enough without it; it’s a textbook abusive relationship, and one I’d been aching to slam for years. So I wrote a book about how the company that says you’re no good the way you are literally gets the power to turn you into somebody else. It’s an absurd corporate satire about the end of the world, and a deep dive into the social side of science fiction: how does a new technology really change the world and the way we live in it? The title, of course, could never be anything other than EXTREME MAKEOVER.

I love this book. It took me years to write it, and more years to publish it. It stretched me as an author and as a reviser, and changed the way I work, and I have never been more proud of a book than this one.

EXTREME MAKEOVER hits shelves on November 15. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Note: most of the images you see online have the title as EXTREME MAKEOVER: APOCALYPSE EDITION. This is my preferred title, and was the working title for years. At the last minute, consulting with booksellers, we pulled the APOCALYPSE EDITION because we didn’t want people to forego buying it because they wanted to get the regular edition instead. The physical books just say EXTREME MAKEOVER, but if you like I will happily write APOCALYPSE EDITION on there with a sharpie :)

A (dia)Critical Look at English Spelling

October 20th, 2016

This morning my brain woke me up at 4:30am, and demanded that I couldn’t go back to sleep until I completed a task: I needed to go through the English written language and replace all of the consonant combinations with new letters and diacritical marks. Some version of this happens every time I come to Eastern Europe–I have so much fun figuring out how to spell and pronounce people’s names that I get all excited about diacritical marks, and I want to add a bunch to English to help standardize our ridiculous spelling system. I tried to ignore it, but I also wanted to sleep, so I finally gave in and gave my brain what it wanted in the hope that it would let me go back to bed. In the end it took about four hours, so I never got back to sleep at all, but on the other hand I do have this blog post, so: enjoy.

First things first: my goal here is not to produce a phonetic alphabet, partly because those already exist but mostly because they serve a different purpose–I don’t want to reproduce the exact way we speak, because people speak in vastly different ways depending on the region they come from and where they learned English. All I really want to do is get rid of our wacky system of letter combinations: the o makes a certain sound, as in bot, but sometimes we want it to sound different so we add an extra o for boot, or we add an a for boat, or we tack an e on the end for bote (which is not a real word, but bode is, and you know what I mean.) This is especially stupid where it’s inconsistent: sometimes oo makes a long sound, as in boot, and sometimes it’s a short sound, as in soot. And sometimes that same short sound is written with a u, as in put, and sometimes that u sounds totally different, as in putt. Wouldn’t this be so much easier and simpler with a bunch of diacritical marks, so that every sound has a single symbol that always makes that same sound? Of course it would. Diacritical marks are going to save us. Hooray!

(Hooray, by the way, is going to look completely different by the time we’re done.)

(Side note: I’m not trying to get rid of letter clusters in general, just the ones that we use as hacks to make the letters say different sounds. The pr in pray, for example, can totally stay, because both the p and the r are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. The sh in show, on the other hand, forces both the s and the h to do things they don’t normally do. That’s the kind of thing we’ll be changing.)

We’ll start with consonants, because they’re easier, and the first one on the block is the h in sounds like sh and ch. The simplest change here is to steal the Slovakian system, which is to add a little arrow (called a caron or haček) over the top of the letter, so those are now Š and Č. The combination th is harder to deal with, because it makes two sounds: it’s voiced in words like this, and it’s unvoiced in words like thistle. And even though that difference is almost never phonemic (ie, it almost never changes the meaning of a word), sometimes it is: word pairs like thy and thigh are extremely rare, but they do exist, so we need a way to handle them both. I thus declare that a voiceless th shall be written as Ť, and the voiced version shall be written as Ď. Because both of those letters have risers in the lower case, they’re written as half-carons, which mostly look like accent marks: ť and ď.

Just for the sake of completeness, anytime z makes the same kind of sound, as in azure, we’re going to give it a caron as well: Ž. Why? Because I can.

(Side note: yes, I realize that the voiced partner of Č is J, but as much as I’d like to I’m not going to add a caron to the J, because in English J only has one job, so we don’t need a caron to differentiate it from anything else. If we start adding a caron to every affricate in the alphabet we’ll go insane.)

We have more consonant clusters to deal with, and one of them is super easy: ck is now just k. Sorry, c, but if we’re being honest you’re pretty unnecessary to the language as a whole. Your hard sound can be handled by k, your soft sound can be handled by s, and your only job in the consonant cluster is to preserve a vowel sound, so that, for example, the e in baker doesn’t mess with the a in backer. (Imagine of every kickstarter had bakers instead of backers–the world would be delicious but confusing.) Now that we have diacriticals to handle all our vowel sounds we don’t need to protect our vowels from the tyrannical e, so I’m afraid we’re downsizing the language and c is being let go. The only place it’ll show up, in fact, is in the Č, which is a far cry from it’s former glory but it’s better than nothing.

(Side note: yes, I realize that I just said I’m not putting a caron on the J because that’s it’s only job, and I just made that C‘s only job as well, so why am I still putting a caron on Č? Because it will be super confusing otherwise. That may seem like a silly reason, but trust me. It’s way too crazy without that caron.)

Speaking of nothing, that’s what Q and X get: they are eliminated completely. When we need the qu sound we can already make it with kw, so we don’t need a stupid vestigial letter that only functions when it’s clustered with something else. X dies for the opposite reason: it’s a self-contained cluster, without any other letters involved, so we’re killing it and just using ks. Done.

And what about ng? That’s not really an n or a g, so it needs it’s own letter. The phonetic alphabet writes that sound with a funky symbol that most keyboards can’t produce easily, so I’m nominating the Ń instead. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least we can type it. Maybe when the world’s smartphone and keyboard makers adopt my genius system we’ll come up with a better solution.

The last consonant cluster I want to talk about is wh. Sometimes the w is dropped completely, as in who, and sometimes the h is dropped completely, as in what, and sometimes the h and w are both pronounced but in reverse order, as in, um, what. Maybe what was a bad example? The problem is that some English-speaking accents pronounce the h and some don’t, which is where we get, for example, the Family Guy clip of Stewie saying “Cool Hwip” and Brian being confused by the h. This is further complicated by the fact that in some cases the difference is actually phonemic: the h changes the meaning between, for example, which and witch, or whether and weather. So how are we going to handle this in our glorious new system? By siding with the more popular pronunciation and dropping the h from our written language, though you’re still welcome to use it in your spoken language if you want. There are going to be a jillion spoken dialects no matter how we alter the written language, so we’ll do our best to keep things simple.

And as for wr? Screw wr. We’re just going to write it as an r.

Now: on to the vowels. Vowels are going to be hard because English has a shocking number of vowel sounds, and almost all of them are phonemic. The root form b-d is a great example, because you can add almost any vowel sound to those consonants and change the meaning of the word: bad, bade, bed, bead, bid, bide, bod, bode, bud, booed, bowed, Boyd, and probably a bunch more that I’m forgetting. Vowel sounds that don’t fit this particular construction, such as the short u in put, are still phonemic in other words, as we illustrated earlier by the difference between put and putt, or look and Luke, or soot and suit. Compare this to something like Spanish or Japanese, which only have five phonemic vowel sounds each, and you see one of the reasons that so many people have trouble learning English. The fact that we represent these sounds in grotesquely inconsistent ways (ie, boot and soot don’t rhyme, and for that matter neither do bowed and bowed) only makes it worse.

(Side note: as we did with the wh cluster, we’re going to be ignoring certain regional pronunciations during this streamlining process. There are accents on the American east coast where, for example, Don and Dawn sound completely different, and I in fact once knew a family who named a son and daughter Don and Dawn, respectively, and were shocked that people from other parts of the country pronounced them the same. So yes, some vowel sounds are phonemic in some dialects, but if the rest of us can get by without them so can you. Feel free to keep saying them however you want; all we’re changing here is the spelling.)

(Other side note: American English is currently undergoing a massive change in vowel pronunciation called the Northern Vowel Shift. If you live in the great lakes area, odds are good that you or your neighbors pronounce, for example, bag as beg or even baeg, with the same long vowel as bade. This is linguistically fascinating, but throws a wrench in my plans to alter spelling based on vowel sounds. I’m still going to do it, but I’m going to use classic, midwestern, pre-vowel shift vowel sounds. Remember that my goal is not to reflect spoken pronunciation, but to replace the letter combination system: I’m less concerned with how you say hat than with how we as a language turn hat into hate.)

So: we’ll keep the base letters pretty much the same as they’re pronounced in the list I showed above.
A as in bad and lash
E as in bed and felt
I as in bid and ship
O as in bod and far
U as in bud and some

This is already going to shift a bunch of our spellings, since the old system used a for the o sound all the time. Father and mother will become foďer and muďer–and already you’re seeing us start to reverse some of the major consonant and vowel shifts that differentiate modern English from our Roman and Germanic roots. And don’t worry, because foďer and muďer are going to change EVEN MORE by the time we’re done. It’s going to be awesome.

The next set of vowel sounds we change is going to be the long vowels, which I choose to represent with a line over the top, like so:
Ā as in bade and pray
Ē as in bead and need
Ī as in bide and sight
Ō as in bode and cold
Ū as in booed and rude

Next we’re going to deal with the diphthongs, which are vowels we think of as a single sound, but are actually two. We often represent this by tacking on an extra vowel or even a w, as in ouch and wow and point. Using the sounds we’ve codified above, what you’re actually saying in those words is aūč and waūw and poēnt. Sometimes a diphthong is just one letter by itself: technically the ī sound is a diphthong; say the word my really slowly and you’ll see that what you’re actually saying is moē. Even the ā is often pronounced as . But I don’t want to handle diphthongs as vowel clusters, because a simple diacritical mark is way simpler: makes sense to us in a way that moē does not. So I’m going to leave ā and ī as-is, and I’m going to write ow and oy as:
Å as in ouch and wow
Ø as in point and toy

Why am I using these specific symbols? Especially since I’m not using them to mean what they already mean in the languages that already use them? I’m doing it for expedience: I need symbols that a typical smartphone keyboard can produce, just like I did with ń, so here we are.

On the other hand, we’re going to write the short u (put, soot, look) as Ö, because that’s how a lot of languages already do it, so we’re not being completely ridiculous.

There’s one more thing that I want to do, though I’m not sure if it’s strictly necessary. We have a lot of words in English that use a kind of null vowel, such as the second syllable of social, or both syllables in curdle–you can’t really tell what those vowels are, and they certainly aren’t any of the vowel sounds we’ve already defined. The two liquid consonants, L and R, have a strong tendency to modify vowels this way, by reducing them to a kind of faceless placeholder between two other sounds, but even D does it, as in the final sound of landed. These three sounds are all different from each other–the final sound in tumble, and the final sound in tumbler, and the final sound in landed–and they’re not really e‘s either because they’re not really anything. The consonants dominate them to the point that they lose their own identity. I kind of want to eliminate them completely, which the Internet is already doing with things like tumblr, but that creates all kinds of stupid situations: if someone tumbled, I don’t want to write tumbld, and if someone is a murderer I definitely don’t want to write mrdrr. But I don’t want to write murderer either, because we’ve already defined what those u‘s and e‘s mean, and it’s not that. So I’m going to create a new vowel that just means “there’s a vowel here, but only in the most technical sense.” And that symbol shall be henceforth Ë, because it’s very similar to what we’ve already defined the Ö to mean, and it lets us use the umlaut again, which is always fun. So remember when I said foďer and muďer would get even weirder? Now they’re foďër and muďër.

(Side note: A lot of words that end in ed don’t actually give it a vowel sound at all, such as looked or leaped. We don’t use our null vowel in these cases, so if you looked before you leaped it would actually be lökt and lēpt.)

And that’s the whole thing. Our new alphabet looks like this:


See how fun this is? By which I mean:

Sē hå fun ďis iz? Wē kan rīt evrēťēń wē wont wiť dīukritikël morks! Hërā! Ińgliš māks sō muč mōr sens nå. Ī ekspekt evrēwun to rīt ďis wā frum nå on: insted uv år kluńkē ōld sistëm wār wun letër köd mēn a bunč uv difrënt ťińs dëpendiń on wič letërz it wuz nekst tū, wē hav an ajël, eksītiń sistëm in wič evrē letër olwāz māks ďu sām sånd. It’z simpël and kënsistënt. Jøn mē in ďis glōrēës revōlūšën! Rīs up ugenst ďu folēz uv år antikwātëd rītiń sistëm!

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