“The President of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.”
Every novelist hopes to create a storyline riveting enough to keep the reader enthralled and a concept commercial enough to succeed in the marketplace. J.C. does both. Reading 7th Son: Decent was an incredible ride, full of twists I never saw coming, characters I cared about, and a breathless denoument all wrapped in smart prose.
“He was surprised more of them weren’t out here in what Kleinman called the Common Room. How could the other “Beta clones” sleep behind those doors, behind those one-way mirrored windows, in those small dorm rooms? How could they ignore the funnel cloud of questions? Yes, John was exhausted, but he wasn’t ready to turn in. Would he ever be? Could you ever be, after staring into six pairs of your own eyes and hearing that your childhood was a glorified computer file, swapped from one disc to another? That you had been grown in a jar? Could you ever be, even if you didn’t believe any of it?”
7th Son: Descent is one of those techno thrillers that stalks the line between fiction and plausibility, and J.C. skillfully mines cutting edge advances in biology and our own discomfort with the ethics of human cloning to create a literary rollercoaster. The storyline is simple: a man discovers he is a clone, one of six other “John Michael Smiths”. What happens next is . . . strange and gripping and altogether fantastic reading. The plotting is fiendishly complex and a testament to J.C.’s skill as a storyteller the way he weaves multiple threads together in a whiplash ride. J.C. leaves Book 1 in a place to rocket off in more sequels, and I hope he writes many more. It’s a world I’m ready to revisit.
In part one of our two part interview, J.C. talked about how he got his start in fiction plus his innovative marketing platform that successfully uses social media to create a fanbase. In part two of our interview, J.C. talks about the writing and how he implements his vision.
Enjoy part two of our two-part interview with J. C. Hutchins.
Where did the inspiration for the 7th Son series come from?
Ultimately, it hailed from my love for action-thriller movies (and comic books) that featured ensemble casts. I can’t get enough of “team” stories, in which each member has a special skill set. Combine that with the timely topic of human cloning, nature versus nurture, and lots of other stuff I enjoy — namely conspiracies, secret technologies and fireballs — and you’ve got a grocery list of what inspired and informed the book.
7th Son: Descent is a thriller with SciFi elements instead of a straight up SciFi with a suspense plot. Was it a conscious decision on your part to target the thriller market or is that just the way the story ended up wanting to be told?
Great question. I’ve never considered 7th Son science fiction, but I’m probably in the minority.
I liken 7th Son: Descent to thrillers written by Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston or Michael Crichton — stuff rooted in present day, with a very familiar reality, but spiked with a few technological differences. I wanted to write a book that featured human cloning and the recording of human memories, so I needed to invent easy-to-understand pseudotechnologies to accommodate that. 7th Son is science fiction in the way that Jurassic Park is: It’s sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi.
It didn’t matter. The book was classified as science fiction by my publisher, and that’s where it’s now shelved in stores. It’s certainly resonating with SF readers. My goal is for my next book is to ensure it’s classified by my publisher and booksellers as a straight thriller. There’s a far larger fan base in that genre. Probably more money, too.
One of the fantastic aspects of your narrative is that you essentially have seven protagonists (the seven “sons”), with one main viewpoint character, and yet I never got confused with any of them, and they all had distinct voices and characterizations. Was it a challenge to keep the characters distinct? What should writers keep in mind when creating a series with multiple main characters?
Thanks! Since I knew my seven main protagonists would be clones with shared childhood memories (yet vastly different adulthoods), I put a lot of effort in the pre-writing process to ensure these characters had distinct perspectives on the world. Sometimes these notes were detailed, but most were vague guidelines such as “Beneath it all, Character A is a coward” or “Character B is a family man, and everything he says is somehow influenced by that” or “Character C is an assertive soldier, a born leader”, and so on. That helped me craft distinct dialogue, body language and appearances for my very similar heroes.
The bigger challenge was ensuring that the reader was reminded not only of the characters’ differences, but that there were several characters to mentally “track” in a scene. I made sure that every character contributed at least one line of dialogue (or gets a “reaction shot” or something similar) in each scene, so readers could easily recall that the room was packed with these personalities, and what they were saying was worthwhile. It was almost like creating the narrative equivalent of a movie storyboard, in which the our mental “camera” moved from character to character, always anchoring the reader in the scene, and always reminding us of that scene’s players. This is where being a fan of movies with ensemble casts paid off.
7th Son: Descent is a high-octane, high-stakes read, and toward the end I was ripping through to get to the climax. What do you focus on to get the most tension out of your writing? Any tips you’d like to share?
For me, it’s often about making the POV character as “everyman” as possible, and making descriptions as intuitively detailed as possible.
The everyman POV ensures that the character will have an authentic emotional response to the spectacular events unfolding around him. For instance: We see gunfire and violence in movies and TV shows all the time. But imagine actually witnessing that, actually watching your friends being gunned down by remorseless assassins. Authors have an obligation to capture the horror of that violence, and — more important — the emotional horror a person would experience by witnessing it. Conveying that visceral emotional response is something I always try to capture in my fiction.
Making descriptions as detailed is possible is also paramount. Especially with action sequences, the author must ensure that the reader feels anchored in the scene, fully understands the logistics of what’s happening, and — again, most important — delivers these details in ways that are both resonant and economical. I try to craft details during these scenes that are immediately intuitive to understand. I often use “household” descriptions to convey this.
For instance: I could describe a bleeding wound as “four inches wide,” but that requires the reader to do some logic-based reasoning during an emotionally-charged sequence in the story. That will, if only subconsciously, extract them from the narrative to conduct some primordial math. That’s bad news for an author. Instead, I avoid logic-based descriptions and resort to intuitive “household” descriptors. Why say that bleeding wound is four inches wide when you can say it’s the size of a jar lid? That says all you need — and might even enhance the emotional reaction for a reader.
You delve into topics disparate topics like cloning, government agencies, the conspiracy theory underground, and each of the seven clones lead very different lives. What sorts of research did you do to make the book crackle with authenticity? How much research is enough?
I didn’t do a lick of research on cloning, biology, the conspiracy theorist subculture or computer hacking . . . as I imagine any biologist, conspiracy nut or hacker who’s read 7th Son could tell you! [laughs] I knew my audience was smart and media savvy. They know what human cloning is, and they’ve seen enough movies to immediately understand hacking and what-not. Most of the backstory on that stuff is delivered quickly, or off-screen.
When it came to researching the respective professions of the seven clones (priest, U.S. marine, musician, etc.), I mostly conducted research on those professions’ lingo — the slang. I love slang, and how much of it is “secret,” exclusive to specific industries or subcultures. Using this lingo in the book added an additional layer of authenticity to the story.
Most of my research was conducted on real world stuff: the human brain, the oil industry, Russian nuclear weapons, machine guns and the like. Like all fiction, 7th Son is just a well-stacked tower of lies . . . and like all novelists, I’m the dude telling that grand lie. Like the very best lies, the very best fiction is soaked in believable details. If I can convince you that the world in which 7th Son is set is just like our own in every regard, I can then leverage that believability to help sell the big lies such as human cloning, experimental aircraft, you name it.
That’s really what I strive to do: Convincingly sell a “normal” world, so that when the narrative shit hits the fan, the reader’s already invested and believes it.
The structure of 7th Son: Descent is pretty clever: seven POVs in the beginning are integrated into one viewpoint character, then the story divides into two POVs again. Did you plan it that way? What do writers need to keep in mind when they are dealing with multiple POVs?
Yeah, I planned it that way. I knew that bebopping between seven POVs would greatly confuse the reader, so I kept that to a minimum. I reckoned positioning most of the POV with the most “everyman” of the seven protagonists would streamline that process, and ensure that the wonder and danger of the story was effectively conveyed. After all, the main POV character is someone who is absolutely uninitiated in this world of secret technologies and conspiracies — just like us, the readers.
7th Son: Descent eventually divides into three storylines by the third act, each with its own POV. The challenge there was ensuring that the creative decision to do that was narratively warranted and worth the effort for me and the reader (which it was), and that each storyline got the appropriate screen time, and worked with the other storylines to build tension and conflict (which they did).
You want to know the very best way to learn how to juggle multiple storylines and POV? Watch the original Star Wars movies. It’s all there: characters start together, the plot pulls them into separate groups, the narratives in each storyline further the plot/characters, and each storyline ratchets up the overall tension.
What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I used to be a pantser. These days, I’m a plotter — I’ve found it saves time during the writing process. I do a lot of front-end brainstorming about the world and characters, lots of notes and Post-Its and emails to myself. I then usually plot out major narrative beats on paper, and then refine the plot when I bring it into my word processor. I always give myself a lot of creative wiggle room and permission to wander off the path if needed.
What writer is inspiring you now?
Stephen King is an endless inspiration. I’m also presently enjoying thriller writers Joseph Finder and Jeffrey Deaver. James Cameron is another lifelong inspiration. His Aliens is one of the best ensemble cast movies I’ve ever seen. Each character is so well-realized.
What’s the best advice you’ve received? The worst?
The best writing advice I ever received was from Brad Meltzer, one of my favorite novelists. He writes mostly political thrillers. I met him at a signing, told him I was writing 7th Son, and was stuck in Act Two. “I’ve built a lot of momentum,” I said, “and I think I know where this is all eventually going — but how do move forward right now? What do I do?”
Meltzer replied, “Ask yourself, ‘What happens next?’”. I blinked, incredulous. He smiled and said, “I know it sounds too simple to work, but it does. Just ask, ‘What happens next?’” So I went home and asked myself What happens next? and it totally worked. The simplicity of the question forced me to focus on my immediate goal: getting through the next chapter — and not worrying about what would happen ten chapters from now. I still use that technique, and always will.
I can’t recall receiving any bad advice from a peer or publishing professional. I wisely ignored the feedback of those agents in 2005 when they suggested — via their rejection letters — that 7th Son wasn’t a salable story. If you’re absolutely convinced that what you’re doing is important and has value, don’t let anyone ever convince you otherwise. Whatever the end result may be, see it through.
What’s next for you?
Content shall abound in my blog and podcast feed in 2010. In addition to the free serialized audiobook version of Personal Effects: Dark Art (which will debut by Spring) and my new podcast fiction project The 33 (which will debut not long after), I have other creative projects in the hopper. There are movie treatments I owe my film agent, and other novels to write. God willing, there will be 7th Son books Two and Three to edit for print release, too. I also want to pursue ways of telling stories folks have before seen; stuff that’s as wide-eyed and untested as a newborn. It should be a fun, creative year.
7th Son: Descent is available everywhere.