I began writing – as many young writers do – with short stories. Recently, while excavating the strata of my garage, I came across a collection of my early stories and a huge file of rejection letters. I never actually published a short story until after I had several novels under my belt. Then I got to publish entire short story collections. Only one of my old stories made it into those collections. It was there as an example of how unpublishable my early writing was.
Every once in a while I get the opportunity to contribute new stories to anthologies such as Shaun David Hutchinson’s Violent Endsor Jonathan Maybery’s Scary Out There.
But my favorite anthologies are the ones where I get to play in my own sandbox!
World building is, in a sense, playing God. You get to reimagine creation—but with that reimagining comes so many loose threads, most of your time is spent weaving in those stray threads– molding and caressing the world into a tapestry that makes sense. The world might start small—just an idea—but as your story grows, so does the tapestry until you begin to sense there are places that the light hasn’t yet reached. Entire corners of creation that were too far off the path to explore. There might be distant places you’ve alluded to. Mysterious histories that you’ve hinted at. Secondary characters that deserve a life far richer than what they’ve been allowed.
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New writers try to give you all of it, every last thread, and often get lost in their own world. I certainly did. There are two early books that were, thankfully, never published, and now exist only in my mind, and a hidden filing cabinet in the back of my aforementioned garage (behind the sign that says “beware of the cheetah,” as Douglas Adams would say.) I was so enamored by the worlds I was creating, that the kitchen sink wasn’t enough. It had to be the kitchen sink in multiple dimensions, with an entire history of encounters with other sinks, and the miles of plumbing that brought them all to this very moment.
It’s easy to get bogged down with a world, rather than allowing readers to simply experience it. What I slowly came to learn is that no world is completely known. Not even our own. So I stopped worrying about expressing every little aspect, and embraced the idea of letting readers see only what they needed to see. Asking only the questions that the story required. Everything else that I knew about the world, I considered “scaffolding;” Necessary to build the story, but ultimately not a part it.
But even so, when I’m done with a series, I always lament the many stories that didn’t get told.
So now I try to do something about that. First with UnBound – a story collection in the world of Unwind. And now again with Gleanings – stories from the world of Scythe.
There are many things I love about these collections. First, is that I get to answer questions that fans have asked, that couldn’t be answered in the proper story – as well as revisiting characters that readers wanted more of. (I have to admit, I was just as excited as readers to visit the stately Scythe Curie as a nineteen-year-old junior scythe—and to see the creepy sixteen-year-old that Scythe Goddard once was.)
Another thing I love about reaching the unexplored corners of the world, is getting to invite other writers in. David Yoon, for instance, with whom I collaborated on a story about the very last piece of “mortal” art. And Michael H. Payne, with whom I got to explore what happens to pets in a world where humans live forever (a question, by the way, that fans have been asking for years). Michelle Knowlden contributed to both UnBound and Gleanings – I’ve been collaborating with her since the 90’s when we worked on an X-files book together.
I’ve also had the opportunity in these collections to work with my kids. Since writing is the closest thing I have to a “family business” I wanted to give them that opportunity—and besides, it’s a wonderful way to bond with your adult children. It was through the story “UnDevoured,” in UnBoundthat I realized Jarrod and I were strong enough as a collaborative team that we could write entire books together – first Drythen Roxie. And for Gleanings, Jarrod and his partner Sofia contributed a story as well. My son Brendan (who has an even darker sensibility than me), contributed a truly chilling story to UnBound that still haunts me, and my daughter, Joelle, wrote a piece in verse about becoming a scythe that’s so strong, it’s the opening of Gleanings. (As for my other daughter Erin, she just graduated from art school, and knows that, if and when she wants, I’ll be happy to work with her on a graphic novel.)
I already know the question I’m going to get asked more. What’s my favorite story in the collection? I’m not just being diplomatic by saying I can’t decide. I really can’t. It changes depending on how I’m feeling on any given day. Perhaps the humorous story in which two accident prone people keep dying and being revived until they realize they’re perfect for one another. Or maybe the Bergmanesque chess game with death. Or the Inception-like take on Antarctic communal dreaming. Or my admittedly heavy-handed statement on science-denial told in the voice of the Thunderhead, if the Thunderhead were Edgar Allen Poe. (Oh – and by the way, if you haven’t done it, pay a visit to askthethunderhead.com. It’s a hoot! The Thunderhead is without question my favorite character!)
A blessing and curse of a story collection is that it doesn’t have to end. You can just keep on writing stories – so it was hard to stop. I still haven’t. I’m writing a special story for the German version, that I’m sure I’ll wish got into the American one. There are so many aspects of the world that I still want to explore. I think that’s when you know you have a world that resonates – when you find you want to live in it even more than you already have.
Readers, of course, have no shortage of ideas. Fans have been clamoring for a prequel that shows the rise of the Thunderhead to power. And they also want romances between characters that I never envisioned. (Some fan-fiction makes me alternately blush and grimace). But I think the most interesting, and oddest request from fans is that they want me to unify the worlds. I suppose with the Marvel Universe, and the Star Wars Canon and the endless iterations of Middle Earth, fans want all my stories to exist in the same universe. They want to believe that Unwind happened immediately before Scythe; that Everlost is where all the unwound kids go; and that any inconsistencies between worlds can be bridged by Ash in Game Changerwho has the power to reconcile disparate realities.
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Am I wrong to think that each world needs to exist separately, as its own reality? As a writer, I would find it immensely boring to have just one universe to work with! So, more sandboxes, please!
Meet the author
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including the Unwind dystology, the Skinjacker trilogy, Downsidersand Challenger Deepwhich won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his latest series, Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. Neal is the father of four, all of whom are talented writers and artists themselves. His new novel, Gleanings, will be available on November 8, 2022 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit Neal at StoryMan.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman.
Book purchase link:
The New York Times bestselling Arc of the Scythe series continues with thrilling stories that span the timeline. Storylines continue. Origin stories are revealed. And new Scythes emerge!
There are still countless tales of the Scythedom to tell. Centuries passed between the Thunderhead cradling humanity and Scythe Goddard trying to turn it upside down. For years humans lived in a world without hunger, disease, or death with Scythes as the living instruments of population control.
Neal Shusterman—along with collaborators David Yoon, Jarrod Shusterman, Sofía Lapuente, Michael H. Payne, Michelle Knowlden, and Joelle Shusterman—returns to the world throughout the timeline of the Arc of a Scythe series. Discover secrets and histories of characters you’ve followed for three volumes and meet new heroes, new foes, and some figures in between.
Gleanings shows just how expansive, terrifying, and thrilling the world that began with the Printz Honor-winning Scythe is truly.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 11/08/2022
Series: Arc of a Scythe Series
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post