If you’re a fan of the Uglies series, you are familiar with the amazing work of YA author Scott Westerfeld, and lucky for you, Mr. Westerfeld is beginning a new series called Zeroes with the first book out this week. This time around, Mr. Westerfeld is working in collaboration with two wonderful Australian authors, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti. The three of them together have crafted the enthralling world of the Zeroes, self-named not-so-super heroes who explore their “powers” in a relatively quiet California town. Quiet that is until smooth-talking Ethan allows his power–an all-knowing voice that takes over Ethan’s vocal chords telling the listener whatever they need to hear to give Ethan aka Scam what he wants–to get him into some serious trouble. There’s a car chase, a bank robbery, and a jail heist involved in Scam’s mess, and against their better judgement, the Zeroes band together to save their on-again-off-again compadre. The plot is inventive and engaging, the characters relatable and fantastical all at once, both combining for a story that nearly demands to be adapted to a TV show (think Heroes meets Misfits for people who prefer synthesizers to guitars). The Zeroes universe is immersive, and YE was curious how that world came about, and how these three authors worked in collaboration to create it. Luckily, we got a chance to hear from all three minds behind Zeroes to fill us in on the collaborative creative process as well as some super secret details about the Zeroes’ powers and origins.
YE: How did you guys all meet?
“We’ve known each other for years, bumping into each other at book events around the country. We all live very close to the center of Sydney [though Scott is American, Deb and Margo are Australian, and all three now call Sydney home], so we tend to find ourselves eating at the same table quite often, and there’s been a certain amount of mutual book-launch attending as well.”
YE: How’d you guys decide to create something together?
“Two years ago, Deborah did a TV writing workshop and fell in love with the TV Writers’ Room model of getting stories written, where everyone throws ideas around together, then goes off individually to write their episode or their character. And Scott had just read Deb’s story collection Bad Power, which is all about people having superpowers but not wielding them very well–plus he’d had the idea for Scam’s superpower knocking around in his head for decades. So, one day the two of them got to talking, and the superpowers idea and the collaboration idea came together and became the superpowers-collaboration idea. But they wanted a proper team, for maximum input in the collaboration’s Writer’s Room, so that’s when they asked Margo to come on board.”
More about how Zeroes came to be:
“At first Zeroes was a kind of fun side-project. We’d get together once a week in a pub and discuss superpowers and the kinds of messed-up scenarios teen characters might get themselves into, then go away and dash off a bit of back story. A kind of plottish thing grew out of those meetings, and we started writing actual chapters. We’d been mucking about for nearly a year when we sent off sample chapters and a rough plan to our agent. Suddenly, other people started taking our crazy game seriously. That’s when we went away for a few days to seriously nail down the remaining Book 1 plot. Then towards the end of last year, when the book deal came through, Deb and Margo were able to give up their part-time day jobs. Zeroes is the day job now.”
YE: What is the creative process like in collaboration like this?
“Using the writer’s room model, over three days, we hammer out a chunk of plot together, all sitting around and throwing ideas into the mix. Part of plotting is ensuring that each scene is from the most interesting point of view. Also, that each of the six characters (we’re each responsible for wrangling two characters) gets an equal number of chapters. Then we each go off and write our chapters. The agreed upon plot means that we mostly don’t have to wait for each other’s chapters to be finished before we complete our own. Then there’s the messy part where chapters are flying back and forth. Deb and Margo give feedback and Scott does an actual edit. Scott is our equivalent of the TV Showrunner--he gets final say, although Deb and Margo have the right to protest and argue a case! And they do. It’s a very noisy stage. We all read and comment on the final manuscript, and have our say during the structural edits and the copyedit.”
YE: Working in this manner, how do you decide what ideas fly and what gets cut?
“Most ideas get pretty well tested in the plotting room. Sometimes someone’ll suggest a thing that we all think is ridiculous and fall about laughing at–but then some devil’s advocate will jump in and say, “Well, that could actually work if we just…” And we all realize we want to do it and start bouncing possibilities off each other and typing notes furiously. So basically, we decide those things together. And then Scott has carte blanche to cut anything that isn’t working during his edit–but again, sometimes we make him put it back.”
YE: Do you prefer writing fiction in this collaborative manner? What are the pros/cons?
“Collaborations are awesome! Pros: you never feel like you’re struggling alone to make your story work. Instead, you’re struggling with other people! So much more fun. Planning and plotting become more like adventures in making your writing colleagues laugh, and battling to see who can come up with the lamest idea. Of course, collaborations are actually all about getting the best ideas out of everyone on the team, and harnessing the best skills and experience in the room. Cons: all writers have different processes, and sometimes making those processes fit together can take a lot of work.”
YE: Was there a specific inspiration for the powers of the Zeroes?
“We started with Ethan’s power. Scott has always loved characters in books and movies who know exactly what to say at the right time. The cool wisecrack, the clever double entendre, the perfect romantic comment. But Scam’s voice is less a super power and more a ‘makes a bad situation even worse‘ ability…because Ethan never knows what the voice is going to say next, and its attempts to help are always compromised by a complete lack of planning. The other powers came from that general idea of a “social superpower,” a power that comes from the ability to influence other people. So, Crash has the ability to crash any technology, but she suffers physical discomfort whenever she’s around anything networked. Flicker is blind but can see through other people’s eyes. Anonymous has the power to become completely forgettable, and the more people in the room, the more forgettable he becomes. Bellwether is the team leader. He has the power of charisma, and can charm people into following him. And finally there’s Mob. She’s able to form a feedback loop with a crowd, managing their energy into either upbeat or down-and-mean levels. The problem is, she can’t control what they do with that emotion.”
YE: Does Ethan see his ability as a help or a hindrance?
“I think a lot of teenagers are discovering the power of their words, that they can say things that are genuinely hurtful. But maybe they aren’t completely in control of this power yet, so it tends to get them in trouble as much as anything else. Ethan is a cautionary tale, a walking reminder to all of us to watch what we say. And he’s a guy who likes the easy way out. He’s only looking for a good time. And he’s grown up with this superpower, the voice, and as a consequence he’s kind of lazy. He knows he can rely on the voice to get him through most sticky situations. It helps him get dates (and get out of dates), but it can also talk him into dangerous situations. So, for Ethan, the voice is both help AND hindrance.”
YE: What can you tell us about Book 2?
“There’ll be more hijinks, higher stakes, more surprises—and more powers. There’ll be romances and broken hearts, evil villains, dance parties gone bad, at least one car chase, a celebrity wedding, some crooked cops and all kinds of challenges for the Zeroes and their families. Some characters will find their lives in peril, and others will sacrifice themselves in noble ways. All the Zeroes will grow and change as they confront some of their biggest fears individually and together. It’s going to be huge!”
YE: Most importantly–When can we look forward to the rest of the series?
“Book 2 comes out in September 2016. And Book 3 should arrive in September 2017. We’ve already drafted Book 2 and planned Book 3.”
We LITERALLY can’t wait that long. If only we had a time shifting super power to help speed things along…hmmmm…maybe that’s an idea for the next book!!!