Today Bradley W. Schenck stops by Fantasy Literature to discuss his writing process for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, an illustrated retro-futuristic novel that pays homage to the Golden Age of science fiction while embracing twenty-first century sensibilities. We’re giving away a hardcover copy of the book as well as a Retropolis-themed coffee mug to one lucky commenter! (Oh, and please read my review of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom.)
When I look back to 2012 I don’t know when, exactly, I saw what Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom was going to be.
I thought I knew its shape… its rough shape, anyway. I’d just finished the web serial The Lair of the Clockwork Book, with twice-weekly illustrated posts that ran for more than a year at Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual. I needed something new to run over there. And I knew I wanted the new serial to be longer.
Longer, yes: but with fewer illustrations. The Lair of the Clockwork Book has over 120 illustrations, and they took far longer to create than the story had. It made for a punishing schedule. I was pretty sure I couldn’t do that again; and since those illustrations were in color the printed version of that book was too expensive to be practical.
So I needed a longer story with fewer illustrations, and the illustrations would have to be in greyscale. That was the shape of the thing I needed.
I liked the idea of a character who approached life as though he was in a pulp magazine story, even though his life wasn’t much like a story in a pulp magazine: that character became Dash Kent, an apartment manager who has a side job as a freelance adventurer.
In The Lair of the Clockwork Book I’d created an analog version of a social network. This time I liked the idea of analog tablets and mobile devices, but the iPads of the retro future had to operate with the equivalent of 1930’s technology. So their connections are all handled by switchboard operators. That means that every time you click on a link, an operator in an office has to switch a cable on her board from one socket to another. I mean, how else would it work?
Nola Gardner is one of those operators.
And, finally, they needed a problem.
My city of Retropolis may owe its existence to the fact that all science, in its world, is Mad with a capital Bonkers. Lighter than air metals, rockets, robots, and the iPad-like Info-Slates are the upside of Mad Science; the less fortunate effects are explosions, and trans-dimensional embarrassments, and a lot of things that are not exactly like squids. Mad Science is so common that it isn’t seen as unusual. It’s certainly not a Problem with a capital Armageddon.
But all these inventions have to be implemented by people who can turn them into practical realities. Those people, as always, are the engineers.
So what happens when an engineer goes mad? What would it take to drive an engineer mad, and what would he do once he got there?
When I figured that out, I had all I needed to begin.
I had an idea of how the story would start. I had an idea of how it would end. I knew several stops the story had to make along the way. Apart from that I simply created my characters and set them in motion. They did all the heavy lifting.
Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom has a big ensemble cast. Many of these characters don’t know one another, and they operate independently until things eventually coalesce: that’s when they understand that they were all in the same story all along. So turning them loose to find their way was kind of a crazy way to write the book, in retrospect. But they were better at it than I was, so we were all okay.
They did surprise me. I was pretty sure I knew where one character was going to end up, but she simply wouldn’t cooperate. Before I was done I had to use another character to serve the purpose I’d had in mind for her. But that was all right! One of my other characters had already invented the new one. He was waiting there on the bench when I needed him.
One of the many robots in the book wasn’t planned. He was created on the fly during a big battle that I hadn’t expected him to survive, but which turned him into something else. That something else is one of my favorite things in the book. Once it existed it was inevitable that it would run into some of the other characters — and when I realized who they were I knew that I had something worth having.
I guess this is what I’m trying to say about how I wrote Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom. The characters wrote it for me.
I’m just not the kind of writer who’ll make up a detailed outline of all the beats in the book, showing every scene and identifying the points it has to make. The risk in that kind of planning is that the book becomes a chess game. The pieces have no agency, no volition: they simply move from square to square, as needed, to do what the author wanted them to do. When you do that well, I guess it’s invisible; when you do it badly, it’s very obvious that you’ve done it badly. It’s something that I would not do well.
I mentioned above that I had some idea of where the story was headed, and I knew some of the stops it had to make along the way. So as I finished each chapter of the first draft I made notes about where (and when) I’d left the characters and what their short-term goals were. And then I set them loose again.
This was made a little easier by the timestamp on each section of the book. The timestamps are there for two specific reasons, though those reasons aren’t apparent until you’ve learned to ignore them. Which was sneaky, right? But, for me, the timestamps kept each character, or group of characters, in sync.
As a result the book is like one season of an ensemble television series that’s told in near real time. These characters are all pursuing their individual, synchronized goals and stories until — near the climax — all those stories intersect and come to their common conclusion.
It’s exactly the kind of book that you should probably outline to hell and gone before you start.
Fortunately, my characters did know what they were doing. I argued with them, sometimes; but I’m pretty sure they always won. I’m also sure that they were right. You just have to swallow your pride and take the long view when you’ve got good people working for you.
And so that’s what I did, and my characters did such a good job that long before the end I knew what I had wasn’t a web serial any more: it was an actual novel. But that was only one of the many happy surprises I found along the way.
BRADLEY W. SCHENCK is the owner and operator of the web site RETROPOLIS, which showcases his unique retro-futurist artwork. He has been a digital artist, art director, and video game developer. Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom is his debut novel. You can also follow him at Twitter and Facebook.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a hardcover copy of Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, as well as a tie-in mug! U.S.- and Canada-based mailing addresses only, please.