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Voices in My Head: Part Three

Hello, all! This is my third and final essay tying in with the release of my new book, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The book has been released for about a week now, and I hope you’ve all had a chance to check it out. This story is something special to me, particularly the third part—which might be the most personal story I’ve ever written.

But how did it start? The Legion stories seem, at first glance, very self-referential. They are about a man who hallucinates a wide variety of characters—but unlike many protagonists of his ilk, Stephen knows that his hallucinations aren’t real, and doesn’t (for most of the stories) resist the fact that he is like this. Instead, he uses this ability to help him, acting like a one-man team of experts.

The parallels are obvious. Stephen is very much like me, in that he imagines a large cast of people who accompany him. It’s quite the metaphor for being a writer, though when I was working on the first story, I didn’t really see this connection. I just wanted to see if I could change something that is often portrayed in film as a huge liability into (instead) a huge advantage.

The original cast of hallucinations—specifically JC, Ivy, and Tobias—were based on actors. This is rare for me, as I don’t often “cast” my characters in stories. But to me, it felt like Stephen would have used people he’d seen in film as a jumping-off point to create these personas, much as many of my characters have their roots in the pop culture I consumed when young. Ivy, then, looks roughly like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tobias like Morgan Freeman, and J.C. like Adam Baldwin—with the name J.C. being a reference to the fact that he’s played multiple characters with those initials.

But, like any characters I create, these were just jumping-off points, used to spin me into unique characterizations. JC went into this fun mix of self-aware, playing up his quirks, while Ivy became a representation of the fight within Stephen between cynicism and sincerity.

The more I wrote, the more this became a metaphor for the complex relationship between a writer and the characters in their head. The voices that they know aren’t real—but still depend on convincing readers to buy as real people. The stories deal with mental illness, yes, but the further I wrote, the more Stephen became a stand-in for the way our perceptions—and our hopes—shape the world we perceive. And maybe for the crisis that can be caused when we realize there’s a misalignment between the two.

Going back to the points I made in the first essay, however, it isn’t that I was trying to express anything specific by writing these stories. And yet, by the end of the third one, I had indeed expressed something that was deeply personal—and real in ways that it is still strange to me that a piece of fiction can reach.

But that’s the point of stories, or at least one of them. A medium through which we can all connect in ways that we never could solely by explaining ourselves. Because art reaches inside us, and expresses aspects of ourselves that aren’t deliberate, there’s a truth and genuineness to it. A raw sincerity that isn’t always about which part of the three-act structure you’re crossing right now, or which part of a character arc this event is fulfilling. Those are important to give us a framework. But it is not itself the art.

The structure is the skeleton, but the art is the eyes. The part you can see into and feel it looking back at you. The part that somehow—despite my best attempts to quantify it—is a soul that lives on its own, and defies explanation.


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Voices in My Head: Part Two

Hey, all! This is the second part of a three-part series of essays related to the release of my book, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. Find Part One posted here. And just in case you haven’t seen anything about it yet, the book is out right now in fine stores all across the world! The release party is tomorrow, and here are the details:

Book Release Party
Date: Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Time: 7:00 p.m., Doors open at 6:00 p.m.
Location: Room 3222/322
Parking: Visitor and “A” parking (after 4:00 p.m.)

Here’s the cover of the US/Canada edition:

Thee UK/Ireland/Australia/New Zealand cover is below. You can also order the UK standalone edition of Legion: Lies of the Beholder.

And if you purchased the other two in the limited binding from Subterranean Press, and you want a matching one, here’s their cover: (Note, this is only the third story, and only comes as a special edition leatherbound, so it’s a little pricey.)

In the last post, I talked a little about how characters come into existence, walking the line between an instinctive process and an intentional one.

Working this way can create some issues. The first is that sometimes when I talk about my process, this part of it ends up getting presented as a lot more… deliberate than it really is. I spend a lot of time trying to help new writers, and I worry that in presenting all of these outlines, exercises, and techniques, we miss emphasizing just how little we really understand about the process.

In some ways, writing a story is like hitting a baseball. You can talk all you want about the physics involved in how a baseball is pitched, then hit with the bat. But the truth is, neither pitcher nor batter are thinking about any of this in the moment.

This makes the process feel overwhelming to some new writers, who think they need to have all of this in hand before they can write a story. Truth is, I’m generally explaining things I did by instinct early in my career, then figured out ways to talk about as I proceeded to study what I’d already done.

You don’t need to feel some mystical connection to characters to start writing—and if you focus too much on the idea that your characters should “feel” right and “do what they want,” you can end up frustrated, as you don’t have the practice writing yet to get them to do what needs to be done to actually create an interesting story.

Another problem with the voices in my head is the worry that I’ll repeat myself. Working by instinct, as so many authors (including outliners like me) do, can lead to repetition. Something can “feel” right because you’ve seen that thing done so many times, you think it is the “right” way—even when it makes for a worse story.

This sort of writing, even when you’re doing something interesting and new to you, can get repetitive as you only write in one way or style. In fact, I see a lot of writers talking about the “right” way to do something, as if it’s a hard and fast rule—but it’s not really that, it’s simply the way they’ve trained their instincts to respond. Something that goes against this feels off to them, but only because of a kind of tunnel vision.

You can also start to regurgitate stereotypes and other weak or harmful tropes because they’re part of your historical experience with genre—and you take them for granted. I did this in the original Mistborn novels, where I spent a lot of time working on Vin as a character, wanting an interesting and dynamic female lead for the stories. But then I wrote the rest of the team as men—not because I consciously decided it, but because stories like Ocean’s Eleven, The Sting, and Sneakers (which were part of my inspiration) contained primarily male casts.

It isn’t that you can’t make a story that does this, or couldn’t have reasons for writing a primarily male cast in a story. But I didn’t have any of those reasons in mind; I did it because I was mimicking, without conscious thought, things I’d seen before. It felt “right” to me, but during examination later, I felt the story would have been stronger if I hadn’t just run with the default that way.

Overall, I think that repeating myself is my biggest worry as a writer. Specifically, I worry that I’ll end up writing the same characters over and over, or look at themes the same way time and time again, without even realizing that I’m doing it. That’s one of the reasons I force myself to approach stories like the Legion ones—where I have to get out of my comfort zone, write in a different kind of setting with different kinds of storytelling expectations, and see where that takes me.

And so, the third part of this series will look at the Legion stories specifically, and where the voices in my head came from in that regard.

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Voices in My Head: Part One

Hello, all! My new book is coming out next week! Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds is a compilation of three stories that tie together to form a single narrative. Two of the stories (Legion and Legion: Skin Deep) were available previously, but the third (Lies of the Beholder) is exclusive to this edition.

I’d really appreciate it if you would have a look at it, and maybe give it a preorder if it looks interesting. It’s got a patented Brandon Magic System™, only this time applied to a modern-day setting—and in specific, one person’s very unusual way of seeing the world.

In conjunction with the book’s release, I thought I’d delve into some of the themes I find interesting (both in writing, and in the way I see the world) that made me write the series in the first place. So I present to you a three-part series of blog posts centered around this idea. I’m calling it Voices in My Head.

One of the most common questions I get, as a writer, is some variation on, “Do you ever hear voices, or feel like your characters are real?” People ask it timidly, as they don’t want to be offensive, but there seems to be genuine curiosity about the way a writer’s brain works. (Other variations on this theme are questions such as, “What are your dreams like?” or “Do you ever get so wrapped up in your worlds that you have trouble coming back to our world?”)

They’re legitimate questions, though I’m not convinced that a writer’s brain works in any consistently different way from someone else’s brain. I think you’ll find the same amount of variation in the way writers work as you’ll find in any profession. There are as many ways to approach stories as there are people writing stories.

That said, I have talked to a lot of writers who imply a certain autonomy to their characters. “I had to write their story,” one might say. “They wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.” Or some version of, “I was writing one story, but the characters just didn’t want to go that way, and so took off in another direction.”

To me, these are ways of trying to voice the fact that the way our minds work—and the way we construct art—is in some cases a mystery even to those involved. Human beings have this fascinating mix of instinct and intent, where we train ourselves to do complex tasks quickly through repetition. In this way, writing a book is somewhat similar to driving home from work—you can consciously think about it, and make each decision along the way. Or, more often, you just let your body do the work, interpreting things your brain says should happen without you thinking about it directly.

I spend a lot of time teaching how to write and talking about writing, but I don’t consciously use a lot of the techniques I talk about. I’ve used them so much that I just move forward, without formally saying something like, “Now I’m making sure my chapter ties together the sub-themes it introduced at the beginning.” The truly conscious technique comes during troubleshooting, when a story isn’t coming together for me—and so I have to step back, take apart what I’ve been doing, and find the broken bits.

So again, a mix of intent and instinct is where books come from for me. I don’t generally feel that the characters “want” to do things—but I still write them by gut feeling most of the way, and only look at breaking down their motivations specifically when I’m either working on the outline or trying to fix something in revisions.

On one hand, I know exactly who the character is and what they would do in a situation. So it does feel a little mystical sometimes, and you can have eureka moments during writing where you finally find a method to express this character that will convey the right idea to the reader. In that way, there’s almost this Platonic version of the character that you’re chasing—and trying to explore, figure out, and commit to paper.

On the other hand, it’s likely that these characters feel right to me not because of any mystical connection to the abstract. It’s because I’m unconsciously drawing from tropes, characterizations, and people I’ve known before—and I am putting them together on the page to form something that will feel right because of the backgrounds I’m drawing upon.

It’s an exhilarating process for me, but also can lead to troubles. Which I’ll talk about in Part Two.

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Signed and numbered copies of Legion for release party

Adam here. We are only a few short weeks away from the release of Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds which includes the finale of the Legion saga, Legion: Lies of the beholder.

The Legion Release Party will take place at Brigham Young University on Wednesday, September 19th at 7:00 p.m. As a reminder, pre-orders for signed/numbered editions go on sale tonight (9/4) at 7:00 p.m. MDT. (The link will be dead until 7:00 p.m.)

For those attending the event, please select “In-Store Pick-up” in order to be included in the digital line and receive a book number. Book number and place in line is based on the sequence in which orders are received through the website.

A few things to keep in mind.

  • Orders not picked up by 9:30 p.m.(9/19) will forfeit their preassigned numbers
  • Orders that choose “In-Store Pick-Up” that are not picked up at the event will be available at the Guest Serviced Desk on the upper level of the BYU Store on Friday, September 21st.
  • Those who purchase the book will be given a wristband for reserved seating at the event. 1 book=1 wristband. Extra wristbands will be on a first come, first served basis. Wristband pick-up begins at 5:00 p.m. outside Room 3224 WSC.
  • Those who purchased a signed/numbered book from the BYU Store will be given priority in line for personalization. Those who purchase their book(s) elsewhere will need to wait to have their book personalized.
  • Those who have their book shipped will receive the numbers not claimed at the party and will begin the shipping process Thursday, September 21st.

The pre-order page will be active until 12:01 a.m. MDT on September, 17th at which point you will no longer be able to reserve a signed/numbered copy for the release party.

Book Release Party
Date: Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
Time: 7:00 p.m., Doors open at 6:00 p.m.
Location: Room 3222/3224

Parking: Visitor and “A” parking (after 4:00 p.m.)
See the image below.

Books will be distributed following Brandon’s presentation in numerical order (approximately 8:00 p.m.) at which point the personalizations will begin.

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The Many Aspects of the Legion Book Covers

The conclusion to Brandon’s Legion series is almost here! In a few short weeks you’ll get to read the finale to Stephen Leeds’s story, complete with J.C.’s lovable antics, Tobias’s calming Wikipedia-like knowledge, and Ivy’s psychological profiling.

The end (of a series) is coming! And I’m feeling nostalgic. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and discuss the various covers the books have had over the years. There have been almost as many covers as Stephen has aspects!

Back in 2012, Legion was about to be released for the first time through Subterranean Press, and Jon Foster painted a fantastic illustration for it.

About the same time, Peter and Brandon contacted me about doing a cover for the ebook. Since the rights to the amazing Jon Foster cover were connected to Subterranean Press’s edition of the book, we had the opportunity to do our own thing for the Dragonsteel ebook edition. Luckily, Brandon already had a clear idea of what he was looking for, and pointed me to the stylized black, white, and red movie poster for Ocean’s 11.

I got to work thumbnailing some ideas. The first rough image I sent to him was this beauty, made from stock photos I’d found.

Yeah, it wasn’t working. So later that same day, I was wracking my brain for other ideas.

At the time, I was working as an animator in video games. I used a piece of plexiglass over my screen that I would draw on with dry-erase markers to help me keep track of poses and the timing of the characters I was animating. Occasionally, I would doodle on it too, especially when inspiration struck and I couldn’t get to pencil and paper fast enough. But honestly, this concept probably came from one that Peter had worked up as a potential idea [Peter’s note: this was tongue-in-cheeck and inspired by some minimalist book cover redesigns going around Twitter at the time]:

From thence came this image:

Brandon liked it. I got the thumbs up and went to work fleshing it out into a real cover. Taking cues from the Ocean’s 11 poster, I scheduled a photoshoot for after work at the video game company and gathered together a bunch of my coworkers (and my wife Kara) and took pictures of them. A bit of Photoshop magic later, and we had this:

(Apologies to Kara and my old co-workers for posting this. FYI, I’m the one on the right, in the hoodie.)

I knew this wasn’t quite working, but I sent it anyway. Brandon confirmed. The style was right, but this looked more like a bunch of people rising up to take back control of the government than a story about a man with multiple aspects. But I had a backup plan. Stock photos.

I sought out images that represented several of the different characters. And it worked!

Though I did try a version with anime-haired Stephen Leeds at one point.

On a related note, I’ve always pictured Stephen as being played by the lead singer of Maroon 5, Adam Levine. (At least until I saw Miranda Meeks’s take on Stephen. More on that later.)

Thinking about each of the characters is what really filled this out. Though you can still see some of the silhouettes of my former coworkers in the crowd of people behind Stephen, the characters at the forefront are still very recognizable. There’s our Adam Levine-like Stephen out front flanked by J.C. and some other dude in a scarf, behind them there’s Kalyani, Ivy, and Tobias. Anyway, I think it worked. Though Amazon’s image compression at the time didn’t particularly like the color of red I chose, so we wound up having to change the title color to blue on that version.

A few years later I started working for Brandon full time, and Legion: Skin Deep had been released with another fantastic Jon Foster cover.

The crew at Dragonsteel began talking about what to put on the ebook cover for Skin Deep. Brandon wanted us to explore the mystery/thriller angle of things and for us to rebrand the series look and feel. So I revisited the first Legion and tried to come up with a new look. I went to the bookstore and took dozens of pictures of covers for thriller novels. What were publishers doing with Michael Crichton’s book covers these days? Patricia Cornwell, Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Dean Koontz, Catherine Coulter. I have dozens of pictures of these books. Then I analyzed them, pored over hundreds of images of stock photography, and tried to come up with something in the same vein.

I actually proposed these for the covers:

This time around I focused on the characters again—using the same stock photos as before—but this time, Stephen casts three shadows that look like the aspects.

You’ll notice that one of the comps still has the watermark from the stock photo place. That’s because we didn’t wind up going in that direction. In fact, we took my concept for Legion 1 and gave it to Legion 2. We didn’t go back and rebrand the first ebook at that time. So we wound up with this version for Skin Deep.

That worked for about a year. Around 2015, the physical copies of the books were getting harder to find, so we decided to print our own Dragonsteel hardcover editions of the books to keep them available. Brandon wanted me to try again to rebrand the books in the mystery/thriller genre. So back I went to looking for reference, this time paying close attention to mystery or thriller debuts that were doing well. I looked at a bunch of debut covers, including those from the Cormoran Strike books, written by J.K. Rowling under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. Maybe you’ll see the influence those covers had on what I proposed:

We settled on a direction and wound up with these, which we also eventually carried over into the ebooks:

(Which are incidentally on sale in the store here and here.)

We printed the dust jackets on this gorgeous pearlescent stock. In person, I find them still quite striking. At the time, I had it in my head that maybe we would use the image from concept #3 above—with the snowy-looking village/warehouse—were we to need a third cover.

But things changed again when Tor asked to print an omnibus of the Legion books when Brandon wrote Lies of the Beholder. Of course, Jon Foster worked his usual magic for the Subterranean Press version, presenting what I think is the best of his three already-magnificent illustrations for the series.

We also got the usual awesomeness from the UK editions of the books, presented here all together for your enjoyment.

For the Tor omnibus cover, we pulled back from the thriller angle and asked instead for a more illustrated cover. They hired the amazing Miranda Meeks, and we couldn’t be happier. A bit of a note on this one. We tried a couple of times on previous iterations of the early covers to move in the shattered glass direction. I just could not pull it off. Where I failed, Miranda took the challenge head-on and succeeded. I love this cover illustration. In my head, Adam Levine has been recast by this new depiction of Stephen Leeds.

What’s more, Tor opted to print the cover on a type of foil, which makes it all the more silvery and shiny. You’re going to have to check this book out in person when it comes out. Not only is the cover gorgeous, the conclusion to the series is extremely satisfying. And soon you won’t have to track down different volumes to enjoy the whole story. I hope you’ll take a look at the book when it comes to bookstores on September 18th. I know where I’ll be.

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