Writing

Writing Bingeable Books

What makes a TV show “bingeable”? What makes you click ‘next episode’ on your streaming service or faithfully plop on the couch when your favorite shSecrets of Sulphur Springs Splash Pageow comes? It’s something that I think about when I watch TV, and I watch a lot of TV. One show that I recently binged was The Secrets of Sulphur Springs on Disney+. In it, a 12 year old boy and his family move into a run-down and supposedly haunted hotel. As strange events occur, they boy and his best friend try to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of the young girl who they believe is haunting them. It’s the kind of spooky, mysterious, and slightly science-fiction story that is guaranteed to pique my interest.

But after binging all 11 episodes of the first season, I started to realize what kept pulling me in hour after hour. Each episode is a puzzle onto itself, and its resolution would provide small clues to the overarching mystery of the series. These clues were tiny, just enough to get me to continue watching until the next episode.

It made me start looking at my own stories, and how I plot them. How can we, as writers, create bingeable books? I think that it’s by giving our characters a goal and making sure that the resolution of that goal contributes to the larger story just enough to make the reader want to turn the page and see what happens next.

Our namesake, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a great example of this, and more mysteries can be found on the following booklists:

From the Mixed Up Files Cover

Mysteries in Bookstores and Libraries, at Book Fairs and Festivals, in Literary Landmarks, and Other Literary Places

Middle-Grade Mysteries, Spy, & Sci-fi stories featuring South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Sheela Chari

Diversity in MG lit #19 August 2020 Mysteries

But a book doesn’t need to be a mystery to be “bingeable”. What are some MG books that you couldn’t put down?

Magic Systems for Non-Magicians

I’ve been thinking about magic systems lately. To be more accurate, author Brandon Sanderson has spent a lot of time thinking about magic systems and lately, I’ve been thinking about how to apply his theories to other types of writing.

Sanderson’s Laws are popular guides to writing in the fantasy genre. Sanderson distinguishes between hard magic systems and soft magic systems, with most applications of fictional magic falling somewhere in between. On the harder side of the spectrum, magic has strict rules that can’t be broken. On the softer side, anything goes and new rules seem to be created on the fly.

Sanderson’s Laws aren’t about those laws of magic, but offer guidance to authors on how to incorporate systems of magic into their storytelling.

Among the examples Sanderson uses to apply his rules are the fantasy systems in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and…superheroes. In fact, he writes an extensive analysis of the laws of a universe that would allow Superman to exist.

We don’t often think about superhero worlds as fantasy, as they are usually grounded in our own reality, but they offer settings in which potions, spells, and monsters are replaced by mutation, lab accidents, and aliens. These worlds offer impossible events that operate within a system that can be described in terms of magic.

Currently, I’m working on a story inspired by Greek mythology and set in a Bronze Age society where the gods of Olympus are active and real. In this world, the magic system is made of gods. It operates just like any other fantasy work except that the magic system is sentient and made up of interlocking parts with clashing personalities beyond human control.

In Greek mythology, the rules of magic are defined by the personalities of the gods. The more strictly delineated the gods are, and the less likely the gods are to deviate from their standard behaviors, the more the system moves toward the harder side of Sanderson’s soft-magic to hard-magic spectrum.

The body of Greek mythology as a whole is a fairly soft magic system. The gods are fickle, unpredictable, inconsistent over multiple works, and are often constrained by the Fates. In such a system, one god or another can show up at any time to resolve any conflict, becoming a literal deus ex machina. For example, Athena showing up at the end of Homer’s Odyssey to end the cycle of vendetta between Odysseus and the families of all the people he killed.

The challenge within a specific work of mythic fantasy is to harden the magic system by providing more specific motivations and realms for each god, and better defining the extent to which the gods are willing or able to intervene in mortal affairs. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus doesn’t just refrain from saving the life of Sarpedon. He defines a rule for all of the other gods to follow regarding the deaths of their own favored mortals.

I’m using this in my story by giving gods predictable personalities and sets of rules in which they operate. This makes their interventions in the mortal world seem more natural to the story, reducing the problem of deus ex machina plotting.

If Sanderson’s Laws of magic can by applies to superheroes and mythology, where else might they be applied outside the traditional realms of fantasy?

The speculative technology in a work of science fiction could be viewed, not just as an extension of current technology, but as a system in itself with elements that operate by a set of predictable laws. That way, a new program, process, or device will have a more natural introduction and will more naturally fit into the setting.

The landscape in a speculative political thriller can be viewed as a system under which the outcomes can be explained.

Or in a spy thriller, where the hero is reliant upon a set of gadgets to survive. As much as I enjoy the James Bond franchise, it always annoyed me that Q would gear Bond up before every mission with exactly the gadgets he would need in specific situations that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen by the scope of the assignment. By thinking of spy gadgets generally as a kind of magic system, they could be employed more realistically.

Spy writers, mythologists, and the writers of political thrillers may not dip into the critical analysis of works in the fantasy genre, but they should. This is just one example of how authors who write in one genre can benefit by examining the rules that seem, on the surface, to apply only to a different genre. No matter the genre, we’re all just telling stories.

Author Spotlight: Kwame Mbalia & Prince Joel Makonnen + a book GIVEAWAY & exclusive TRAILER REVEAL!

Kwame Mbalia (left), the New York Times bestselling author of the Tristan Strong books (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky; Tristan Strong Destroys the World; and the upcoming Tristan Strong Keeps Punching), has teamed up with Prince Joel Makonnen (right), the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the last Ethiopian emperor, to write Last Gate of the Emperor.

The novel, an Afrofuturist adventure novel inspired by the legends and culture of real-life Ethiopia, was lauded by Kirkus as an “enthralling tale of resilience, family, and bravery that will entertain young sci-fi lovers.” It is available now from Scholastic.

Summary of Last Gate of the Emperor

Yared Heywat lives an isolated life in Addis Prime—a hardscrabble space colony with rundown tech, lots of rules, and not much to do. His worrywart Uncle Moti and bionic lioness Besa are his only family… and his only friends.

Often in trouble for his thrill-seeking antics and smart mouth, those same qualities make Yared a star player of the underground augmented reality game The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. But when a change in the game rules prompts Yared to log in with his real name, it triggers an attack that rocks the city. In the chaos, Uncle Moti disappears.

Suddenly, all the stories Yared’s uncle told him as a young boy are coming to life, of kingdoms in the sky and city-razing monsters. And somehow Yared is at the center of them.

Together with Besa and the Ibis—a game rival turned reluctant ally—Yared must search for his uncle… and answers to his place in a forgotten, galaxy-spanning war.

Now, CLICK HERE for an exclusive SNEAK PEEK at the book trailer!

Interview with Kwame Mbalia & Prince Joel

MR: Thank you for joining us on the Mixed-Up Files blog, Kwame and Prince Joel. Before we dive in, I’d love to know the origin story behind your collaboration. How did a best-selling children’s author/self-described lover of Dad jokes and Cheezits team up with the great-grandson of Haile Selassie I, the 225th emperor of Ethiopia? 

KM: Through a mutual friend! And with both of us sharing a passion for telling stories about the African diaspora, it was easy to forge a connection through the power of those stories.

The Secret of Worldbuilding

MR: Last Gate of the Emperor is a fantastical tale that incorporates real-life Ethiopian places, culture, history, and food. For instance, the Gebeya (marketplace) is airborne with drones that buzz overhead and food vendors sell traditional Ethiopian fare, such as shiro (ground-chickpea stew) and sambusas (a savory pastry filled with ground beef or lentils). What’s the secret to building a world like the one described in your book? 

KM: Worldbuilding is like building a car. All cars have a frame to put the body of the car on. But the type of frame can be changed, adapted, painted, dressed up all snazzy, etc. Start from your frame, which for me is the community in my world. Where are my characters eating? Where are they attending school? Where are they hanging out…?

In answering these questions like how do characters get around (the engine/wheels) or what goods/industries are there (can’t have leather seats without cows) you’ll find more questions that will help to build out that world.

Creating a Rich and Textured World

MR: A question for Kwame: Like Last Gate of the Emperor, your Tristan Strong novels (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Tristan Strong Destroys the World) weave (West) African—and African-American—folklore into the narrative, creating a rich and textured world. What is it about African and African-American folklore that inspires you as a writer? Also, what kind of research did you do for Last Gate of the Emperor?

KM: In answer to the first question, it’s my culture. For research, there are always books and videos, but I find that nothing is better than actually talking with the people. And having someone like Joel on my team is like having the ultimate video game cheat code (not that Yared would cheat, he’s already the best).

Your Story Is Your Power!

MR: Prince Joel, you spent your childhood in exile, in Europe, and knew little about your royal past. You only learned later that you were a descendant of the Solomonic Dynasty, the oldest monarchy in the world, which ruled Ethiopia for over 3,000 years and traces its lineage back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. How did this discovery affect you personally? Did it give you a greater desire to delve into Ethiopian culture, history, and folklore, as demonstrated in Last Gate of the Emperor?

PJM: It absolutely fascinated me and motivated me to seek out even more information about my home country and my family’s history. A main theme in Last Gate of the Emperor is understanding the true meaning of family bond, and showing that it is everlasting, even if you are physically separated from your family and home because of unforeseen circumstances.

In Last Gate, similar to my experience, our main protagonist Yared is on an adventure, unbeknownst to him, which will take him on a journey of self-discovery. My hope is that young readers will be inspired by Yared and motivated to go on their own journey, seek their true core, and embrace it. Your story is your power! It will always be with you and you can use it to fulfill your dreams and do good in the world.

Bookish Inspiration

MR: Now, a question for both of you: What sorts of books did you enjoy as kids? How did these books influence you—as readers, and as novelists?

KM: I read anything and everything. Slowly I began to gravitate to science fiction and fantasy when I looked for other worlds to explore and escape to, while contemporary books by African American authors gave me an anchor to which I could return. Books like the Lord of the Rings and Slam! coalesced in my mind to give me the worldbuilding and the vernacular to create my own worlds.

PJM: As a kid, I enjoyed novels and fables such as The Little Prince, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the Fables of LaFontaine. As a reader, these books gave me a lot of inspiration, exposed me different truths about life at an early age and allowed me to expand my understanding of the world. I learned that there is so much more to life than what is right in front of you, and you can dream up your own world.

Kwame Mbalia’s Writing Process

MR: Kwame, can you tell our Mixed-Up readers a bit about your writing routine? 

KM: Personally, I write when I’m allowed to. Quarantining during a pandemic with kids means writing sometimes falls to seventh on the list of priorities. So a paragraph here, a few sentences there, a panicked writing sprint sprinkled in for good measure, and boom, instant book. Okay, maybe not instantly, but you know what I mean.

A Surprise for Prince Joel

MR: Prince Joel, what surprised you most during the writing, research, and worldbuilding of this novel? 

PJM: Besa!!! She is Yared’s bionic lioness, and she is everything! There are many other things about Addis Prime that are so cool, including “nefasis,” a special backpack outfitted with thrusters, skysails and, of course, the augmented reality game HKO!

Sequel? A movie…? Enquiring MUF Readers Want to Know

MR: Will there be a sequel to Last Gate of the Emperor? I’m dying to know what happens to Yared in the future.  Also, is there a movie deal in the works? This book screams to be made into a film.

KM: We’re working on the sequel! And maybe if everyone screams loud enough at the same time a movie producer will perk up.

And finally, a lightning round!

Preferred writing snack?

KM: Cheezits

PJM: Kinder Bueno, or Reese’s cups

Coffee or tea?

KM: Coffee with Cheezits

PJM: Buna! (Coffee)

 Cat, dog or bionic lioness? (Okay, that’s a trick question…)

 KM: How dare you! (Don’t listen, Besa.)

PJM: Bionic lioness! (Did I mention Besa?)

Favorite song?

KM: Star Wars Rogue One YouTube playlist

PJM: Right now, it’s “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

KM: Robot apocalypse is more likely

PJM: Yea – I’m ready, zombies, let’s go!

Superpower?

KM: Perfect single swipe peanut butter spread

PJM: Ability to sleep while appearing awake and remaining functional

Favorite place on earth?

KM: Next to my wife

PJM: Paris, France. Specifically, the Le George restaurant at the Four Seasons George V hotel on the Champs-Elysées, eating moules marinieres et frites with some Orangina

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they?

KM: A pen, a notebook, and a smartphone with suspiciously strong signal strength

PJM: A music player with an infinity battery, a machete, and my gold Ethiopian cross necklace

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Kwame and Prince Joel—and congratulations on the publication of Last Gate of the Emperor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know Mixed-Up Files readers will too!

About the Authors

Kwame Mbalia is a husband, father, writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a former pharmaceutical metrologist in that order. His debut middle-grade novel, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky was awarded a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and it—along with the sequels Tristan Strong Destroys the World and Tristan Strong Keeps Punching (out October 5)—is published by Rick Riordan Presents/Disney-Hyperion. A Howard University graduate and a Midwesterner now in North Carolina, he survives on Dad jokes and Cheezits. Learn more about Kwame on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Prince Joel Makonnen is the great-grandson of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He is an attorney and the co-founder of Old World/New World, a media and entertainment company focused on telling powerful African stories that inspire global audiences through film, TV and books. He lives with his wife, Ariana, in Los Angeles.

A GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a copy of LAST GATE OF THE EMPEROR, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win!