When a high-stakes crisis changes their world, six California teens with unusual abilities are catapulted from zero to hero status in a new trilogy co-written by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti. Meshing superhero and crowd-sourced themes, Zeroes introduces protagonists whose powers become stronger in a crowd: one has a voice inside of him that will say anything others want to hear, another can see through anyone’s eyes but her own, and a third can focus a crowd’s energy on a single goal. Simon Pulse will publish the debut book, Zeroes, on September 29, with the second installment to follow in fall 2016 and the third a year after that.
The idea of collaborating on a series was hatched during a casual discussion between Westerfeld (author of the Uglies series and the Leviathan trilogy) and Biancotti (a fantasy and horror writer who has published two short story anthologies, A Book of Endings and Bad Power). “Deb and I got talking about friends of ours who are TV writers and work as a group in a room together, yelling at each other all day,” Westerfeld recalled. “As prose writers and novelists, we mostly work on own, and we began talking about how different it must be to activate that social part of your brain while involved in an artistic process.”
Drawn to the idea of mimicking that creative model, the two “co-opted” Lanagan, whose YA books include The Brides of Rollrock Island and Tender Morsels, whom they know through the Australian writing community (Biancotti and Lanagan are Australian, and Westerfeld, an American, lives part-time in Sydney). “The three of us started meeting at a pub every week, drinking beer and talking about this book we wanted to write together,” said Westerfeld.
Biancotti gave Westerfeld credit for formulating Zeroes’ premise. “Scott had the initial idea to do some kind of superpowers book,” she said. “Then he read my story collection, Bad Power, about people who have superpowers but who are, frankly, not superheroes. In fact, most of the characters in that book are kind of screwed up. Not necessarily because of their powers but because, well, people can be screw-ups sometimes.”
Lanagan was pleased – if initially taken aback – at the invitation to join the Zeroes team. “My first reaction was surprise that Deborah and Scott thought a writer of moody, slow-moving, literary pieces would be useful on this project,” she confided. “But I carefully didn’t say anything about that, in case they realized the mistake they’d made, because it sounded like a really fun idea! I thought crowd-based superpowers was a new and timely twist that had a lot of potential, and peculiarly appropriate if we were going to give the powers to teenagers, because teens learning to be social and socially responsible – and messing up their early attempts – offer many opportunities to entertain both writers and readers.”
Each author was responsible for creating detailed character studies for two of Zeroes’ six main protagonists – though they are keeping mum about who shaped whom. “We sit down and work out the plotline, dividing the action evenly between the six characters, and then we go off and write our characters’ chapters independently,” Lanagan explained. “Then there’s a lot of sending chapters back and forth for each others’ comments, and rewriting as they all get fitted together. Scott is our show runner and has final say and final pass, but Deborah and I also have strong opinions on things, and Scott’s a good listener.”
The collaborators learned as they went along, said Westerfeld, recalling that at one point, when they realized they needed a more complete outline for Zeroes, “we went off to spend some time in the Australian bush to create one.” This strategy was successful, added Biancotti, noting, “The lack of planning was killing our forward momentum. So the retreat – we now call them ‘plot camps’ – let us step back from the writing and look for another solution. We now tend to brainstorm beginnings and endings and story arcs, and then move into detailed planning. We can usually get a pretty clear idea of the overall book within a few days away.”
The Power of Collaboration
Though not skirting mention of the trials of co-authoring (“The main challenge was the expected one of not having as much control as when writing on my own – right from the first draft other people were sticking their beaks in and vetoing things, and at times whole chapters would get jettisoned,” Lanagan said), the authors felt that the advantages clearly trumped the drawbacks, and that they each brought a unique talent to the table.
According to Biancotti, Westerfeld’s experience as an accomplished novelist enabled him to “bring that overall story arc or narrative approach to bear, in order to keep the novel moving along the way it should. Margo has an eye for detail, and her influences are more literary, so she brings a very different perspective to a book about superheroes. And I’m drawn to contemporary, character-based stories with something weird or supernatural happening. And I love flawed heroes, so Zeroes is pretty much my dream project.”
Theirs is a well-calibrated collaborative balance, suggested Liesa Abrams, v-p and editorial director of Simon Pulse, who edits the trilogy and has worked with Westerfeld for many years. Her involvement in this project was “fated to be,” given her affinity for superheroes. “My husband and I had a Batman-themed wedding,” she explained, “and the first word uttered by our son, who’s now two, was ‘Batman!’ ”
Abrams was instantly impressed by the unique way the authors handled the superhero motif. “I haven’t seen powers like these before,” she observed. “The characters have double-edged abilities, playing off the metaphor of someone’s greatest wish and deepest fear. The story is both high-octane adventure and very character-driven, and that’s exactly what I respond to as a reader.”
The authors all found it satisfying that the trilogy’s message and creative medium are in sync. “The fact that the premise is all about a team achieving what one person couldn’t do alone made it an exact analogue of what we were doing in real life,” Lanagan reflected. “With the story being narrated in close third-person from six different points of view, we can rely on our different styles, and our three personalities, to provide variety among the characters.”
Biancotti agreed, noting, “The fact that our writing was social, and our characters have socially based powers, was what made the premise such a good fit for a collaboration. Also the cast size was great: being able to establish two characters each, and own their journeys, meant we all had an equal investment in the project.”
The collaboration continues when the three authors kick off a two-week U.S. tour on September 29 to promote Zeroes, which has an announced first printing of 250,000 copies. S&S’s promotional plans for the trilogy launch include a social media campaign, Entertainment Weekly advertising, book sampler distribution at major book and comics conventions, and retail floor displays.
“When you think about it, collaboration is the human superpower,” Westerfeld added. “We can’t actually fly, but when we have thousands of people building airports and designing airplanes and learning to be pilots, we can fly. With Zeroes, Deb and Margo and I are collaborating on a project that is essentially about the power of collaboration.”
Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti. Simon Pulse, $19.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4814-4336-4