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Oops, I Accidentally wrote a Trilogy – Yoon Ha Lee on the Machineries of Empire

Revenant Gun, the third book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee is out next week (I CAN’T WAIT) and we invited the author to talk about writing the series.

Oops, I Accidentally wrote a Trilogy

NOTE: contains spoilers for Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem.

This is perhaps not the most politic thing to admit, but Machineries of Empire wasn’t originally going to be a trilogy at all.  When I started writing the novel that became Ninefox Gambit (originally titled Ninefox and Suicide Hawk, which a friend made me change because it sounded too much like two superheroes who were unusually bad at picking pseudonyms), I intended it to be a nice, self-contained standalone novel.  I knew that it was risky to write sequels because there was no guarantee anyone would be interested in book #1, let alone any subsequent volumes.

The original handwritten version of Ninefox, which doesn’t exist anymore thanks to the 2016 Louisiana floods, was different from the later drafts in a number of different ways.  For example, Hexarch Shuos Mikodez only existed in a couple of throwaway lines.  I figured I’d never see him again.  Undead tactician Jedao was an out-and-out sociopath, complete with brain-breakingly awful childhood flashback in which he vivisected one of the family’s pet geese.  (It did, however, make for an excellent family joke–we started having roast goose for Thanksgiving dinners, in Jedao-the-sociopath’s honor.  Except humanely killed, I hope.)  I experimented with sexual tension between Cheris and Jedao on the advice of one alpha reader but hated the results so much that I nixed it in revisions and explicitly rewrote Cheris as a lesbian.

But one of the most significant differences was the ending of Ninefox.  In that original draft, after the massacre at the end, a Nirai rescue ship shows up and picks up Cheris, Hexarch Nirai Kujen congratulates her on a job well done, and she rides off into the sunset.  For that matter, the original Kujen wasn’t the monster he became in revisions; he was a lonely old man terrified of death.  (It’s conservation of Hollywood-style sociopathy.  After I de-sociopathed Jedao, it all transferred over to Kujen.)


After the novel had cooled down a bit, I realized that I knew exactly what Cheris would do next, that it would require her to function as the next book’s antagonist, and that I knew exactly how this hypothetical sequel ended, down to the final line.

One thing to realize about publishing is that it’s a slow business.  Even if I wrote faster (which I don’t), querying agents takes time.  Revising a novel after you have an agent and she sends you comments takes time.  Waiting for publishers to respond to you after you’ve handed the agent that revised novel takes a lot of time.  It’s just the nature of the thing.

The silver lining about being an unpublished novelist was the freedom.  I could write whatever the hell I wanted while I was in limbo waiting to find out if anyone wanted Ninefox.  Obviously there would be marketability implications, but if I wanted to, I could write this sequel.  And I did want to.

The sequel, originally titled Scavenger General (I am afraid titles are not my strong suit), later Raven Stratagem, went by quickly.  It relied too much on events in Ninefox Gambit to stand alone, but I was pretty sure it would be the end of the sequence.  As it turned out, the joke was on me.  There were some plot strands that I couldn’t include in Raven for reasons of length.  I was going to include General Kel Inesser (mentioned in one line in Ninefox and another in Raven, but she finally shows up in Revenant Gun) and Colonel Kel Ragath, and ran out of space.  That wasn’t the only difference–in the original draft of Raven, Kujen died in exactly the place you would expect him to die if he hadn’t run off.

Except I had an idea for a third book, and I really, really wanted to write it.  I knew how it ended, down to the final line.  (See a trend?)  And it required Kujen to be alive as the big bad.  So I changed that to a dangling thread in Raven.

As it turned out, I got about halfway through the rough draft of that third book, Revenant Gun, when Solaris made an offer on Ninefox.  When they heard that I had a sequel and a half drafted and took a look at the synopses, they expanded that offer to the entire trilogy.  My gamble–and it was a gamble–had paid off.  There is an alternate universe out there in which, even if someone wanted Ninefox, they had no interest in the two sequels.

The short version is that I made things up as I went along and this trilogy just sort of happened.   I definitely do not recommend this as a working method for writing a trilogy or any kind of series.  Don’t be me!  I lucked out in that the fact that I had two and a half books drafted at the time Solaris made an offer meant that I could go back and revise things in the earlier books to set up things in the later books and smooth out continuity.  For example, originally Kujen couldn’t quite hop bodies at will.  But I discovered I needed to adjust his body-stealing abilities to set up some developments in Revenant Gun, so I went back and changed that in the relevant flashback in Ninefox.  In all honesty, planning ahead would have been more efficient, except I had no idea that I was going to write a trilogy in the first place.

You would think that I would learn from experience, but as I speak, I’m in the middle of a story for the hexarchate story collection in which Cheris and Jedao go on an adventure that is pretty much a direct sequel (epilogue?) to Revenant Gun.  I swear I can stop at any time…

Yoon Ha Lee is a writer and mathematician from Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and The Magazine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has published over forty short stories, and his critically acclaimed collection Conservation of Shadows was released in 2013. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

Revenant Gun is out on June 12.

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