Another successful contest between Inkshares, Nerdist, and Geek & Sundry has ended. The Geek & Sundry Hard Science Contest has revealed three new stories for readers to enjoy from three very talented writers. A wonderful occurrence which seems to echo from contest to contest is the fact that the winner with the most pre-orders always seems to be a new writer publishing his or her debut novel. This was no different with the most recent contest: new writer Tal M. Klein won the Geek & Sundry Hard Science Contest at the top of the leaderboard with his debut novel The Punch Escrow.
Though The Punch Escrow is his debut novel, this experience is not the first time Klein has dealt with publishing or, more specifically, crowdfunded publishing. He is the father of two young daughters, aged six and three, and his six-year-old is already a published author with her children’s story I’m a Bunch of Dinosaurs. His daughter’s story was Klein’s first introduction to crowdfunding through Kickstarter. “It was very cool and very successful, but also something I would never ever do again because publishing books on Kickstarter is probably the hardest thing in the universe,” Klein said. “Not only do you have to do all of the hard work of actually getting Kickstarter up and running and getting enough orders, but you also own the entire back end of the supply chain management. It’s an absolute nightmare. I swore to myself I would never do it again.”
Though he swore against crowdfunded publishing, little did Klein know that he would be publishing his first book through this same format. A few years after funding his daughter’s book, Peter Birdsall, a friend of Klein’s, spoke to him about a book he had recently published on Inkshares. Klein had told Birdsall how crazy he was for crowdfunding and told him his trials with Kickstarter, but Birdsall assured Klein that Inkshares solved all of the problems that had arisen with Kickstarter. When Birdsall told Klein of Inkshares, Klein had been currently working on The Punch Escrow at the time. Klein did not plan on funding his story on Inkshares, but kept the online publisher in the back of his mind.
“More recently, when I was finishing my book, I actually had a book deal offered to me by a major publisher and I was about to take it and that’s when the Geek & Sundry contest kicked off. So I had to do some really quick calculations,” Klein said. “What’s funny about the whole thing is, Geek & Sundry and Nerdist and all of those guys are exactly the audience that an author like me tries to capture. If I were to publish with another major publisher, they would probably spend a huge amount of marketing dollars trying to [reach] that community. When I told my agent about it, he flipped out and [told me I was crazy]. [He said,] ‘You’ve got a perfectly good deal from a publisher. You’ve already beaten the 99.99 percent of the people who are trying to get published and now you’re going to drop that and do some crowdfunding project?’ And I said, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.’”
Every story has an origination and the idea for Klein’s story came from a wonderfully mind-boggling, as well as literal, water cooler conversation. It was an idea sparked by a conversation one of his co-workers sparked up out of the blue. “It was a very non-sequitur conversation. I think we were talking about when we were going to ship some future product,” Klein said. “I remember he was filling up his water and he stopped filling it, looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, teleportation is bulls**t.’ Out of nowhere!” His co-worker explained his random thoughts further, telling Klein how in the Star Trek universe, every time Scotty teleported Captain Kirk, Scotty was killing him and then replicating him somewhere else. His co-worker was so passionate about the subject that Klein took this passion as a sort of challenge. He began to question: Could he make Star Trek happen? Could the happenings within the Star Trek universe be plausible?
“You never know where good ideas come from. I never would have imagined that this is the book that I would write. I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I never imagined that the book I would write would be a hard science fiction book. I always imagined I would write a mystery novel or something like that. Somehow, this is what came out of me,” Klein said. “When you think about teleportation ten years ago, a scientist would have said that it was impossible. More recently, we’ve actually successfully teleported subatomic particles. So, now, the new theory is, it’s possible to teleport things, but only very small things. I think, obviously, we have to accept it. Almost everything we believe is impossible may not be impossible.”
Klein said that he had fun writing and making the impossible possible, but with the most recent contest revolving around believable science fiction, there was much research involved. In total, Klein spent four years researching everything he could for his story and admitted that the research was interesting, but also very time consuming. “I do write a lot for work because I’m in marketing, but I’ve never written a book before,” Klein said. “So what I found was that the book, as it was in the first manuscript, almost reads like a textbook, like a history book. It loses a lot of action and momentum and mystery of the stuff that is exposed. I hired Robert Kroese [to edit my book]. He’s an accomplished science fiction writer in his own right [and] a really cool guy. I told him, ‘I need someone who understands both physics, science and dark humor to read through this book because I want to see what’s missing,’ and he really did a phenomenal developmental edit. I mean, he beat the crap out of me, but it was a very thorough . I’m rewriting the book now from that developmental edit because it is reading a million times better.”
While writing his first draft, Klein mentioned that one of the biggest challenges he had to face was writing the science behind his story in a way that was believable to all kinds of readers. “The biggest challenge in working for marketing in technical companies is that you’re dealing with very complex technology and then you have to distill its value proposition to someone who may not be technical,” Klein said. One such example Klein always gives people is the wheel. He said if an engineer where asked to explain the wheel, they would talk about its physical appearance: its shape, what it was made of, what it had on it, etc. They will not, however, tell people how the wheel is useful. On the other hand, if someone in marketing were asked to explain the wheel, they would talk about what one could do with it, where one could travel with it, etc. The marketing person understands how the wheel works in order to possibly sell it to the audience. “My old CEO used to call me a digital-to-analog converter: you take these very big, hard to understand technical concepts and find metaphors that help the buyer to understand them and understand the value proposition and, ultimately, hopefully, want to buy them,” Klein said. “So I took that approach in the book. [I thought], ‘If I’m going to have mosquitoes that breathe carbon gases and excrete water, then how would the people who created those mosquitoes [talk about them] to society?’”
When it came to marketing to his audience, Klein dedicated much of his marketing skills towards selling the idea of teleportation to his audience. Looking back over the years, it was difficult marketing new forms of transportation to society: the automobile, the train, the airplane. Many people believed these then new modes of transport to be dangerous and it was difficult to convince them that these new forms of transportation were not as dangerous as one thought. “There is a lot of selling that has to be done when you’re introducing new transportation technology to the masses, especially ones that are so disruptive. The first one is really getting around how would you market something like teleportation? And I spent a lot of time thinking about that in the book,” Klein said.
What better way to market to the audience (both fictional and real) than through the main protagonist. Granted, Klein’s protagonist, Joel Byram, is far from being the common heroic story figure; however, he has a certain quirkiness that many readers will instantly grow attached to. Joel closely resembles the well-known anti-hero, Deadpool: humorous, lazy, inappropriate in a likeable way, tells life as it is with no sugarcoating, breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader, and yet, even when problems arise, he will also still try to help. “I want the protagonist to speak directly to the reader because the reader is his audience and, as far as he’s concerned, there’s only one reader. He’s not writing a legacy, he’s writing a letter. In many ways, the protagonist [Joel] is mostly writing the book to get things off of his chest. It’s almost like a journal and the only reason he is even allowing somebody else to read it is that he’s feeling guilty that if he doesn’t, at least, pass on the information, that he will have done a disservice to humanity,” Klein said.
“My protagonist is going to curse, he’s going to be a jacka**, he’s going to make stupid jokes that aren’t funny, and that’s okay. He’s entitled to do that because it is his world,” Klein said. “I think, up until now, I don’t know if I would have been comfortable [writing] a science fiction book in that kind of voice. There are other people like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett who have written fantasy and science fiction with a humor element to them, but they weren’t edgy. I really wanted to create a product of his generation. He’s a slacker, really, and he figures out he’s really good at this one thing. If you have a person whose livelihood is to be a smarta**, he’s probably going to be a smarta**. That’s his job.”
With winning the Geek & Sundry Hard Science Contest, the winners will have their works read thoroughly by The Science & Entertainment Exchange for scientific accuracy. As intimidating as this may be to any writer, Klein is very much looking forward to it. “When it comes to the science stuff, I’m happy to be wrong. I’d rather it be right. I don’t so much like making big plot changes or stuff like in order to accommodate specific things, but if you tell me that drones in the future have to be made of a [particular] mercury, if you make some weird requirement because science says so, I’m happy make that change,” Klein said. “There was all of this stuff I learned to understand how to properly evolve the technology and the science this book references. It really was awesome to learn.” Klein said he has learned many fascinating facts such as the fact that there was a second Mona Lisa painted, the genetics of mosquitoes, more in-depth research on nanotechnology, the quantum mechanics of teleportation and replication, 3D printing, and so much more. “You learn about all of the crazy stuff that happened or is happening in the world we live in and it is simply amazing,” Klein said.
Klein said he had a wonderful group of people behind him who supported him and helped him campaign his book during the duration of the contest and he could not be more thankful for everything they have done. The next article of business on Klein’s list now is to write the next draft of The Punch Escrow and he hopes the finished work will be available to the public in early 2017. With the previous contest containing so much excitement, more is on the way for Klein as he begins the preparations to finalize his work, eager to share with the world that science fiction can be plausible rather than just fantastical. “I love hard sci-fi: I love The Martian, I love Ready Player One. I love this notion that we can write science fiction that is tethered to things that exist rather than having to completely make everything up,” Klein said.