Prime Writing - Chang Terhune

August 2, 2013

Gardom Pond


Chang Terhune has one of the more different takes on writing a novel, in particular, tackling the story out of order. This one's for all those people out there whose moms told them they were getting too old to play with action figures.

Chang: It’s all because I played with action figures until I was 16.  Right up until I discovered that girls were not particularly sexually motivated by this.

The toys went away into the attic but I never lost the storytelling I learned in play; long, involved stories, fantastic space operas involving a combination of Micronauts, Fisher-Price Adventure People, GI Joe and Star Wars figures.  Stories were woven from Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and a steady diet of TV.

I pursued the affections of the ladies with varying degrees of success (finally caught one that didn’t mind the action figures 20 years later).  But I never stopped loving science fiction nor what the toys inspired in me:  story.  Over a period of two decades — the Lost Years is what I call the period when I either wrote bad angsty white guy fiction or stopped writing all together -- I never stopped thinking about those action figures.

In the early 2000’s, via Ebay, I was reunited with the toys of old and displayed them on shelves in my office.  I’d gaze at them while I was working and daydream.  At some point I felt a story bubbling up from them.  This led to me beginning my first novel in almost ten years.

I continued to pursue an idea: a robot, alone on a spacecraft in the depths of space.

Why was it there?

What was its purpose?

Where was it going?

Eventually the story shifted to a crashed ship the robot served on and then the story of the crash’s effect on the crew.  I thought I might tell the story through staged photos of my favorite Fisher Price Adventure People, which have a certain generic appearance that lent themselves well to one’s imagination at age 8 or 38.

I thought the best point of view was the captain’s, in a log format.  This was the first version of what would eventually become Harvestman.  It had a lot of problems and like any first effort born of mad science and untuned genius, it wobbled, smelled bad, was rotten, walked funny and generally survived only in the mind of its creator.

I knew my baby had problems.  But it was my first book in almost ten years!

So I worked Harvestman over for a year or two until I thought it was ready then I let my friend Mary read it.  Later she sat me down at a cafe and told me…  It didn’t work.  An epistolary novel is rather hard to pull off especially as a first novel.

And if it didn’t work for someone like Mary, a lifelong reader of SF, then who else would it work for?  We were the target audience!  I was disappointed but took her words to heart.

And didn’t touch the book for two weeks.

I remember spending a lot of time fuming in fact.  Then one rainy day I went into my basement office and sat down at the keyboard.  I rewrote the first chapter in just about one sitting, looked at it then swore loudly.  Mary was right:  it worked better as a prose novel.  Damn.  So I set about writing the novel over again and it eventually became a much, much better story.

Other things happened to it along the way.

For one thing in the earlier versions the captain was always a little too earnest, a little too lantern jawed hero.  That had to go.  The more I thought the more I realized that he needed some problems.  He had nothing to fight for, nothing to lose.  I’m not sure how I came to seeing him as alcoholic but it may have been from my own battles with addictions.  I worked hard to transform him from a lame Kirk pastiche or Capt. Zapp Brannigan from Futurama.  Well, it worked.  Over time he turned into Leonardo Valencia; alcoholic, adulterer and former decorated hero.  Also black.  Because otherwise he’d be too much like me.  Ahem.

Then there were the Martians.  In creating a group so isolated and weird I had to look no further than at the freak show that is North Korea (Kim Jong Il and his father were both huge science fiction fans, incidentally).  Those who read Harvestman and its sequel will get a glimpse into the high weirdness of the Red Planet and just why they got so crazy and insular.

Then there is the matter of the largest but invisible characters of the book and that is the Transparent Ones (for whom the series is named). Two things contributed majorly to their development. One is a line from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “2001” from the movie of the same name, obviously. He says famously little about the beings that built the monument only that at some point they lost their flesh and blood bodies, then became biomechanical then simply beings of pure thought or energy. That stuck with me for ages.

The other thing was an email conversation I had with Richard K. Morgan.  I loved his depiction of the Martians in his Takeshi Kovacs novels and begged him to write more about them or at least give me more details. “Better to keep them mysterious and vague,” he wrote back.

Screw that, I said to myself. He’d kick my ass if I said that to him.

But I thought a lot about that over the years especially as the Transparent Ones became more of a figure(s) in the novel. While they don’t really show up until The Astrogatrix (Harvestman’s sequel) I decided to ignore what two masters did and explore this great unknown race that made my world (no one will see any of them until the first book comes out which will also be the last released. That will be called “A Garden Galactic” and you can expect that some time in 2014 or so).

A fun little tidbit? All the Transparent Ones technology is derived from the paintings of Yves Tanguy. It is his painting, “The Transparent Ones,” where I got their name.  So keep an eye out for them later.

But I’m rather happy with the book as it stands.  It’s rare that one gets to spend so much time reworking one’s novels, especially in reverse order.  I’ve written three out of the four books in the series, totally out of order.  When I’m finally done I hope they present a solid universe that people will enjoy reading about as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

Now who needs a beer?  I sure do.

Chang Terhune is the co-owner of Portland Power Yoga in Portland, Maine, with his wife Alice Riccardi.  In addition to teaching yoga, he is an avid gamer playing on both Xbox and PS3 (not simultaneously), a writer of science fiction and other stories, and a musician.  A writer since he was twelve years old, "Harvestman" is his first published novel. Chang is currently at work on several books, including Astrogatrix, the sequel to Harvestman as well as a book about yoga entitled The Accidental Yogi.  He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, wonderful daughter, dog Sparky and George Foreman-Terhune, a cat.  Find Chang on the web at

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