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SunLit Interviews

Here’s how “The Martian” — and a chat with a super-agent — propelled a Colorado author to craft his novel

After experimenting with attempts to write a compelling beginning, Todd Fahnestock waited years for the inspiration to expand it. Finally, it arrived.

Author Todd Fahnestock.

Todd Fahnestock is a writer of fantasy for all ages and winner of the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teenage Award.

His bestselling “The Wishing World” series began as bedtime stories for his children, and his epic fantasy series include: “Threadweavers,” “The Heartstone Trilogy” and “The Whisper Prince Trilogy.” His time travel novel, “Charlie Fiction,” was a finalist in the Colorado Authors League Best Science Fiction of 2019.

The following is an interview with Todd Fahnestock.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

Charlie Fiction” started as an exercise. The Sparkling Hammers (my writer’s group) and I were talking about powerful book beginnings, specifically the first sentence or paragraph. One of my personal favorites is Andy Weir’s beginning to “The Martian.

I’m pretty much ****ed.

That’s my considered opinion.

****ed.

It’s brilliant. It’s simple, shocking, to-the-point, and justifiably profane (What would you say if you were trapped all alone on Mars?). Those first three lines tell you exactly what the book is going to be. They make you ask questions; they set the character’s tone and reveal so much about his personality. That’s a truckload of work to do in nine words.

With that in mind, I set out to write a paragraph that would make the reader ask questions, set the tone of the story, and reveal the personality of the narrator. Then I tested it, reading it to anyone who would listen. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

“Charlie Fiction” by Todd Fahnestock.

My next thought? Write the rest of the novel. But I didn’t have an outline, didn’t have a specific idea. I only had the first paragraph. What kind of story does one put together from just a paragraph? I dallied with a chapter here and there, but nothing really caught, so I let the idea sit. There it stayed, in the back of my mind, marinating for five years.

Then, at Pikes Peak Writers Conference in 2017, I had a conversation with New York super-agent Donald Maass in the lobby. I told him about my on-going fantasy series projects.

He said, “So you’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands of people waiting for the next story in those series. What’s the story you haven’t written yet that millions of people are waiting for?”

The question stunned me, and it made me look at everything differently. What if I had that novel sitting in the back of my mind, ignored and lonely? I felt new possibilities open up, like there was this barely-lighted path leading toward a bright horizon ahead. Talking with Donald can do that.

“Well,” I said. “I do have this other novel idea. I mean, I don’t have much, but it keeps nagging me.”

“Tell me.”

“So, a guy is sitting on his couch, and a knock sounds at the door. He gets up, opens it, and there is the woman that he and his best friend killed sixteen years ago…”

Donald pointed his finger at me. “Wow. I got chills. That one. That’s the one. Do it.”

And that was the starting gun. With every scrap of spare time at the conference, I wrote on “Charlie Fiction.” When I got home, I wrote on “Charlie Fiction.” Whenever I finished a chapter, I called my writer friend Chris and read it to her. She spurred me on, and together we watched the story unfold. Nothing was linear. As a time travel novel, it jumped all over the place, but slowly a picture formed. At the end of seventeen whirlwind days, I had a 60,000 word rough draft of time traveling muck studded with diamonds.

It took me two and a half months of shaping and re-arranging before the final novel emerged, but that was how “Charlie began. As a side note, the original first paragraph is still there.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi when I was young, and there is one story I’ve revisited over and over since I was 18: “Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (genre – sci-fi). I have re-read it many times, and it holds up every time. I get invested in the characters with the same peak intensity I did when I was 18. Every time I hit the climax of the book, I get chills. Card hit all of the right points in just the right amounts to make it unforgettable. I get something out of it every time.

Jim Butcher is also one of my favorites. His amazing “Dresden Files” series (genre – urban fantasy) captured my attention from book one and, unlike many series, just gets better with every book. I think the stories are so compelling because of the main character. Harry Dresden is one of my favorites of all time. He’s quirky, funny, and powerful, though Butcher always manages to make the stakes so high in each story that Dresden seems like the eternal underdog. Each Dresden novel is simply a great read.

Another favorite author is Brandon Sanderson. No matter what book of his I’ve picked up—be it futuristic fantasy with superheroes or epic fantasy with swords and sorcery—it’s always a quality, solid read with depth of character, detailed world-building, and a plot that keeps my mind engaged. His best works rank him at the top of all fantasy authors. His “Stormlight Archive” series (genre – epic fantasy) is ridiculously good. Book one is “The Way of Kings.”

Patrick Rothfuss is also amazing. “The Name of the Wind” (genre – epic fantasy) is one of my favorite books of all time. It is book one of the “Kingkiller Chronicles” and—if it’s possible—”The Wise Man’s Fear (book two) is even better.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

This answer to this is nearly the same as the answer to your first question. I shaped the opening to not only give the reader a sense of Daniel, but also to create immediate tension and illustrate the stakes. The beginning is designed to hook a reader’s attention and make them a promise that I fulfill by the end of the book. When I’m hand-selling my other books, I have a pitch that I give them, a little summary of the story to get them hooked. If someone expresses an interest in “Charlie Fiction,” I don’t give them a pitch. I simply open the book and tell them, “Read the first paragraph. If it grabs you, you’ll absolutely love this book. If it doesn’t, you won’t.” 

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I loved dancing with the muse for those first seventeen days. It was intense. I was simply lost in the story. It jumped wildly all over the place, but it all came together in the end. Daniel also gave voice to the temperamental social rants that go on in the back of my head, things I rarely talk about with anyone except my wife.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

The ending. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone interested in reading the story, but as you might guess about a story that mucks with the past to change the future, there were a lot of little threads that needed tying up by the end. Because it is a fast-paced story, I didn’t want to the end to drag with several chapters dedicated to tying up all those loose ends, so I had to come up with a complex order of tie-ups at a dead sprint during the climactic scene. I struggled with it, and actually it was my 15-year-old daughter Elowyn who helped me through it. She and I have a routine of going on runs in the morning. We do one or three miles and I throw out story problems for her to solve. She’s a savant about storytelling. And while this often makes her a killjoy while watching a movie (typical thing for Elo to say in the first five minutes of a movie: “Oh, OK. The main character’s best friend is actually the bad guy. He’s going to betray them. Oh, and the main character is going to fall in love with that character over there”), she’s amazing at coming up with original and satisfying solutions to storytelling problems.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

I learned about Carl Sagan’s apple description. He uses an apple passing through the second dimension (where a two-dimensional person would only be able to see a two-dimensional slice of the apple, never the whole) to describe how incomprehensible the fourth dimension (time travel) might seem to us. Clever guy, that Carl Sagan.

What project are you working on next?

I just finished what I consider my best novel of all time, and I’m insanely excited to get it out into the world. The working title is “The Champion’s Academy,” and it’s an epic fantasy story that follows four friends who attend a “wizards academy” like modern kids would attend college. As they struggle with their own emotional and magical limitations, their conflicting personalities, and the rigors of the school, they discover something rotten at the center of the academy, and suddenly the landscape changes. Instead of competing against other students, they’re plunged into a fight for their lives against the founders of the school.

I love this story because the characters came to me so swiftly and so realistically – we have the earnest-but-philandering philosopher, the untouchable ice princess, the scrappy street urchin, and the morally incorruptible rebel. Together, they form unlikely bonds and become what my daughter would call “found family.” If they can just stay alive long enough to achieve their potential–and keep from turning on each other–they’ll form the most powerful magical force the lands have ever known.

Buy “Charlie Fiction” at BookBar

Excerpt from “Charlie Fiction” by Todd Fahnestock