Welcome to the Shadow Unit

Shadow Unit is described as “A mystery/suspense show, a cop show, [and] a profiler show–but with a science-fictional problem at its heart,” or alternatively “fan fiction for … a show that no one had ever seen.”1
SUpure

The series is a brainchild of science fiction and fantasy author Emma Bull, a project that quickly grew to include fellow writers and friends: Elizabeth Bear, Amanda Downum, Will Shetterly, and Sarah Monette.

Shadow Unit spans online character journals and a website full of vignettes and stories. Episodes come in the form of case files bound into television style seasons.

But at the heart of it all is the story of a very special team of F.B.I. agents.

The  staff of  The Shepherd sat down for some shop talk with writers Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull, to learn the ins and outs of working on Shadow Unit.

Editor: What is the day in day out experience of running a collaborative project like Shadow Unit?

Emma Bull
Well, the first thing to know is that it had to fit in around all the other writing we all had to do. Because we never knew if we were actually making money off this.

Elizabeth Bear
I’ve learned that I’m a lousy publisher, but a pretty good managing editor.

Emma Bull
Sadly, I’m also a lousy publisher. Bear has charge of the memory.

Elizabeth Bear
Also, that no other writer on the planet frets about deadlines as I do.
Hah! You know all the continuity.

Emma Bull
You are our conscience and our soul.

Elizabeth Bear
I also learned that Emma is a brilliant editor in addition to being one of the best writers around.

Emma Bull
Also, I’m ignoring that comment about the editing. Except I’m blushing. Thankyouuuuu.

Elizabeth Bear
Hee.
We’re one giant fan club, which helps.  I really respect the work of every writer on the project.

In fact, we got to see a glimpse of the writing process in action during the course of the interview.

Emma Bull
Which [talking about editing] reminds me, I thought of a DVD extra today about Hafidha and Susannah Greenwood…

Elizabeth Bear
Hee.
write it! Quickly!

Emma Bull
Not now, I’m doing an on-line interview!

Patrick, this is a disturbingly accurate portrayal of the day-to-day workings of Shadow Unit. Especially back in the day when all work communications happened in email.

And there’s the great hothouse thing where we all feed off each other’s ideas.

Elizabeth Bear
“This would be cool!” “Oh yeah, and then!”

Emma Bull
we used to use e-mail, which was chaotic and hard to find conversations after we had them. Then Bear set us up a private LJ [Live Journal] account for SU writers only, and we could have topic-sorted discussions. And fights. Which made us smarter.

Emma Bull
Brandon has always been amazingly good with critters. It may be a superpower.

Elizabeth Bear
[He's a] beta!
Actually, Patrick, that is exactly how the SU creative process works.

Emma Bull
I knooooooooow!

Elizabeth Bear
We just start riffing.  Which is why we call it fanfic for a show that never existed.

Emma Bull
See, we’re totally into live demonstrations.

It’s actually boring for the writer if we know everything ahead of time.

Elizabeth Bear
Yes.  And we do outline, obviously. But we feel free to diverge.

Emma Bull
One of the best things about this collaboration is we’re all surprising each other with plot and character stuff.

Elizabeth Bear
I love that we got to circle back and use something from the first episode.  Because really, the first thing we did to Chaz was electrocute him.  Which established his ruthlessness, his toughness, and also his willingness to take mad chances with himself.  And Emma’s choice in that ep[isode] was the foundation of his character.

Emma Bull
Yesyesyes. We’ve been weaving this stuff … No, weaving isn’t the metaphor, because weaving is pretty straight-line. Sculpting. And what we did years ago comes back and finds its place

Elizabeth Bear
*the, above, obviously.
Yes.  You set a thing up, and then you look for a place to use it later.  For example, we knew Danny needed a love interest, and that he needed to overcome his trauma… but we didn’t know what it would be until we realized, “Hey, it would be really funny if he started dating an old-blood Yankee.”

Emma Bull
And some of that discovery means you never write the story you thought you’d write. But you almost always write one that’s better than the one you first imagined.

The collaboration of a group of professionals is noticeable in the attention to detail and dedication the Shadow Unit team brings to their work.  Our conversation shed some light on just what went into making those descriptions come to life.

Emma Bull
Oh, Bear’s Las Vegas info has been crucial to supplying cool stuff for Chaz’s backstory. North Las Vegas, man.

Elizabeth Bear
Also, I think the collaboration means we get better more rounded characters.

Because for example Chelsea says, “Hey, does Hafidha spin?”  And we all go… of course she spins [wool].  Why didn’t we realize it?

Emma Bull
Yes. We bring expertise and interests to the characters that no one of us could.

Elizabeth Bear
So you get somebody who’s not just a superhacker who is deconstructed from Nerd Stereotype because she’s a highly trained markswoman, but she also bakes pies and spins and has a lousy dating history.

Actually, everybody on this show has a lousy dating history. Except Todd.

Emma Bull
The other fun thing is when we bring stuff we have NO EXPERTISE in. Bear didn’t use to climb. I didn’t use to spin fiber.

Elizabeth Bear
Hah.
Yeah, I learned to climb for Chaz.  I drew the line at BASE jumping.  We got an informant for that.

Emma Bull
We made characters who obsessed about things we didn’t know, and we had to learn entire vocabularies to make it work.

Elizabeth Bear
It was Holly’s idea that Lau had a thing for bad boys but was too smart to actually date them, IIRC [if I recall correctly].

Emma Bull
BASE was a neat window into Chaz’s character. Not just for the adrenaline-junky thing. BASE is illegal almost everywhere in the US…but Chaz, who’s gone into law enforcement, does it.

Elizabeth Bear
The blogs were handy there, too. Because we needed stuff for people to talk about, so we learned that Daphne couldn’t cook but wanted to learn. Because it gave her and Chaz something to talk about.

Emma Bull
Yes, that was Holly. And it made so much sense. Her Air Force family, her brothers, somehow it all fit.

Elizabeth Bear
Yeah, Emma. The characters grew wonderful contradictions.
Real people are a mess. Fictional people are often too damned tidy.

Our conversation revealed that the interaction of the character journals with the path of the plot was surprisingly deep.

Editor: How has the digital format affected Shadow Unit? Is it different than you originally envisioned it?

Emma Bull
Bear was the one who saw what we could really do with the on-line format: the interaction of the characters in real time with each other and the readers, the embedded Easter egg DVD extras, stuff like that.

Elizabeth Bear
Yes. Due to plot and life reasons, we get to do a lot less of the online interaction these days–the realtime stuff got harder and harder to maintain as the character’s lives went to hell.  The fans actually wound up having an effect on events.

Emma Bull
Ooops–my comment kind of answers both. So, yeah, I didn’t really see what we could do with the format until Bear pointed it out to me. Things like the character LiveJournals made the characters more real, not just for the readers, but for me, as well. These people have stronger voices for me than any characters I’ve written before.

A couple of readers have even been included in the stories, at least as mentions–Chaz’s dinner date in Texas, his friend in Toronto…

Elizabeth Bear
I think some of that was my old tabletop RPG experience. It also strengthened the collaboration, because we had to trust each other to write the characters real-time.

Emma Bull
Writing the characters real-time on the LJs was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. Seriously, collaborating on live-action arguments between fictional people is kind of heady stuff. Writing without a net, no foolin’.

Elizabeth Bear
And a lot of plot twists came out of it.

Editor: Right, I have looked back, but I wasn’t really aware that it had deeply influenced the storytelling.  I looked at it as more of a side thing.

Emma Bull
Yeah, stuff would be invented in the LJs and show up as mentions in the story–it all made the fiction deeper and crunchier. We didn’t have to imagine the characters had lives outside the stories–they really did.

Elizabeth Bear
Yes.

And we learned things about the characters from them, from having to come up with interesting plots. Like Chaz’s serial monogamy, and Daphne’s partner.

Editor: You obviously enjoy a close relationship. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you meet each other?

Emma Bull
Hey, how did we meet each other?

Elizabeth Bear
Oh, I Know that one.  It was at the WFC [World Fantasy Convention] that was really a Wiscon in disguise and at the wrong end of the year.  Um. 2006? 2005?  I was standing at Elise Matthesen’s jewelry table in the dealer’s room, talking to her and Mike Ford, who I had also just met.

Emma Bull
But we met online first…

Elizabeth Bear
And up walked you, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and T. [an editor friend].  And Patrick said to Mike, “Mike! Every time I see you, your eyebrows get a little more prehensile!”  And T. (who has a form of narcolepsy that makes her collapse if she is surprised into a laugh) fell over.

I did not know about this, and was horrified, and rushed over to help…

Except when she fell down, Patrick calmly caught her cane, and he and Emma turned around in unison, as if mounted on swivels, and each grabbed one of her hands.  And popped her back to her feet.  And the conversation carried on.

And that’s how I met Emma Bull.  It was a 1970s Saturday Night Live quality pratfall.

Emma Bull
That story is so business as usual I don’t remember the specific catch. There have been SO MANY. It’s a perverse honor to say something funny enough to make T fall over.

Elizabeth Bear
Yes. You get points.

She’s very good-natured about it, and we try not to tell her jokes on stairs.

We had to ask the Shadow Unit crew just how the episodic television format affected the series.

Editor: Television shows run at the mercy of the network, but you have the luxury of marching on as long as the creators have time and enthusiasm.  Is there any sort of end planned for the series?  Would you be satisfied with a number of plot threads left hanging as the final season finishes?

Emma Bull
I dare you to make sense of it!!! Dare you!

We have three episodes left BEFORE THE TEN YEARS LATER REBOOT.
[two at the time of this writing]

Elizabeth Bear
One is written. One is half-written. And the third one… well. We know how it ends.

Well yes.  Which is probably going to be the surviving characters sitting in a gin bar and nursing their amputations.

Hee.

Editor: You are always so tough on the team.  Maybe it’s better for them that you’re finishing.

Emma Bull
We are notoriously mean to our characters. What does not kill them puts them in the hospital.

We built a five-season arc, because in TV, it at least used to be that you’d hope for five seasons, which would give you enough episodes to sell for syndication. So that was kind of a TV standard.

Elizabeth Bear
Yes. Also, it was an X-files homage.

Elizabeth Bear
We are hoping to take a little time off and then do a kind of Event Movie Reunion.

Emma Bull
And since this is a TV show that’s never been on TV… Yeah. Anyway, yep, we have an ending, but only for the series. We’re providing answers to the big mysteries, but the open-ended part is that answers always lead to new questions and new ways of doing things. Which the Anomalous Crimes Task Force has to deal with in future.

Elizabeth Bear
You never know–there might even be a fifteen years later sequel series! In which old stars have cameos, and the new team wear jumpsuits.

And since we were talking to a pair of notable science fiction and fantasy novelists we thought we might ask them if they had any advice for those of us just starting out.

Elizabeth Bear
Oh, that happens all the time.
Oh gosh. The usual trite ones.  Write a lot and finish what you write.

Emma Bull
Dear new writers: be careful what you leave out where the dog can get to it.

Elizabeth Bear
Read everything. Good stuff, to see how good stuff can be. And broken stuff, because sometimes you learn more from flawed work.
You can see how it’s done when you can see the seams.

Emma Bull
The bit about flawed work? So true. Robert Ray taught fiction writing at Beloit College, and assigned us mystery novels and bestsellers to read, because he said, I can’t teach you to write masterpieces. That’s not teachable. But I can teach you to write a good B-grade novel.
And the skills that go into that are mostly the same as the ones for the masterpieces.
*giggling*

Emma Bull
Read shamelessly. Read everything. Read great works, read crap, read bestsellers, read fanfic. Read ALL OVER THE MAP.

Elizabeth Bear
Remember that you are restructuring your own brain into something that constructs narratives, and that it’s very hard.  It takes ten years to learn to write and twenty years to learn to write well.  Unless you’re a freaky genius whose first book establishes a genre or something.  *looks innocent*2

Be patient, be stubborn, and remember that nobody on earth has your voice except for you. Get the confidence to be true to your voice, not to temporize, and you’re halfway there.
Also, do interesting things. Because ideas come from experiences.

Emma Bull
Write what you want to write, not what you think you should write, or what you think will make your teachers or parents or friends happy.

Because writing anything else but what you want to write will be un-fun, and the results will never equal what you could do if you were writing what you love.

(1) For more information, check out Shadow Unit’s fairly extensive about page: http://shadowunit.org/origin.html
(2) Emma Bull is known for introducing genre that is urban fantasy: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/04/review-emma-bull-music-and-magic

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