Loudoun Author Cullen Shannon Has a Schema

When Cullen Shannon imagines, he imagines big—world-changing inventions, the fall and return of civilization, and a trilogy of books planned in meticulous detail from the outset.

“I basically promise you something that’s equivalent to the wheel, or electricity, or the internet, and I’m hoping that I delivered on that promise by the time you get to the end of the series,” he said of his debut trilogy, The Schema Trilogy, published under the pen name Avery Dox.

One meaning of “schema” is a way of organizing or structuring ideas, and that is exactly what he created with the project. A software engineer by day and educated in economics, Shannon’s writing is shaped by his big ideas, and the complex, interwoven themes in his stories are supported by an approach to writing shaped by his professional experience.

When he set out to publish his first story, Shannon said he wasn’t sure whether to try to get an agent and go the traditional route or to self-publish. And in a fashion that is typical of the enterprising do-it-yourselfer, he stood up his own publishing imprint, Dead Reckoning Press.

“I had a really specific story that I wanted to write, and I knew exactly how it was going to end from the start,” Shannon said. “And the idea of trying a debut novel that may or may not sell, and then not having an avenue to sell the other two, would be really a tough pill to swallow. So given that, and sort of a total lack of connections of the publishing world, I figured I’ll just go ahead.”

Similarly, after auditioning several potential readers for the e-book, Shannon, who also has a background in sound engineering, decided to put in more than 100 hours of work creating the audiobook himself, too.

In the best traditions of speculative fiction, the stories are set in a world of big ideas and enormous scope, anchored by the deeply personal stories of their main characters. The trilogy spans hundreds of years, the instantaneous collapse and slow rebirth of civilization, and the world brought about by an invention that changes everything from how people do business to who they choose to marry.

But that’s a big reveal for the third book.

“It’s enough science that I’m hoping not to bury anybody with it, but make it plausible,” Shannon said. He likened it to Jurassic Park’s explanation that dinosaurs were resurrected from DNA preserved inside a fossilized mosquito.

“It was like, ‘oh, yeah, that kind of makes some sense.’ And you actually pause for a second and say, ‘could this happen?’ And that’s just enough to immerse them and give it some grounding,” Shannon said.

To organize and write a story of that scope, Shannon pulled from his work developing software for Android mobile devices.

“I work on a codebase that’s 250,000 lines of code, I’m responsible for like five or six people who are big time contributors, five or six more who contribute some,” Shannon said. “And I’m thinking, we have to maintain 250,000 lines—not words, lines. How do you do it without clobbering each other, and making sure that it can’t get deleted by accident, and that people will make changes that are acceptable and not dangerous?”

The answer is Git, software and processes designed for managing and tracking changes in a set of files across multiple contributors, parallel branches and different versions of code. It’s a well-developed and essential part of programming today.

“You go over and switch to publishing and you send something to an editor, and they either send you back handwritten notes or they send you back a file with a slightly different name—it’s their changes, which you can’t cross against your changes,” Shannon said. “And I’m thinking, this is nuts. We manage something way harder than this in development, and the publishing industry hasn’t quite caught up to the power of Git yet.”

That gave him complete control and access to every part of the trilogy as he crafted its recurring themes and ideas. The story can be at once knotted up in the complexities of its characters and their relationships while also leaping across great gulfs of time. It also contains sometimes hidden bits of the author’s sly humor—down to the publication dates, Nov. 12 of 2016, 2017, and 2018. Nov. 12 is the date of the events of the movie Back to the Future.

The trilogy is strewn with clues, foreshadowing, references, callbacks, and running themes, down to scenes in the third book which closely echo moments from the first—enough to have careful readers flipping back to previous chapters and even books to pick apart the densely-woven story.

The resulting books have gotten positive reviews including, almost reluctantly, from the author himself.

“Sometimes you work on creative stuff for a really long time and you hate it at the end, you know. You’re just so tired of it, your process has changed and all that stuff,” Shannon said. “For me, I still kind of like it. I still think it’s pretty decent, which is nice.”

Humility, Traverse and Intempra, The Schema Trilogy, by Avery Dox, are available as e-books or audiobooks on Amazon and in paperback and hardcover from Amazon and other major booksellers.

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