Catching up with . . . Arlan Andrews

Arlan Andrews has been a fixture at Analog magazine for over three decades. Between his short fiction and his science fact articles, he’s one of Analog’s signature voices — which speaks to his expansive experience in the hard sciences, and the technical application of same.

From Amazon.com:

Arlan began his technical career working as a missile tracking telescope operator at White Sands Missile Range, where he also honed a lifelong interest in unusual phenomena by exploring the enchantment and mysteries of New Mexico while attending college. He worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories on the antiballistic missile program, spent time in China, was appointed as a Fellow in the White House Science Office, and co-founded both a Virtual Reality software company and a biotech equipment company.

Arlan has published many dozens of pieces over a rich lifetime of work. 2015 sees his name in lights as he is on the Hugo award final ballot for his story “Flow” which is a sequel to the novella “Thaw.” Arlan was nice enough to give a detailed interview. As always, I’ve included image links to the available works. Arlan is truly one of the field’s remarkable men.

Brad: Having worked for so many years in the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy, what are some of the cultural trends and shifts you think you’ve seen?

Arlan: I don’t read much fantasy at all, but in science fiction one cultural shift seems to be away from unique, visionary, outward-looking adventures in space toward more formulaic stories where the viewpoint characters are beset by doubts and concerns that earlier tales either avoided or ignored. As others have commented, such trends may account for the decrease in overall SF book sales. I still look for new ideas, new concepts, things I would never have thought of, cool technologies, new kinds of human relationships.

I have never cared for stories of the future that seem to carry present political or economic concerns into eras when either they should no longer exist or will have morphed into new problems. Examples include natural resources, “peak oil”, “climate change” (ad nauseum) and eco-collapse because of bad ol’ capitalism. But this sort of social fiction occurred in the past as well. One Analog story that was embarrassing even in the 80s dealt with aliens who did not like the way humans cared for their children (a big topic at that time was government-paid child care). And a story in which an alien’s decision to destroy Earth depended upon the gas mileage of an SUV. And an ASF editorial explaining why we should use dedicated grocery bags rather than disposable plastic or paper (back when recycling became a cause celebre). Not very inspiring even back then, not to those who want to spread the human race out among the stars.

As I have written elsewhere, I believe that at least some SF should give readers a reason for wanting either to go out and do the spectacular accomplishments, or to support them, or at least to understand them. “Navel-gazing” doesn’t get it. (Although, in fairness, this weekend I am submitting a story for a space travel anthology which does involve literal navel-gazing.)

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Brad: You’ve got a lengthy history in Analog magazine. Do you think the flavor of the magazine has changed over time, from Bova, to Schmidt, and now, Quachri?

Arlan: I started reading ASF under Campbell, and I wish he could have lived to 100. (Tobacco will do that to you.) JWC, Jr., bounced (trashed!) my one satirical submission, taking it as serious. Ben Bova published all my letters to the editor, but Stan Schmidt bought my first fiction back in 1980 and several dozen after that. For the most part, Stan liked the science-y stories, but most of mine were short, usually humorous. I’ve written seven “Probability Zeros” in all. He did run my only fantasy story of that period, “Indian Summa”, which featured the immortal finishing line, “All sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”

Trevor gave me my first dedicated cover for “Thaw”, and it won the 2013 Analog Readers’ Award for Best Cover, though the novella was not in the running. To date, the Quachri Analog seems to show more of a bent toward featuring other cultures, often to stunning effect. It is a different approach, but fresh and intriguing. As long as he continues to take my stuff, I will savor the Trevor flavor.

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Brad: What do you think makes for a good Hard Science Fiction story? Do you think people undersell the diversity and value of Hard SF as merely the “nuts and bolts” subgenre?

Arlan: I don’t know what makes good Hard Science Fiction. I suppose it’s a story where the technologies are not obviously out of whack with what we know now, unless some good hand-waving background takes care of it. I have never paid much attention to the scientific aspects of a story, except that in a 1986 novelette, “The Hephaestus Mission,” I invented a new law of physics (the Isochronous Repulsion Effect) that takes care of all possible time travel paradoxes. I plan to have out an e-novel this year that tells in more detail the rest of that story: Of Time and the Yucatan (for Kindle, Nook, and Print On Demand).
Unless “nuts and bolts” have personalities, I don’t see them as major players. As Heinlein showed, the science and technology of a story should always be assumed and hardly ever explained. The effects should be apparent from the context. In modern times, William Gibson does this very well, as does Walter Jon Williams among others.

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Brad: For your Hugo-nominated story “Flow” (which was preceded by the Analog story “Thaw”) are you building up to complete the series at book length? What can readers expect in future stories in this series?

Arlan: As usual, in writing SF, I visualize a scene and characters and wonder what the hell they are up to. “Thaw” began with a vision I had of a glacier melting and revealing artifacts from our time. The little bird-riding people rode into the scene and I just tried to describe what I saw after that. I often wish I could go straight from mental pictures to video. And in 1998 my story “Parameters of Dream Flight” (More Amazing Stories, ed. Kim Mohan) showed just that. “Flow” is the second part of the story, to be followed by “Fall”, which Trevor has committed to. Other parts will take place on the Moon and Mars; it’s a long story. These three parts will comprise about half. I can’t wait to see what happens, though I already know the end, which is also the beginning. Related stories in that new world keep popping up, so short fiction in that era should continue apart from the main story lines.

As a matter of possible interest to readers of the stories, I wrote most of “Thaw” in the airport at Lima, Peru, during two long layovers en route to and from Cusco and the Sacred Valley in 2012, where I visited not only the tourist spots but also other more secluded sites where rather astonishing stoneworks remain. I believe that some of these places are many thousands of years old, probably preceding the last Ice Age. My passion is ancient civilizations and technologies, and I have often wondered what future peoples will find and analyze when our own civilization is destroyed by the next Ice Age. That’s probably where my first vision originated.

Brad: Of your many non-fiction, science-related pieces, how much technical research do you devote to a given piece, and what causes you to get interested enough in a specific topic to write about it from a non-fiction standpoint?

Arlan: I really don’t do much research. Every technical article I have written for Analog and other publications represented research that I had already done, or for which I had amassed relevant data. In 1992 I was working at the White House Science Office and attended meetings and conferences on high tech subjects. From one such conference in Texas came my 1992 ASF article, “Manufacturing Magic,” which was the first popular article about what is today called ‘3D printing,” and in which I predicted that we would someday manufacture most things that way, “including our organs.”

Interested in space travel, I met Air Force officers from the Pentagon who were promoting a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) project. From this came my 1993 ASF article, “Single Stage To Infinity!”, the first popular report on the DC-X SSTO program, where I coined the phrase “A spaceship that takes off and lands the way God and Robert Heinlein intended.” The DC-X did that in 1993; Space X’s orbital rockets are close to doing it now. In later years, the U.K. magazine The New Scientist commissioned me to report on DC-X launches at White Sands, to interview the Director of NASA, Dan Goldin, and another time to speculate on the future of private space programs. Interviews and observations provided all of the information. With only the ARPA Net available back then, face-to-face meetings and phone calls were necessary. And sufficient.

Nowadays, my technical interests tend toward archaeoastronomy and ancient technologies. I have written speculative articles on ancient science and technology in Atlantis Rising and other venues.

Brad: For younger writers wanting to break into Hard Science Fiction, do you think science training is ever bit as important as literary training?

Arlan: To write the hard stuff, to keep stories real, one just needs a B.S. (Basic Science) filter to help weed out the impossible from the plausible. In my own case, I would recommend some kind of overview courses or just light reading in various aspects of astronomy, architecture, biology, mathematics, computers, mechanical design and construction. No need to know many of the details, unless it’s necessary for your plot or your characters, but being a little conversant in the field won’t turn off your readers who may indeed be experts. And if you keep the technology far enough in the future, nobody will know how it works anyway. That is why almost all of my own “hard stuff” is either unexplained background or else not necessary to the plot.

My own background as a young kid was reading about the lives of the great scientists, engineers, inventors and mathematicians – Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Steinmetz, Edison, Tesla, Goddard, von Braun, Einstein, and others. Biographies and history are fun for me, and you can pick up a lot of background and jargon without ever taking a formal course in the subjects. Of course, if the technical aspects are important, do the detailed research.

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Brad: What other works have you got on the horizon? What’s coming up next in Analog?

Arlan: In addition to finishing the story arc of Thaw: After the Ice Age, soon I will be putting my two e-books, Valley of the Shaman (Kindle and Nook) and Other Heads & Other Tales (Kindle and Nook) into Print on Demand for those wanting hard copies. A near future dystopian novel, tentatively titled Silicon Blood, will follow.

In Analog, three items coming up. Very shortly I will have the first guest column of “Alternate View”, following Jeff Kooistra’s departure. And believe me, many of my views definitely are alternate. I expect heat from some of the readership, not all of it from global warming. A short story of the near future, “In the Mix”, will follow soon after, and then eventually, “Fall”, which provides more detail on the post-Ice Age world of “Thaw” and “Flow.”

My primary research and writing focus at the moment is to complete the 3D modeling and analysis of two ancient Peruvian sites, and to produce at last two technical books that will detail some amazing discoveries that have been overlooked by archaeologists.

One last thought: because I have never tried to make a living at writing SF, I have done it for the love of the field and to put forth my own ideas about reality and the universe. My 1987 ASF story “Epiphany” describes a lot of my thoughts on religion; “The Alien at the Alamo” (2010) is close to my actual take on possible extraterrestrial visitors; and many of the other short stories, though perhaps humorous, contain similar philosophical ideas.

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Catching up with . . . Kary English

Hugo-nominated and Campbell award-nominated author Kary English has been making a remarkable splash in the field this year, both with appearances in Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge and also the very latest volume of Writers of the Future. I was very happy to be able to chat with Kary about her explosion onto the science fiction scene. As always, I’ve included image links in the body of the interview; so please click and support this very exciting, very talented writer!

Brad: You’re relatively “new” to traditional publishing, but you’ve put a few things on line via indie publishing. What’s your opinion, traditional vs. indie, and do you have any speculation on the future of the industry?

Kary: Both. Definitely both. I think it depends on the individual work. If I were writing romance novels or thrillers, I’d probably go all indie. For my shorts, I prefer to hit the magazine markets first, and my most successful self-published shorts are actually reprints that I released after the exclusivity period had ended. I’m currently working on a middle grade/ young adult crossover fantasy, and for that one, I’m going to try a few specialty houses first, then go indie if nobody bites. I think the YA/MG market still depends heavily on print, and on access to bookstores, so that’s what’s motivating me to go traditional for that age group.

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Brad: Your work caught the attention of Mike Resnick, when he was reading as a judge for the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers and Illustrator’s of the Future Contest. He went on to buy some of your work for Galaxy’s Edge magazine. What’s in been like to work with Mike as an editor?

Kary: Mike has been amazing to work with. He’s kind, encouraging, an incisive editor and he’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the business end of writing. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

Brad: Would you describe yourself as primarily a science fiction writer, or a fantasy writer? Or both? And why?

Kary: Am I allowed to repeat myself? Both. Definitely both. My science fiction leans hard, and my fantasy leans high. I’ve been told that’s an unusual combination, but when I stir the primordial muck inside my head, that’s what bubbles to the surface. For short fiction, most of my ideas tend to be science fiction. It’s different for novels, though. I’ve never had a novel idea that wasn’t fantasy, at least not yet.

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Brad: Are there favorite authors or mentors who have inspired you or helped you? How do you think they’ve influenced your work?

Kary: Oh, gosh. The list is long. I’m a firm believer that a writer cuts her teeth by reading, so C.S. Lewis, Piers Anthony, Roger Zelazny, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, Stephen R. Donaldson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Friedman, Melanie Rawn, Judith Tarr, Jim Butcher, Robin Hobb, and many, many more. Reading trains the ear and helps the writer develop her voice – even if she’s not writing yet.

For mentors, I’d have to cite Mike Resnick, Tracy Hickman, Kevin J. Anderson and David Farland. I am immensely grateful to all of them. Dave, in particular, has had an enormous influence on my writing. I’ve taken several of his workshops, and I’ll be taking his new Worldbuilding workshop this summer. Dave has taught me so much that I can’t even list it all. Suffice it to say that without Dave, I don’t think I’d be writing professionally.

Brad: What’s your project list look like for 2015 and 2016? Anything new and exciting planned, and which you can talk about?

Kary: There’s a lot on my plate at the moment. I’m collaborating on a multi-volume science fantasy series, and the first book should be out in late 2015, maybe early 2016. I’m under an NDA for that one, so that’s all I can say. I’m ghostwriting at least one other project, but I can’t say anything more than that. For my own work, I’m trying to finish my MG/YA fantasy crossover series, and when that’s done, I’ll be turning my Writers of the Future winner into a novel.

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Brad: Do you think (as one of the latest Writers of the Future winners) that the Contest helps new authors gain exposure and increase their credibility with editors?

Kary: Absolutely. Mike Resnick invited me to submit to Galaxy’s Edge because I’d done well in Writers of the Future, and recently an editor stopped me mid-pitch and said “You had me at ‘turning my Writers of the Future winner into a novel’. Send it as soon as it’s ready.” I can’t think of any other accomplishment that would make an editor request a manuscript from a new writer before he’d even heard what it was about.

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Brad: As a child or teenager, what were your science fiction or fantasy enthusiasms, either television, books, games, or movies?

Kary: Let’s see. I discovered anime in the form of Astro Boy and Speed Racer before I could read, and that led to Voltron and Battle of the Planets when I was in elementary school. Star Trek was another favorite, followed by Battlestar Galactica, the Lorne Greene version. I’d discovered fantasy by then, too, when I stumbled on The Hobbit in my elementary school library. I’d read The Chronicles of Narnia and the Prydain books, but somehow I’d lumped those in with the folk tales and fairy tales I’d been reading. I think The Hobbit was the first time I understood that fantasy was a genre of its own.

It took me longer to get into science fiction as a reader. For whatever reason, sci-fi was something I watched; not something I read. It was Anne McCaffrey who provided the bridge. I loved her dragon books so much that I read everything she wrote, including Crystal Singer, Decision at Doona and The Ship Who Sang. After that, I looked for science fiction when I went to libraries and bookstores just like I looked for fantasy.

I skipped Star Wars when it first came out. My mother wanted to go, but a neighborhood kid was having a pool party, and I chose the pool party. I saw it when it came out again later, either because it had won some Academy Awards or because they re-ran it before The Empire Strikes Back came out. Once I saw Empire, I was so hooked that I wrote my own sequel, longhand, in pencil, in a spiral notebook during class in junior high. Friends of mine who knew I was writing it begged me to share it, so we passed the pages to each other in the hallways. This was eighth grade, so I think I was around twelve or thirteen.

Brad: Tell us about your professional and educational background. How does it factor into your writing?

Kary: As an undergraduate, I double-majored in Anthropology and Philosophy, then I went to grad school for a master’s degree in Religious Studies. I focused on the sociology and psychology of religion, with a particular interest in conversion experiences. Later, I’d return to grad school for a Ph.D., but in the meantime, I took about a decade off to work as a reading specialist, curriculum developer and Special Ed. teacher. At the time, I thought the world needed a reading teacher more than it needed another college professor.

As a curriculum developer, I helped write a complete k-12 language arts curriculum and a suite of anti-bullying materials. Those products are now being used with hundreds of thousands of students all over the U.s. Deciding that my commitment to education had been sufficiently fulfilled, I returned to grad school for a doctorate in cognitive science of religion.

I loved it. Was there something hardwired in the brain that predisposed us, as a species, to believe in a divine presence and develop complex religious systems? (The answer is yes, by the way.) In addition to my studies, I coordinated grant-writing teams and helped organize an international science conference. Unfortunately, I was orphaned, which means that my advisor switched universities after I’d completed my field exams, and that meant it was too late for me to go, too. The loss of that one professor collapsed the entire program, leaving me stuck at ABD (all but dissertation).

So, what does one do with an academic background in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, cognitive science and religion? Well, it makes darned good foundation for creating believable characters, alien societies and rich, fictional cultures.

Catching up with . . . Charles E. Gannon

Chuck Gannon probably doesn’t need any introduction to those who’ve been paying attention to Baen publishing over the last five years. In addition to authoring or co-authoring works in the prestigious shared universes of giants such as Larry Niven and Eric Flint, Chuck has embarked upon a very ambitious future history series, in the form of the Terran Republic books, the second of which launched in 2014. I’ve included links to both Trial by Fire and Fire with Fire further down in the text. Chuck gave a fantastic interview! I hope you enjoy.

Brad: This is the second book in your TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC future history. Which would seem to put you in good company with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Robert A. Heinlein, and other authors who have meticulously constructed human-based interstellar civilizations. What kind of special research did you do for the “ground floor” layout, even before you wrote the books?

Chuck: I suppose the best umbrella statement I can make is that I approached the entire universe using futurist tools, but a science fictional perspective. What I mean by that is: futurists tend to specialize in deductive, projective analyses. This unfortunately produces a whole lot of unimaginative “straight line projections”. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s probably an unavoidable consequence of who pays for “professional” futurist studies and why: the impulses are purely practical, not visionary. Of course, it tends to be the opposite with us hard SF folk; we are not predominantly interested in simply projecting future trends. With us, the energizing imaginative spark is in the classic “What if…?”

For Tales of the Terran Republic and Trial By Fire in particularly, my “what if” was a first contact scenario (and its sequelae) almost exactly one century from now. Over that span of time, there were a number of key watershed events that had significant impacts on shaping the society and technology of that future world. I don’t refer to these watershed events much, but there is a 21st century event referred to as the Megadeath (which is not a plague) and another (which is more explicated in the first book of the series, Fire With Fire) referred to as the Doomsday Rock. The former explains why a lot of technology has not moved as far forward as we might expect: there was a decade of treading water. And then, given the second event, a lot of the resurgent development went into aerospace technology—for purely utilitarian reasons. If it sounds like I am being deliberately vague, I am: trying to prevent any spoilers from slipping out, for those who haven’t read it yet!

I’ve been researching, and watching the progression of, relevant scientific, technological, and politico-cultural factors since 1990. In that year, I sat down with the global almanac, the CIA world fact book, critiques thereof, and crafted a whole bunch of spreadsheets to project economic growth, funding/acquisition targets, budgetary allocation guesstimates based on historic (event-informed) trends. I did decade by decade summaries, projected out 100 years into the future. So far, the real world hasn’t thrown me any distorting curve balls (but then again, I elected to minimize big changes until after 2040, which actually seemed a reasonable fulcrum point).

More narrowly, I identified the key economic questions of a space faring society—but not strictly from the standpoint of market analysis. Here’s an example of what I mean: over time, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs have paid back what we spent on them—but the costs of the space race were truly amortized over time. However, the key point is this: the space race was not undertaken because market forces made it attractive. It was undertaken IN SPITE of countervailing market forces. Going to the moon is not the first time humans have spent great amounts of treasure on something which will not show a tidy a near-term profit. I very much suspect it will not be the last time, either. Those total social forces figure heavily in my “future history.”

I did much the same thing with the alien (“exosapient”) races we’ve met in the series. In each case, I tasked myself to define their “dawn of intelligence” story—presuming that no two would be exactly the same, and also, that the differences in how a species rises to intelligence is likely to leave a deep imprint upon the predispositions and shapes of the culture that will arise along with it. How long they’ve been around—and in space—has a major impact on their place and role in the unfolding story of humanity.

There are so many layers beyond these basics that I can only encourage readers to find out in the most practical way possible: read the books. It’s a whole lot better than reading me expound upon the backstory and technological and scientific presumptions in this interview! However, one thing that I have been particularly gratified by is the number of readers who get in touch with me and say something to this effect: “It feels so real, like there’s a whole world you’ve worked out underneath everything we encounter in the book(s).” To which I reply: “absolutely right.” My pet peeve with a lot of future histories or grand interstellar schemes is that, when you run the numbers, they don’t add up. How much stuff is being moved how far for what cost and what validating reason? You might get two or three of those questions answered, but usually not all four (or not rigorously; engage the balonium drive!). In Trial By Fire (this year’s Sad Puppies recommended read and current Nebula finalist) you will get a powerful sense of just how “solid” the world is. I don’t like worlds where the surroundings feel like theater sets–painted cloth held up by flimsy wooden frames— that with one good poke, you can puncture and so, disbelieve forever after. I resolved to provide the kind of depth that promotes total immersion in the world, and which sustains over the entire arc of the series.

Brad: You’ve said elsewhere that Caine Riordan is a protagonist who must grow beyond himself through the course of events. Would you say you agree with Mike Resnick’s adage that the hero must not arrive at the same place, at the end of the book, as he began? Meaning, his viewpoint and attitudes are altered by the time he’s done with his journey?

Chuck: I agree with Mike’s comment; I’d expand upon it in one particular. It is entirely possible to have a protagonist whose journeys lead her/him back home, and confirm her/his initial worldview. But that is *still* change. To plunge our presumption and views into the crucible of events and varied experience is akin to refining a metal into a purer form. Such a “Trial By Fire” (forgive me; I couldn’t resist!) is a change agency unto itself; it has the power to both challenge and confirm the beliefs with which we started. In short, even a journey that brings us back to where we began has changed us, because we occupy that place not out of tradition or assumptions, but from a personal journey that confirmed its “rightness” to us.

That said, the journey of Caine Riordan, the protagonist of Trial By Fire, is certainly one of change. He is not a soldier or a diplomat or an intelligence operative when the series starts, but because he’s the right person in the right place at the wrong time, he must accrue these skills. The only reason he succeeds—and survives—is because he is smart and versatile. But as the series goes on, his successes become more difficult and more costly: he started out within his comfort zone; the more directly involved he becomes in the looming interstellar conflict, the further outside its boundaries he moves. The changes to Caine’s character and outlook are subtle at first, but grow (some might say devolve) as the series progresses.

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Brad: How do you envision interstellar economics working in your series, and are there any clues you’re taking from extant international 21stcentury economics?

Chuck: The Interstellar economics of Trial By Fire are informed by a fairly complex combination of forces. It is extremely expensive to travel between stars, and it takes about five weeks (most of which is preacceleration) to get from one stellar system to another. And at the beginning of the series, the maximum “shift range” is about 8.33 light years. The mechanics, costs, and energy-density physics of the Wasserman Drive are unfolded in plain, painless language in the first book (and actually as someone being a jerk by displaying someone else’s ignorance. I avoid “as you know, Bob” stand-and-deliver scenes).

The initial drivers to found Earth’s colonies are, in many ways, informed by a more clear-eyed version of what happened in the early years of the 18th century with the colonization of North America. In short, the strategic benefits of settlements and concommitant resources that were beyond the ready reach of other European powers became increasingly important. And it was intolerable to any of the powers of that age to simply allow rivals to develop a monopoly over New World influence.

Much the same thought initiates the initial colonial drive outward from Earth. Then, other factors enter: there resource, including novel biota and xenogenetics that are quiet valuable. There are also a variety of social pressures (but not over-population; the economics of using spacelight to ameliorate Earth’s overcrowding just aren’t very promising). However, new star systems provide new homess for the disaffected, the anarchic, the different, the adventurous, the restless, the entreprenurial. Their modest diaspora becomes a win:win for a variety of nations and national blocs. Growth is fairly slow, at first, but that changes after an invasion of Earth that almost succeeds. Two major post-war variables create an accelerating outrush: 1) reverse-engineered (as in better) alien technology and, 2) the strong sense that living on planet Earth might be akin to living in the crosshairs of hostile powers.

At this point, the interstellar economy begins very much to resonante with the dominant cost:benefit ratios of the mid-18th century: colonies were still a drain on the home country, but they were an obvious requirement to maintain power and expansionistic parity—so it was ultimately more costly NOT to support them. And of course, by then, the benefits of trade with the New World (significantly amplified by the greater reliability of Atlantic passage, or, in this case, speed and reduced cost of interstellar transits) begins to look economically positive in the long view.

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Brad: Would you call yourself a futurist?

Chuck: I suspect I pretty much gave away the answer to this question in my first response. I am a futurist—I consult as such—but I am a proponent of what I call “immersive futurism.” To put it another way, you can project all sorts of change with graphs and charts and timelines and numbers. But that doesn’t all mean very much to 99 % of people–not until it gets connected to a narrative to which they can relate. What is the STORY of that future—and what might it be like to live in it? Futurism which does that has a chance of working because it not only engages the mind, it excites the spirit. Or it may terrify the spirit: sometimes the shaping force is a carrot, sometimes it’s a stick. But either way, personal, gut-level involvement is what has been missing from a lot of “professional futurism” (and sometimes, science fiction) in the past few decades. However, when I put on my futurist hat, I’m thinking both about what the future might contain, and what stories it allows us to tell which are new and captivating.

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Brad: You teach for a living, yes? Do you find yourself dropping into “lecture mode” when you’re doing prose, or does writing fiction stretch a different skill set?

Chuck: Actually, no, I haven’t taught for a living since 2007. However, I still have my title from St. Bonaventure University (Distinguished Professor of English) since I have, on occasion, undertaken some projects for them and am happy to carry their flag wherever I go.

On the more important matter of dropping into lecture mode. No, no, no and doubly no—which is probably not a surprise given the preceding answers and my concern with blending ideas with entertainment and vice versa.

Firstly, I keep the emphasis on drama, action, dialog, and twists because that’s what makes for a fun read. Novels may or may not illuminate, but they must entertain/interest/captivate readers. I hope my novels do both. And that brings up my other reason for stringently avoiding treatises or “platform statements” in my stories: we don’t actually hear “treatises” a lot in the real world unless we go LOOKING for them. Are you in a classroom, at a conference, attending a public talk? Sure: you’ll hear treatises there. You’ll hear treatises until your ears bleed. (I’m a professor: I know whereof I speak on this matter…)

But unless my characters have a reason to go hear a treatise, and unless the information imparted thereby must be represented AS a treatise, why would I put it in my novel? And frankly, I can’t think of a single good (or even bad) narrative reason to inflict that on a reader. Oh, it might be realistic to portray a character listening to a one-hour sermon or lecture—but does that make it a good idea to write one, and force a reader to endure it? My answer is: no, never.

Fiction has some implicit contracts with readers. One of them is that the book should be an enjoyable experience. If I also elect to make an implicit promise that I am going to try to convey a world that does not insult the implicit boundaries of reality, that does NOT mean that I now get to make the book dull. Instead, it means I’ve set myself TWO jobs—the book must be fun AND believable. The burden of increased narrative ambitions should be solely on the author and her/his skillset, not the reader’s patience. In Trial By Fire and the rest of the series, I take on those two narrative ambitions—and more—but I always bear this in mind: it’s on ME to make them all work. I won’t tolerate including a scene where I have to make an excuse, where I have to tell myself, “well, it might not be as interesting or exciting as other scenes, but it is SOOOO necessary.” Nope: that’s lazy writing. Go back and try again, Chuck. You know there’s a better way. There’s ALWAYS a better way. And when people are plunking down their hard earned cash for my stories, I bloody well owe them that effort, all the time, no shirking, and no fail. And you know what? It makes a better book, and me a better author.

All that said, it is also true that different readers want different “joys” out of books. Some folks want a non-stop all-action romp, light on the ideas, long on the explosions: Michael Bey between covers. Other folks want something that is ovewhelmingly cerebral, conversational, where action becomes a distraction from the interplay of ideas. Neither one of these are really my style, because, you see, I love both action AND ideas. I won’t write a book that banishes one for the sake of the other.

And that completes my extended lecture about never writing extended lectures. Wait…what?

Brad: When developing your future universe, what deliberate choices did you make (if any) to make your universe stand out?

Chuck: I decided upon a number of what I felt were atypical elements to ensure that this universe was distinctive, while remaining a reasonable projection of our contemporary reality, one hundred years hence. One such atypical elementi s the historical fulcrum point at which I choose to site the series.

Most far ranging SF or sf-fantasy tends to place us in a far-future world with what I will call the Utopist’s Device: the universe depicted is separated from us by a signifcant gap in time and historical linkages. It is A Very Different Place that only faintly points back to its origins in this, our contemporary moment. So, somehow, humanity crossed from the humble banks of our every-day river of reality to that far shore of a wondrously different world. I think this is fine, and I like a whole lot of this literature. I write some of it myself, but it is not, in my opinion, a distinctive project. Lots of people do it. In the Tales of the Terran Republic, I chose to do something very different.

I site my series neither on the banks of contemporary experience, nor on the far shore. Rather, the vantage point of the characters places them squarely upon the bridge of change, the bridge that we must ever build as we move toward the far shore of the future. And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope readers will, in retrospect, not only reflect upon how far we have come and how fast, but also, how in getting there, the characters did not experience the journey as an endless rollercoaster of dislocating jolts. Rather, the progress into that vastly changed future seemed deceptively, almost insidiously, gradual, more marked by it seeming normative rather than stupendous.

This is fundamental to my interest in creating immersivity, in creating a world that feels real because it follows a key feature in our experience of change: it does not arrive as a fast cascade of momentous events. Rather, most change comes daily, on cat’s feet, and we only realize how far we have come when we glance in the rearview mirror. Being utterly committed to verisimilitude (because: immersivity), I want that experience to track into my fiction; in short, that change is something we feel more in retrospect than in any given moment.

In deciding upon this as a kind of guiding principle, I also determined that I was pen the series as a subgenre mashup that hadn’t really been attempted before: mid-future hard sf with political/techno-thriller. Nothing says “today” more than cutting edge thrillers. They are immediate and visceral. And I wanted to bring that same sense of gritty urgency and reality to my SF. In short, I wanted to imbue a future history with a narrative style that imparted a sense of present-day urgency.

Lastly, I will call out one phrase from a prior paragraph: “ And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope to show readers how far we have come and how fast.” It is important to me that every tile (i.e.; novel, story) in this series’ mosaic has its own, complete tale to tell and image to impart. But that does not preclude it from also being one part of a much greater whole. The series of which Trial By Fire is a pivotal part is about the human future. The specifics—the warfare, the exosapients, the technologies, the political evolutions—are not unimportant, but I hope that the series’ greater ambitions are becoming evident (if they weren’t from the start). Because underlying all the various action in all the various novels, these questions are being probed in ever-greater depth: what does it mean to be human? What diversity of intelligence might there be in the universe, and what does it signify–not only to us, but to the unfolding of that universe’s far future? How and where are the points of commonality which make interspeciate communication possible–and where are the unbridgeable crevasses? Is love universal? Hope? Faith? Compassion? Fellowship? Individual consciousness? To repeat what I said earlier, I love both action AND ideas.

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Brad: Having been previously nominated for a Nebula award, what’s your opinion on the state of the field’s (SF and F’s) accolades? Are we (collectively) doing it right? Doing it wrong?

Chuck: I’m going to spin this question in a different direction (hell, I’m not even sure who the collective “we” refers to). I am going to discuss something pertinent to awards and voting. I do not have the temerity to (nor would I be comfortable with) offer(ing) opinions, let alone exhortations about how anyone else should vote. Rather, in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” I am simply going to reveal how *I* approach voting for books. And, if the universe were intrinsically fair (–chortle–) I would want no more than to reap as I sow (but at 54 years of age, I have no illusions about the likelihood of that).

While I suppose one could consider this (or expect it) to be an overview of my “aesthetic approach”, I must lead with an important caveat:

Yes, I am a professor of English, have taught literary theory (several times as a Fulbright Fellow in Europe), am no stranger to the ebb and flow of critical reception and the whys and wherefores thereof. It was part of my job, after all. And here’s how much that affects my award recommendations and voting:

Not. One. Damned. Bit.

I like what I like. I put my sheepskins and scholarly robes in a corner when I make my recommendations, in large measure because I refuse to conflate matters of taste with questions of any predetermined set of literary expectations.To argue that the latter should determine the former is an inherently suspicious assertion. At its most extreme, it suggests that a work which might be a lifeless yet pristine narrative object should also excite our personal delight.

Sorry. No. There are many objects of beauty in this world that leave me cold. There are many objects defined as “pop culture,” or which were “once beautiful” but have been consigned to the rearview mirror of contemporary taste, that I still find beautiful. Those purely subjective reflexes determine my voting.

It would be a gross misreading of my meaning to believe that I am saying that I am not concerned with quality; I most definitely am. But I do not need to make painstaking cognitive assessments to detect and reject clunky prose, predictable plots, hackneyed characters. No thanks. However, it is rightly said that the “success” of a narrative is best assessed “critically” (or, more improbably, “objectively”) in the terms set by its own structures of execution. In short, a critical assessment that tries to compare a pulp novel to belles lettres is like a food critic trying to compare french toast to escargot: each has its own rules, and implicit (gustatory) expectations.

These, from my perspective, are all matters of theory and literary criticism and have their own validity and place. But I do not use those metrics when voting for an award. That is particularly true when the criterion for the award can be framed by the simple question “but which do you LIKE best?” If I were to base my choice upon a critical checklist, I would not be answering that question. Rather, I would be responding to the query “which novel succeeded most in its own terms?” These are two very, very different questions. I will vote for the first; I may deeply admire the latter.

The natural consequence of this is that I am not wed to the past, the present, or the cutting edge of any “movements” or “missions” in the field of fiction. I have seen enough, and taught enough, of them to feel quite safe making the following assertions about what is, was, or will be au courant:

* it will change

* it is more about fashion and contrast with what preceded it rather than any intrinsically permanent merit (time will tell that)

* it is invariably politicized (I mean this in terms of both aesthetics, academics, and public partisanry)

* those who raise an uproar about it (you can tell this by their wide-eyed vehemence) are full of sound and fury signifying nothing

My non-genre/canonical preferences run from Flannery O’Connor to Pynchon to Faulkner to Kipling. If you can find a common thread there other than my own eclectic taste, I would be happy to hear it. But that’s the nature of what I like, and how I vote.

If you have (or plan to) read Trial By Fire, my very deep gratitude. My equally deep gratitude if you decide it is worthy of your nod for a Hugo nomination. It is not a ‘typical’ award-category book–but then again, what is? And more to the point, is it wise that anything should be “typical” of any given award? I think/hope not.

And to ensure that we end on a practical rather than philosophical note, here’s a statement of fact: I believe in free samples. So you can know if you want to plunk down hard earned money for my scribblings, Baen Books makes this very easy. They publish the first ten chapters or so of all their books. Here are the links to Trial By Fire, this year’s contender for the Nebula award, and with your kind help, the Hugo as well.

Catching up with . . . Kevin J. Anderson

I’m reviving this column, beginning with my friend and mentor Kevin J. Anderson. Kevin has had numerous New York Times bestsellers, is well-known for collaborating with Brian Herbert on the continuation of the Dune universe, and instructs at numerous writers’ workshops and seminars throughout the year. Kevin is arguably the hardest-working author in the SF/F field, and he’s got a terrific original SF novel out; the first of three in a trilogy, following up on his Saga of the Seven Suns series.

Brad: This is the first book in your second series set in the SAGA OF THE SEVEN SUNS universe. Having already covered a lot of territory in the first novels, what are you looking to explore now, with this second bunch?

Kevin: In the Saga of Seven Suns, I created a whole universe — countless planets, cultures, political structures, races. It was truly my love letter to science fiction. When I wrote the seven volumes, a million and a quarter words, I had a huge story to build and bring through its whole story arc — but I always had another grand story in mind. I set it up in the original Saga, planting many seeds, but I held it in reserve for when I was recharged and ready to return to that universe. I had to clear my head (by writing a dozen novels or so!) and when I came back, I was ready for an Even BIGGER threat to the universe.

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Brad: This is a book (and a universe) that heavily blends aspects of science fiction, with quasi mythology; in the form of near-eternal and ancient forces rising from the past to the threaten the (future, in the book) present. What present-day influences or mythologies (if any) did you draw on to create your (imagined) future conflict?

Kevin: The key word is “saga” and I wanted a story truly BIG enough to fill a whole fictional universe. Not just a trivial story about one person in one city on one planet. I wanted to show the whole tapestry, and I have studied a lot of history, a lot of mythology, a lot of legends, and also my lifelong love for science fiction. That’s what I brought to the table, mixed up in my imagination-processor to tell a story that ranges from the small concerns of two star-crossed lovers to political decisions that might bring about the fall of empires.

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Brad: Do you see machine intelligences being an inevitable threat to real civilization, assuming humans develop far enough to make them; or encounter alien machine intelligences built by other species?

Kevin:I rely on machine intelligences for almost every aspect of my daily life, whether it’s a google search or Siri navigating me to a friend’s house, or watching computer models on the Weather Channel. I am not afraid of fire, or tools, or the wheel. I find them useful.

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Brad: Would you call yourself a futurist? Should science fiction even try to predict anything?

Kevin: I don’t think “predicting” is the point — “experimenting” is. Science Fiction, and fiction in general, allows us to imagine scenarios to their extremes and to learn from them. I love taking an idea and running it to possible conclusions. Not to predict what’s going to happen, but to experiment with how things might happen. And doing it infiction is usually more palateable than doing it in polemics.

Brad: Since the scope of your story is so big, with literally galactic stakes, what do you consciously do as a writer to bring the story back down to human scale? So that you can tell it from a personal point of view that readers may identify with?

Kevin: By telling the story from a human (or relateable alien) perspective. I see the gigantic story as the Main Character, the driving force, but it is told from dozens of points of view, from the highest noble to the lowest street urchin, so you can see the story, the saga, the galactic war, from ALL perspectives. Readers may not identify with every character, and they may loathe some of them, but they will also feel very close to some of them.

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Brad: Why three books this time, instead of another seven? As with the first series?

Kevin: Because seven books — ALL of them over 170,000 words long, ALL of them delivered exactly on time each year, every year, for seven years — was an exhausting high-wire act I’m not sure I want to attempt again! And the seven books was a complete story, not just a book and a bunch of sequels. I plotted the whole seven-book arc and held it in my head as I spent seven years writing it. This time, my brain capacity only allowed three books (but, in my defense, they are BIG books!)

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Brad: Do you find yourself unconsciously channeling themes and ideas you’ve worked on before? With so many different novels under your belt, do you have to sometimes remind yourself specifically which universe you’re working in?

Kevin: When I’m working on a book or series, I am totally immersed in it and I live with all those worlds, those plots, those characters as my imaginary friends. I am very close to all of them and I hold them in my mind. A few years after they are published, though, I can mentally file them away and focus on the current project, which is what consumes me right now. (I just finished dictating my chapters in the first draft of NAVIGATORS OF DUNE, but I put that on a back burner while I do my final edit on CLOCKWORK LIVES, which is where my entire focus is right now . . . and when I’m done with that, I edit NAVIGATORS and then begin the prep work to write ETERNITY’S MIND, the third and final novel in the Saga of Shadows trilogy. After that . . . well, I’m not thinking so far ahead!

Catching up with . . . L. Jagi Lamplighter

It’s been awhile since I did a “Catching up with” article, and I wanted to get the ball rolling again; with a bang. So I interviewed the lovely L. Jagi Lamplighter, with whom I first became acquainted (via her blog) in 2009. The saying in the science fiction and fantasy genre is that everybody knows everybody. And that’s not much of an exaggeration. I’ve known Jagi (both on-line and through mutual acquaintances like my WOTF roommate Jeff Young) for awhile now. I find her to be a delightful and provocative thinker, who lends a welcome voice to the speculative arts. Thus I am ever so pleased to bring you this extensive and illuminating Q&A.

FORMAL BIO: L. Jagi Lamplighter is the author of the YA fantasy: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. She is also the author of the Prospero’s Daughter series: Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained. She has published numerous articles on Japanese animation and appears in several short story anthologies, including Best Of Dreams Of Decadence, No Longer Dreams, Coliseum Morpheuon, Bad-Ass Faeries Anthologies (where she is also an assistant editor) and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Don’t Open This Book.

When not writing, she switches to her secret identity as wife and stay-home mom in Centreville, VA, where she lives with her dashing husband, author John C. Wright, and their four darling children, Orville, Ping-Ping Eve, Roland Wilbur, and Justinian Oberon.

Her website is: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/
Her blog is at: http://arhyalon.livejournal.com/
On Twitter: @lampwright4

And now, to the interview . . .

BRAD: You spend a fair amount of on-line time doing blog discussions about aspects of writing craft. Who would you say have been your major teachers or influencers of craft? And in what ways do you think they’ve helped to make you a better prose artist, as well as a better storyteller?

JAGI: Nice question! The answer falls into two categories: authors and teachers of writing.
I will address the second category first, because it is the easier of the two. I was extremely impressed by Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel and the Workbook that goes with it. Maass is an agent. He reads thousands of manuscripts a year. One day, he decided he wanted to read a hundred breakout novels—novels that sold significantly more than was expected of them, usually with very little advertising—and see if they were actually better than other books. Remember—he really knows what the average submitted book is like!

Maass discovered that these 100 were better, and he set out to analyze why. His look into what makes these books better and how we can bring these qualities to our own writing really speaks to me. I have found his work to be extraordinarily helpful. Whenever I get really stuck, I pull out his Workbook and try the exercises until one gives me that insight I had been looking for.

In particular, his work made me aware that each story needs public and private stakes. (ie. You can’t just be trying to save the world. You also have to be trying to save the part of the world that most affects you . . . your child, your marriage, etc.) He emphasized the power of forgiveness and sacrifice in a story. He also has some great exercises to help secondary characters spring into three-dimensional life.

Other than that, I think I have been influenced by the writers I love the most. These would include:

Tolstoy (odd as it sounds, my all-time favorite book is War and Peace.) I love the scope and breadth of his story and his amazing insight into character. I would love to be able to have characters who had that kind of depth to them.

Tolkien—I love his descriptions of nature. I used to copy them when I was first out of college, to try to get a feel of the way his language flowed.

Roger Zelazny—his Amber series tends to influence everything I write. Both my two published series and my unpublished Visions of Arhyalon series started as Amber roleplaying games. I like the cleverness of his characters, how they bluff and turn things to their advantage.

Lloyd Alexander—his Prydain Chronicles, with Taran, are among my all time favorite books. I love the vividness of his storytelling and his characters. His characters have the most wonderful, distinct voices.

C.S.Lewis—I think of myself as being in Lewis’s shadow, the way so many fantasies are in Tolkien’s shadow. I love both his storytelling and his message.

Other authors I love and that I am sure have influenced my work would include: Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel books, Alan Garner’s Brisingaman books, and Harry Potter.

An early writer once described my books as: Neil Gaiman meets C. S. Lewis or, for an American equivalent, Roger Zelazny meets Lloyd Alexander. I love that description. I endeavor to be worthy of it.

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BRAD: With the Prospero books, you have conjured a quasi-mystical reinterpretation of a classic story. Would you call yourself a classical fantasist, and to what degree do you “wax Shakespearean” in any of your books?

JAGI: I fear the only degree to which I “wax Shakespearean” is that I quote Shakespeare occasionally. Ariel, in particular, repeats some of his lines from the Tempest and then continues in like vein for a bit.

Truthfully, I stumbled into writing about Shakespeare almost accidentally. I have always been a fan of The Tempest, partially because I have a cousin named Ariel. When I had a chance to join an Amber roleplaying game, I decided to play a girl name Miranda who lives on an island amid airy spirits. I chose this because it struck me as amusing.

The game did not last very long, but I liked the character. So I started writing about her. Originally, there was very little Shakespeare in the story. Just a reference or two to characters from the original.

However, my many years experience moderating roleplaying games included weaving background material into the active plot. Automatically, as I continued to revise the Prospero’s Daughter series, I started going back to the original play and drawing more of it into the story. By the time I was finished, the series actually was a sequel to the Tempest, with the events of the novel building directly upon the events of the play.
So, no. I don’t think of myself as a classical fantasists. It happened more by accident.

On the other hand, I did choose to attend St. John’s College—the Great Books program, where I steeped in the Classics the way a teabag steeps in hot water. So, I may be more of a classical fantasy writer than I think!

BRAD: For those aspiring writers liable to be watching, what would you say have been the five most important lessons you’ve learned during both the submission and publication process?

JAGI: My first lesson in publishing came when I got out of school and read the book The Awful Truth About Publishing. It made it clear that each step of the process has its own pot holes and that one should be both cautious and wise. So, I would say that my first piece of advice would be: read up.

My second lesson came when I followed up on the first lesson. The book suggested that it was easier to get published if you knew someone in the business. I knew no one. So I attended a Science Fiction Convention and asked an editor if I could be an intern. My first day as an intern for a publishing company, I was given the task: read the slush pile, pass on anything that is really, truly good, reject the rest.

So my second lesson was: if your work gets rejected, it might be a kid just out of college rejecting it. Don’t let it discourage you!

My third lesson was: don’t give up! It took 17 years to get Prospero Lost to print. I rewrote it from stem to stern at least six times. But I would not give up. I just kept trying to improve it, to make it worthy of being printed. Eventually, I succeeded. So: Don’t give up!

My fourth lesson was writing is not as important as you might think. On July 29th 2009, I finally held my actual, printed book for the first time, after a 17 year wait. I also saw the picture of the girl who was to become my daughter for the first time, after a four year wait to adopt.

The book was cool! Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic, but the daughter was even more wonderful. So: writing is important, but life, family are even more important.

(For more on this day: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/about/why-i-write-fantasy/)

My fifth lesson was: Publishing is changing!

When I started out, there were hard and fast rules about how a serious author would proceed. Now, everything is up in the air. I know of people who went with traditional publishing and failed due to things entirely out of their control. I know of people who are self-publishing who are doing extremely well. I know of people with small publishers who would never had considered a small publisher a few years ago.

Everything is changing. The only advice I can give is: ask questions and remember that the answers might be different next week!

If anyone is interested in the specifics of how I originally became published, my essay on that topic is here: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/about/a-writers-odyssey/

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BRAD: Also for the aspiring writers: if you can permit yourself to be open about them, what have been your five most important blunders, ad what cautionary tales might they offer?

JAGI: This is harder, because in many cases, I’m not sure I know what my blunders are. Not saying I don’t have blunders…just that I am not sure I am yet wise enough to recognize them all.

A few things: no matter how many times one rewrites, one can’t cover everything. – A while back, someone asked me why I never had two characters in the Prospero books have comeuppance for something they did wrong. I had to tell them truthfully, I didn’t think of it. I thought of a LOT of things. But not of that.

Spelling. My spelling is very, very poor. I have people spellcheck it for me, but there seems to be a magic spell that adds mistakes. I once had 16 people read the same book over. The sixteenth found hte for ‘the’. Some of the others were really good copyeditors, but they all missed it.

With my more recent series, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, the publisher copyedited the work and I paid a copyeditor myself. They caught a lot of errors. And yet, a few made it into the final book. This is embarrassing and sad.

Other than that, not sure. I may have to come back in a few years and let you know.

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BRAD: As the spouse of a writer, what have been the unexpected challenges of balancing parenting and work with someone working in the same creative profession?

JAGI: For the most part, having two writers in the house is a great thing, because it means that we understand what the other person is up to, and we both put the same amount of importance on having time to get our writing done.

This means we don’t have moments like the following:

A writer friend told me that he was spending a lot of his time in his office. His wife called in suspiciously, “What are you doing?”

“Watching porn,” he called back happily.

Not fooled, his wife replied with great annoyance, “You’re writing, aren’t you?”

This friend is not the only one who has told me of unsupportive spouses. That never happens in our house.

What does occasionally happen in our house is things such as this September when both John and I were at the very end of our latest book at the same time. So, we both wanted to write with ever spare moment.

This meant that nobody wanted to do mundane things: like feed the kids dinner.

We DID feed the kids dinner, mind you…it was just that neither of us wanted to be the person who stopped and did this.

So, I would say that the hard part was not having a non-writer to do the non-writing tasks. Other than that, I definitely recommend a writing-spouse, should one be available!

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BRAD: For future books, what ideas, concepts, worlds, or themes do you want to tackle?

JAGI: I have so many projects going that it is unlikely I will ever finish them to pick a new one, but, briefly, they are:

My current project is the Unexpected Enlightenment series. Book one is out. Book Two is finished in draft. I have begun Book Three. But there are many, many more to write. It will be a long series. I can’t wait to get farther into it.
It is a delightfully fun series that goes in all sorts of interesting directions. (Think Harry Potter meets Fringe Meets Narnia.) Rachel Griffin, a young sorceress with a perfect memory, discovers the world is a much larger place than her family knows…more magical and wondrous but also more horrible and more dangerous. Yet, she learns that she and her friends may be the key to making the world permanently a better place…if they can survive longer enough.

My husband describes it as Harry Potter meets Doctor Who—without the time travel. It even looks a bit like Doctor Who. John and author Jack Campbell did a survey at a convention and found that more than half of the people, upon seeing the cover, said something like: Don’t Blink, Rachel!

(Should anyone like to read more, here is the first four chapters of Book One: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/chapter-one-the-treacherous-art-of-making-friends/)

The Visions of Arhyalon series— When a dragon who appeared in a story written by a missing friend attacks Washington DC, college grad Victoria Woods withdraws all her money and buys plane tickets, going in search of the one person she thinks might be able to stop the dragon: the possibly evil magician from a story written by her other missing friend.

Turns out, people on Earth have a magic power. We can see into other dimensions…but we think it is fiction. But out of the writers and artists of earth, a handful of Creators will be chosen—people who can make worlds and rewrite destiny. Victoria is determined to become one of these Creators. Armed with this new power, she plans to stop Ragnarok, and free star-crossed lovers from the tyranny of fate. (The first book is written. It is called Uncross the Stars.)

The Lost Boys books are a middle grade series based on the Boy Scout Law (Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, etc.) Jacob and Nicky Lost travel to a magical land where they solve problems and fight evil in hopes of helping their sister. I have written the first one of these, but won’t get back to them for awhile.

Finally, I hope one day, in the far future, to write a story called Against the Dying of the Light. It will be a mix between a woman’s book (think And the Ladies of the Club . . . ) and a fantasy, set in the background of stuff people see in Near Death Experiences. It will be about the End of the World and what happens when a very small determined band decide that, even though the Earth has been abandoned by those from above, they will remain—the last defenders against the dying of the light.

(One of the characters from this series has a cameo in the Prospero’s Daughter series.)

If I should ever be so blessed as to actually finish all that, I’d love to write a stand-alone book called The Pig-Girls Club, about quarreling half-sisters, ages 15 and 3 who discover, when they meet a girl from China, that the three of them have something in common: they were all born in the Year of the Pig.

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BRAD: Back to the Prospero series, are there any specific sentences, paragraphs, or passages you are particular proud of, and which you could share with readers? As teaser material?

JAGI: The Prospero series has many bits I really love in it. The characters are especially delightful. (I don’t mind saying that myself because I didn’t make most of them up. John did. I just borrowed them for the book, with his permission, of course.)
But, in particular, there are two passages that I really love, above all others. Both deal with Heaven. One is a fallen angel’s description of what it is like to live on earth when you once lived in Heaven. The other is Miranda’s memory of coming upon an untouched cloister in the middle of a battlefield. This memory reminds her of the peace she feels when an angel visits her.

Here is the first one:

Imagine you went to live in a house that looked a great deal like your father’s mansion, only nothing was ever quite right. The doors would not close properly. The well did not work. The servants were rude. The walls were moldy. The halls smelled of rotting fruit, and no matter how many logs you put on the fire, you were always cold.

Nor can you ever grow used to this new house, precisely because it reminds you so much of your old home. You cannot see the blighted rose without recalling the beauty of your old gardens. You cannot walk the corridors without its layout bringing to mind the house you loved. You cannot look through the dingy windows at the overcast sky without remembering the glorious skies above the mansion of your youth. Everything you see makes you heartsick for the original, of which this current place is but a dark reflection. That is what it is like to remember heaven and dwell on earth.

To see the second one, you’ll have to read the book.

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BRAD: Of your current work in progress, what timelines are you dealing with? What kind of hours must you put in daily/weekly?

JAGI: My first Unexpected Enlightenment book—The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, is now officially out. The second one, The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, is finished but needs revising. I hope to have that done by March, with the book to appear in September.

I am now writing the third volume, Rachel and the Technicolor Dreamland. These books are so much fun to write. It’s almost hard to put into words how delightful it is to see these characters and events come to life. Like watching a dream literally come true.

As far as writing time, I have four children. and it takes them two hours to leave the house (different schools, different timetables.) I get up about 6:10, but I get to sit down and start writing about 9am, after they have all left. I try to write at least until 2:30, when the older ones come home. Some days, I keep going. Other days, I stop and help with homework, play in the D&D game that the kid’s godfather runs for two of the boys, or help with Snoring Beauty, a puppet show my eldest son and I have been working on for some years now. (Think Sleeping Beauty meets Rashamon . . . or Hookwinked.)

I don’t get much done Mondays or Fridays, but I try to be serious about writing on Tues—Thurs.

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BRAD: Would you consider conventions and convention-going to be essential for new writers wanting to become acquainted with the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

JAGI: I don’t know if it is essential, but it certainly is extraordinarily useful!

Both John and I sold our books due to connections made at conventions.

Conventions are wonderful things. All at once you can: meet other authors, keep tabs on current market issues, mingle with future fans, meet agents and editors, and just generally keep abreast of everything that is going on in the wonderful world of SF and Fantasy publishing.

Not only are they excellent professional experiences, but the more often you go, the more they become social experiences as well, as you befriend people who you can now meet again the next time.

I love conventions. I think they are invaluable. Right now, John and I only hit a few each year, because our kids are at an age where we are reluctant to leave them. But we hope to hit more conventions in a few years, when they are older.

This spring, if all goes well, we will try a new thing and—for the first time since they were babies—bring some of the kids with us. Two of the boys are very excited about this. They can’t wait to come and discover all that there is to see and do.

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BRAD: What are your final thoughts, about your total body of work to date? Dreams? Aspirations? Hopes? Regrets?

JAGI: So far, I am very pleased with how my work has turned out. I love the Prospero books. I’m so glad that they have touched people. I absolutely love The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin book and am so delighted by the enthusiasm with which they have been received.

If I have a dream for the future, it is two thing:

One, I would like to get more writing done more quickly. You saw my list of things I want to write. I won’t get to it all unless I can pick up my writing speed.

Two, I would like to see my work reach a larger audience. It is so humbling to see the joy with which the books are received by readers. I’d like to find a way to bring the stories to the attention of others who might possibly enjoy them.

Catching up with . . . Karen Lord

This week I have Karen Lord, fellow 2012 Campbell nominee, and author of the novels Redemption in Indigo and the forthcoming The Best of All Possible Worlds:

. . . My first novel (fantasy) Redemption in Indigo won the Frank Collymore Literary Award for 2008 and was published by Small Beer Press in July 2010 and Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus) in March 2012. It won the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. My second manuscript (science fiction) The Best of All Possible Worlds won the Frank Collymore Literary Award for 2009 and will be published in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus in the UK and Del Rey/Random House in the US. German rights have been sold to Heyne Verlag and Spanish rights to RBA Libros . . .

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QUESTION: Your novel Redemption In Indigo delves quite a bit into non-European mythology. What were your inspirations, derivations, incantations, and exclamations regarding this departure from “standard” fantasy?

KAREN LORD: Folk tales, myth, science, history and current affairs inspire me. Redemption in Indigo is indeed based on a West African folk tale, but the original contained no fantastical elements whatsoever. It was a completely realist story about a foolish glutton and his long-suffering wife (wives, in the original German text). I made up the supernatural beings from a combination of jumbies and djinn, Gaia-hypothesis and quantum physics, archetypes and art. Apart from the Trickster, who is of course Anansi, the djombi have no single origin in any culture, faith or academic field. The food is mostly Caribbean, but some recipes I created out of wishful thinking. The towns and villages have no single real-life counterpart although they are of course reminiscent of West African and Caribbean settings, but I’ve also been influenced by stories and histories told by friends from all over — Micronesia to India to Croatia.

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QUESTION: Working on a sequel yet? Can you tell us about it?

KAREN LORD: I’m working on a sequel to Redemption in Indigo, but that won’t be ready for a while. I’m also working on a sequel to my science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds which is due out next February.

QUESTION: What other projects do you have planned for the future? Any short fiction?

KAREN LORD: My immediate future will be filled up with writing and editing the sequels I mentioned earlier, but I have written a short story which will be coming out in a VanderMeer anthology.

Sometimes when I’m immersed in writing I forget to read (see question below), so when Karen Burnham invited me to do a podcast with her, I jumped at the opportunity. We’re doing a series of episodes, reading and analysing hard science fiction and Caribbean literary speculative fiction.

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QUESTION: Of those professional Science Fiction & Fantasy authors (living or dead) which ones did you enjoy the most when you were younger, and who are your current favorites you enjoy now?

KAREN LORD: When I was younger it was Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Madeleine L’Engle, mid and late-career C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Ursula LeGuin . . . I’m sure I’m forgetting someone. Now it’s a bit strange because my fiction reading slowed radically when I was doing my PhD and after that I tried to stay in a SF-free bubble while working on my own stories. I’m gradually reading more. I no longer read solely as a casual reader, but also to appreciate a certain a level of craft. I enjoy Ted Chiang’s work very much, and also Karin Tidbeck, but you need to ask me again in a year or two when I’ve properly caught up on my to-read list.

QUESTION: Of your daily living — life and the universe stuff — which activities or enthusiasms do you find “leaking around the edges” in your writing?

KAREN LORD: Mainly tai chi, sociology and history, I think, but I find everything leaks in after a while. Most recently it’s been astronomy and physics.

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QUESTION: Do you enjoy writing stories simply for the sake of discovery, or do you have a larger message (or messages?) you want to impart to your readers?

KAREN LORD: I think if a story has a message it should be incidental and accidental, otherwise it leans too close to indoctrination. Readers can also take away messages you never intended, which can be either a danger or a delight. Discovery — that’s a far better way of looking at it. I’m happy to show people the pretty shells I’ve collected on the beach, and maybe one or two might be special to them. But they need to collect their own, and they usually do regardless.

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QUESTION: As a Campbell nominee, what’s been the biggest surprise; since getting the announcement that you’re on the ballot, that is?

KAREN LORD: Recently, I was shocked and thrilled to receive an invitation to a literary festival. I can’t say more at the moment, but that’s the biggest and best surprise to date!

Catching up with . . . Mur Lafferty

Chicon 7 — the 70th annual World Science Fiction Convention — is now about 30 days away. In the lead-up to the con I wanted to take some time to interview each of the other four writers who are listed with me on the ballot for the Campbell award for best new science fiction and fantasy writer. First up will be Mur Lafferty:

…I am a writer, podcast producer, editor, gamer, geek, and martial artist. I also make a mean martini. My books include Playing For Keeps, Nanovor: Hacked!, Marco and the Red Granny, and The Afterlife Series. My podcasts are many, currently I’m the editor of Escape Pod magazine, the host of I Should Be Writing, and the host of the Angry Robot Books Podcast. I also do a show with my kiddo, Mad Science with Princess Scientist. I write a column for the gaming magazine The Escapist, and in the past I’ve written for Knights of the Dinner Table, Games Quarterly, Suicide Girls, and Anime Insider.

Personally, I run, practice kung fu (Northern Shaolin five animals style), play Skyrim, hang out with my fabulous geeky husband and our nine year old daughter…

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QUESTION: You seem to be working hard at independent publishing? What are the biggest plusses (or minuses) that you’ve encountered so far?

MUR LAFFERTY: The plusses are complete control over what I release; I can write zombie audio drama or afterlife humor or superhero satire. The ebook royalties are much better for indies, but as I’m learning with my first pro book deal (Released May, ’13) that an advance can eclipse that earning. The royalties are less, but the take up front is much more.

But I’d say the biggest plus is the ability to be experimental, and no one loses money except for you (in regards to your time, that is.)

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QUESTION: Your “Afterlife” series has an intruiging conceit: adventures in alternate heaven(s) and hell(s). What was the genesis (pun thoroughly intended) of the project, and was it an exercise in creative fun, or did you have something more meaningful that you wanted to say with these books?

MUR LAFFERTY: I’m not religious, but the concept of afterlives have always entranced me, especially considering the different religions and how they view heaven. When I was a kid I always wondered about Heaven, since I couldn’t see just sitting around being happy as a fun thing. When we tell stories, we don’t tell stories about someone being happy and safe and secure all the time. Adventure is never safe. The thought of that for eternity actually scared me a little bit. So I took it to the next level: what would happen if you got bored and just left?

I wasn’t sure where I was going at first, and was just doing some episodic writing, but eventually an arc developed in my head and I realized the plot over the five books.

QUESTION: Got any short fiction projects in the works?

MUR LAFFERTY: I started a novella for a workshop that is called “Muda! Mura! Muri!” and it’s about cheerleaders in space. Beyond that it’s all novels.

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QUESTION: Of those professional Science Fiction & Fantasy authors (living or dead) which ones did you enjoy the most when you were younger, and who are your current favorites you enjoy now?

MUR LAFFERTY: Madeline L’Engle and Robin McKinley were my biggest influences as a kid, followed by Anne McCaffrey. As a teen, it was Douglas Adams. As an adult, my favorite three are Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, and China Mieville.

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QUESTION: Do you have mentors, and how have they added to or assisted you in your success?

MUR LAFFERTY: James Patrick Kelly has been a friend and mentor for several years and I don’t know where I’d be without his support. Within my MFA program, I’ve worked with David Anthony Durham, who has been extremely helpful and thought-provoking.

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QUESTION: Do you find inadvertent idea cross-polination between your writing, and your enthusiasms for martial arts and also for gaming? What’s your game of choice, by the way? And why?

MUR LAFFERTY: I would love to write a martial arts book, but it’s hard to do. I’ve read some not-so-good ones, but on the positive side, I love how Steven Gould weaves aikido into his books, and may try to follow his lead. As for gaming, I don’t think I’ve done a lot of crossover. I don’t role play much anymore. Right now I’m playing Minecraft on the XBox, Mass Effect 2 on PS3, and lots of board games.

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QUESTION: As a Campbell nominee, what’s been the biggest surprise; since getting the announcement that you’re on the ballot, that is?

MUR LAFFERTY: Not a lot has changed, frankly. The honor is boggling, and sometimes I still just sit here, stunned, that the nomination even happened. And I really, really can’t wait for WorldCon.

Catching up with . . . Bryan Thomas Schmidt

This week it’s my pleasure to chat with friend, writer, and editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Bryan and I first became acquainted through Mike Resnick in 2011, and we each have stories appearing in the Flying Pen Press anthology Space Battles, the sixth in the series of themed anthologies in the Full Throttle Space Tales series.

BIO: Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

QUESTION: How did you end up editing Space Battles, and do you have a relationship with any of the editors who have done the other books in the full-throttle series?

ANSWER: I had been shopping around an anthology now called Collisions: World Encounters, which I hope to have a deal on soon. I had chatted with Flying Pen Press publisher David Rozansky online and pitched it to him one day, but found out they are a small press and don’t have the budget I need, but he invited me to do something with the Full Throttle Space Tales line, so I pitched a bunch of ideas: Space Colonists, Space Farmers, Space Battles, etc. and Space Battles wound up being the one we liked the most. It also seemed the easiest, in many ways, to start with, this being my first anthology as editor. The first thing I did was recruit headliners and started with my friend and mentor of a sorts, Mike Resnick. (He gives lots of good advice and introductions, and help etc. but we have not written together at this point). Mike brought you [Brad] on board and then I began to invite others.

QUESTION: What’s the genesis of your own story in Space Battles? Any particular inspiration?

ANSWER: Well, the publisher wanted me to write a story but I was hesitant. I didn’t want people to think I was “one of those editors” because I included my own story. Yet we didn’t get as many submissions as expected, despite over-inviting. People had various issues and some just didn’t get their stories together. Others just forgot or who knows. I also noticed we had a gap in the area of space opera/space western style which is what I’ve had success with in my Davi Rhii series. I had just finished Book 2 of that (The Returning which releases June 19, 2012, and is the blog tour this post is for) and so I decided to try a story in that universe. But I couldn’t figure out how to do something between books 2 and 3 that wouldn’t be a spoiler. Book 2 has a lot of surprises and tension I just didn’t want to spoil. Then I came up with the idea that I could set it 20 years later. Mind you, I have not even written The Exodus yet, and, at that point, didn’t even have a basic story summary or anything. Finally I realized that if I focused on a supporting character, I could avoid most of the spoilers I was worried about and still tell an interesting, fun tale with lots of action and humor. And I wanted something with a kind of non-stop action tension to it. It ended up being one of David Rozansky’s favorite stories in the collection to my humble surprise. I’m grateful it worked out.

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QUESTION: If you could name three authors who most inspired you to become a writer/editor, who would they be and why?

ANSWER: Robert Silverberg, because Majipoor blows me away. His world-building and character-building are just amazing. And the story was the thing that made me appreciate fantasy and science fiction as a mix that reached beyond Tolkein in my sense of what fantasy could really be.

Timothy Zahn, because his action and space opera stuff is simple enough for most readers yet complex enough to garner respect. It’s well paced and interesting and yet it’s family friendly, always. And it’s reflective of the old fashioned stuff that I loved growing up which inspired me to love the genre, while still having a modern sensibility to it.

Mike Resnick, who also writes fairly clean and fairly simple words. He doesn’t make you have a dictionary next to his novels. But he goes places that are so interesting and unique — like his Africa stories, his trilogy of Distant Planets (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise) — and he also is award winning, highly respected, yet humble and helpful. The kind of person I try to be when dealing with other people.

I’ve had the privilege of becoming friends with one of the three, and now editing him. It’s an honor.

QUESTION: Do you think motion pictures and movies help or hurt written science fiction, as a medium?

ANSWER: Well, I went to film school and I worked in TV and film for several years. So I have a bit of inside knowledge some might not have. First, film/TV and fiction are really very different mediums. Film and TV are visual. There is no internal dialogue and monologue. Everything has to be shown. So when you see changes, it often comes from trying to make things more visual in storytelling and less internal from the novel. In that sense, it doesn’t have to hurt science fiction. But where it does hurt is that Hollywood these days cares less about storytelling and more about special effects and the big bang at the box office. If they can get you in the seats, they don’t care if it’s tripe. The pride in craft is just not what it used to be. And that hurts all creative endeavors it’s associated with because it becomes about something more than the passion of a good story and the quality of telling the story well. Instead, it’s about money and the lowest common denominator, etc. Ironically, Hollywood sees sci-fi movies still become blockbusters even while the SF novel market has faded and been greatly overcome by Fantasy.

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QUESTION: Personally, what’s your take on the current science fiction landscape? What do you think needs to change?

ANSWER: Well, I think people are in the mood for some hopeful stories again. Dystopian fiction will always be around and so will antiheroes. Ironically, you can have dystopian concepts, worlds and tragic events and still have strong heroes who are admirable, and a sense of hope in your story. The recent submissions for the first issue of Center For The Study Of Science Fiction’s new magazine surprised the editors by being majority hopeful. They actually really liked that. And so I think we’re going to see this change coming down the pike in the next few years, and I think it’s a good thing. I also don’t buy the “I have to write my characters as who they are” argument when it comes to foul language and graphic content. I agree with Faith Hunter, who follows similar rules to myself, if you substitute “Xalivar cursed” for “Xalivar said #$%#^!” most people will fill in the blank automatically. To one guy, it might be “Xalivar said damn,” what a heathen! To another, “Xalivar said fuck,” yeah, he’s evil. But readers can do some of the work. It actually helps them get more involved in it.

I challenged all of the writers in Space Battles to write family friendly stories with no extreme bad language and no sex. All of them succeeded, and many of their past stories have used that content. No one complained and the stories have been well received. And I think we need to be thinking about that because there’s a whole generation of parents and kids who are shut out by content that’s age inappropriate. Where’s the stuff that made 7 year old me fall in love with the genre? Are Star Wars and Star Trek tie-ins really all we’re going to offer? I like some of those books, don’t get me wrong, but science fiction can be so much more! I think people should write books with all ages in mind in addition to their adult stuff. I think it will open our work to a broader base and it’s something missing from the genre right now.

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QUESTION: As editor, what were your biggest challenges working on the book? What were your biggest rewards?

ANSWER: Well, it’s intimidating to edit when you feel you’re so new that people might not give you credibility. You don’t want to hurt their feelings and you also don’t want to be seen as some cocky know-it-all. Plus, working with a Mike Resnick, you really wonder if he’ll respect you enough to listen to what you say. (He did — although I was very thoughtful and careful before making suggestions about anything). So that was a challenge. There’s also the challenge of coordinating creative people, who, in case you might not be aware, are not always the most time conscious and organized bunch administratively. They tend to need some handholding.

Being a new editor, I think some of them also felt less pressure about the deadline and trying to get something to me. They kind of thought “well, it’s just him, so I don’t know, only if I feel inspired.” That’s the sense I got anyway, who knows if it’s just paranoia. But those things challenged me. Biggest reward is that people are enjoying it. The book looks good. It has some enjoyable stories with a lot of variety. And I had a positive experience with all my writers, whom I count amongst my friends. To top it off, there are first stories from several writers, which have gotten them notice. That’s a good feeling, helping them out.

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QUESTION: Do you have any future editing projects coming up that you’d like to talk about?

ANSWER: Well, I am pitching Collisions: World Encounters, which I mentioned earlier and have some amazing award winning writers attached but need a publisher. Hopefully I will have an announcement soon on that. I am developing an anthology tentatively called Inspirations which will feature classic stories which inspired modern writers with commentary from those writers and then stories in that modern author’s universe which was inspired by that classic story. I think it can be educational and revive knowledge of genre history while at the same time showing the connectedness and bringing great new stories in some of our favorite universes, from some of our favorite writers. I’ve got a couple of more in the works as well, including an SFFWRTCHT anthology but those are the two I’ve made the most progress with. I am also editing books for Grail Quest Books and Delabarre Publishing regularly as well and look forward to continuing that work.

QUESTION: Do you have any future books or stories you’ve written coming out and which you’d like to talk about?

ANSWER: I am polishing the second draft of Duneman, Book 1 of my Dawning Age epic fantasy trilogy. This was something I finished the first draft of in January 2011 and put aside to work on other things and to get distance. That will be done and off to betas this month and then polished for querying agents, I hope by July or August, in time for WorldCon. I also have started a noir SF detective series involving time travel called Falcone Files and have a partial first draft. I have Belsuk The Half-Orc sword and sorcery novel half done as well, but both got put aside for some research and other deadlines and won’t be picked back up until maybe Fall because first, I have to write The Exodus, the third Davi Rhii book which is due to the publisher by year’s end, and I need to finish my North Star Serial space opera shorts which are supposed to run monthly on Digital Dragon Magazine¸ but I didn’t get one done last month due to being overwhelmed.

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QUESTION: Quick answer: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer? And why?

ANSWER: Kirk. Because he’s a man of action and he’s smarter than he often gets credit for. Sure, he doesn’t like rules. But his solutions are often quite inventive and come out in interesting ways. Thinking outside the box is something I admire as a creative, and disdain for rules isn’t so hard to understand either…but don’t tell my future submitting writers, okay?

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QUESTION: Are there any bits of wisdom you want to pass on to aspiring writers or prospective editors? Tricks? Tips? Warnings?

ANSWER: Best advice I got was from my friend John A. Pitts, who has a great urban fantasy series, by the way. He said, “At the height of their fame, concert pianists practice every day, so why shouldn’t you?” Self-explanatory, but the day we stop growing and learning as writers is a sign of the end of our creative life. I really believe that. So keep learning and growing. Meet people. Network. Take an interest in what they’re doing and how they do it. Don’t wait until you have a book to pitch. Start now and make it more about them than you. Then when the time comes that you have something to talk about, they might want to hear it because you’ve supported them and become a friend.

Lastly, rules are guidelines at best in the creative world but respect them when they are submissions guidelines or affect otherwise your professionalism and don’t ever think there’s only one right way. I get sick of self-publishing people bragging about how that’s the only way, but then traditional publishing people also sound silly saying that’s the only way.

The only way?

Write something good. Polish it until it pops. Then find the best path for that project. May be different for everyone. Nothing wrong with exploring all options. But any time you say “this is the only way,” you’re just playing the fool because you’re putting on blinders to possibilities you haven’t even seen yet. Really.

Catching up with . . . Annie Bellet

I first met Annie Bellet in 2010 when I attended a novel pitch and packaging workshop hosted by Dean Wesley Smith in Lincoln City, OR. I found her to be delightfully aggressive, in terms of her goals and work ethic, and we hit it off quite well. We’ve since seen each other at subsequent workshops in Lincoln City, as well as at major conventions such as World Science Fiction convention in Reno, NV. She is one of my best friends in the writing biz, and it’s my pleasure to feature her on this week’s “Catching up with . . .” installment.

BIO: Annie Bellet is a full-time speculative fiction writer. She holds a BA in English and a BA in Medieval Studies and thus can speak a smattering of useful languages such as Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Welsh. She has sold fiction to GigaNotoSaurus, Digital Science Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction Magazine, as well as multiple anthologies. Her short work is available in multiple collections from major e-book retailers and her first fantasy novel, A Heart in Sun & Shadow, is available now as both an e-book and in trade paperback.

Her interests besides writing include rock climbing, reading, horse-back riding, video games, comic books, table-top RPGs and many other nerdy pursuits. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and a very demanding Bengal cat.

Annie’s blog is at http://overactive.wordpress.com/

Now, to the questions:

QUESTION: When you decided to pursue professional fiction writing full-time, what kinds of conversations did you have to have with your spouse, family, friends, etc? What do you think you’ve learned *since* going full-time that might help aspiring or fledgling writers towards their own goals?

ANSWER: Well, I didn’t really have a conversation with my family or my friends about it. I did have a long talk with my husband though. We’d tossed around the idea before, but once I got into grad school, it became more serious. Then my MFA program wasn’t working out for me and Matt (my husband) and I had “the talk” about what going full-time as a pro writer would mean. I sold him with the numbers, sort of. I told him I’d need ten years to be making a full time living. Remember, this was back in 2009 and the e-book thing wasn’t really going yet, other than a few people right out on the edge. I was watching Zoey Winters and Joe Konrath a little by the end of the 2009, wondering if the self-publishing stuff would turn into a viable option, but when I first decided to go full-time, the trad publishing method was the only one I felt viable. My initial plan was to write a novel a year for ten years and send those novels out and try to get an agent and a publisher.

What have I learned since? Haha. So much. I was so naive when I started. It wasn’t until the fall of 2009 that I discovered Heinlein’s Rules or started reading Dean Wesley Smith’s blog and discovered those workshops. I’d finished a novel that fall, in about 5 weeks, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I felt like I was writing too fast, like something was wrong with me, but my first readers were all telling me the book was good, so I was like what do I know anyway?

I think the advice I’d give to people starting out is to go for it if you really want it. While sometimes I just shake my head at my thinking back then, I also am glad I didn’t know too much because I’m not sure I would have had the guts to go for it. Also, learn the business side of things and pay attention to it. If you want to be a professional, you have to be a professional, which means making decisions that make sense on a business level. Also, be flexible and ready for things that you don’t expect. Thanks to some advice I got, I’m shifting my writing schedule this summer because one project I’m working on is making me more immediate money than another. Have business goals and keep them within your control. Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. There, is that enough advice?

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QUESTION: You just had your 12th professional short fiction sale. How have your experiences been with the markets you’ve been successful with so far? Do you specifically target those markets now, or do you just run each story through a list of markets until it wins with an editor?

ANSWER: I don’t really target those markets, other than the fact that they pay well. I always start at the top of the payscale and work my way down, so it’s not really any wonder that Daily Science Fiction sees my stuff quickly since they pay better than most of the other pro markets out there. I’ve had good experiences with the markets so far, with the exception of one semi-pro market that had to be nudged a bit hard in order for me to get my payment. But the pro markets have been just that, very professional and easy to work with.

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QUESTION: What kinds of effort do you make on a novel, versus a short story? Any advanced planning for one, versus the other? Which do you enjoy doing more?

ANSWER: Well, for novels, I outline. I don’t really outline much for short stories other than to make a few notes and do any research on science or whatever that might make it into the story (I’ve found that 90% of the research I do never sees the page in my fiction, but oh well). Novels I like to go into with an outline and then it usually shifts and changes as I go. I don’t think I’ve finished a novel yet that didn’t go through at least four outlines while I was writing it. It’s more a way to keep track of what I’m doing and how the story is evolving than a rigid structure and my outlines aren’t very detailed. Often they are something like Chapter 3: MC meets up with buyer, things go wrong or Chapter 10: Fight happens, people get hurt, B dies at the end.

I don’t know which I enjoy writing more. I’ve shifted over to longer works lately because I like money and that’s also where my brain has been going, but I’m writing a lot of novella length fiction, which is sort of more toward the short story side. I love it all, I think. Short stories are nice because I generally finish them in one sitting and that feels good. Finishing a work is always a nice reward.

QUESTION: You’ve aggressively pursued e-publishing via Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, etc. Has the e-book landscape lived up to expectation? Are you pursuing a “double life” as an indie author and a trad pub author? Where do you think the market (as a whole) will be at in 10 years?

ANSWER: Haha. Aggressively pursued, eh? I’m not sure I agree with that, but sure. I aggressively pursue money, it’s the nature of the self-employed, I think. There’s money in self-publishing, so I went after it. I still send stories and novels to trad publishers as well, because there is also money there. I’m a commercial fiction writer and a professional, it’s part of my job to get paid for the stuff I write.

The e-book (and print, and audio) landscape is better than I expected. When I first dipped my toes in, I wasn’t sure it would work at all. I figured no one would find me or be interested in my stuff. So I put up three literary short stories and waited a few months. They sold a handful of copies a month, just like that. It was pittance in terms of money, but I started thinking about it and doing the math and realized that this might be a viable path. I had a lot to learn, of course, and I’m still learning (just re-did an early cover for my first fantasy novel, for example). Being a good writer is one job, being a good publisher is another. So once I decided to get into it, I had to learn a whole new job.

But it has changed everything. In my original con job *ahem* pitch! to my husband, I told him I’d need ten years (so somewhere around 2019 or 2020) to make a decent living. With self-publishing, I think we’ll be there by the end of 2015 (maybe sooner). That’s a pretty significant thing for us. I went from making 18 dollars US in 2009 to $480 US in 2010 to about $3,000 US in 2011 and so far this year I’ve already passed 2011’s earnings. That’s with a mix of magazine and self-publishing sales.

I don’t think the market will change much more as a whole in the next ten years. We’ve come through a lot of changes these last couple and I’m sure things will keep shaking around and settling out for a while. Or maybe something else huge will happen, who knows? All I know is that the next ten years look pretty good for me.

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QUESTION: You’ve also endured a lot of personal trials. Without delving into uncomfortable specifics, what do you think your personal hardships have taught you about storytelling. Do you use your stories for catharsis, or escape? What advice would you give to other writers about writing-as-outlet in this way?

ANSWER: I don’t really write as an outlet. Sometimes my heart sort of boils over and I commit literary fiction, so I guess that would be the stuff closest to my dark insides or whatever you call it. Those are the stories that come kind of from my life. I don’t choose to write that stuff, however, I find it awkward and painful and not very fun, so it only happens when I don’t really have any control over it (hence the heart boiling over imagery there).

Mostly I write stuff that I love to read. I guess that is sort of escapism, because in my fiction there are usually happy endings and I like the good guys to win. I do delve into moral ambiguities sometimes, because I find the grey areas interesting, but I don’t tend to stray into areas too close to my own personal experiences. I already know what I went through, it isn’t that interesting to me. I think that just living is good for writing and being open to new things and new people and willing to explore things that you find interesting. I write about people and places and adventures that excite and interest me.

But I don’t really know what I’d say to someone who wants to write an outlet. I guess we all write for our own reasons. If you really are struggling with something in your life, my advice would be to get professional help. Writing can be cathartic, but sometimes trying to heal on your own is dangerous and more of an avoidance than a healing.

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QUESTION: Of all the stories and books you’ve published to date, which is your favorite, and why? Are you big on doing “universe” series with stories and/or books interconnected?

ANSWER: Hmm, let me see which is making me the most money. Just kidding. Actually, I’m not, since my favorite is probably a toss-up between the two that are making me the most money. One is my thriller, which was a huge learning experience to write (a genre I read but had never tried before). The other is the Gryphonpike Chronicles, which are a string of interconnected novellas. They are a blast to write because I love adventure fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons, and killing all the things. It’s also crazy fun to try to figure out how to write convincing and interesting stories from the point of view of an elf who is mute due to a curse.

I guess I am big on doing series with things interconnected. My mystery/thriller pen name will have three series going under it soon, all of which have crossovers. My SF short stories are often in the same universe, though the only way to tell would be the words I use for some kinds of invented technology. Of course, there is the Gryphonpike Chronicles, which are naturally in the same world/series since the whole thing follows the same group of characters through multiple stand-alone adventures. I guess my brain likes to invent places and then let the stories play in that universe. I mean, what is the fun in doing all the world-building if you don’t get to go exploring?

QUESTION: Please tell me about some of your upcoming projects, or projects newly available for public consumption. What are these books (and stories) about, without giving away too many spoilers?

ANSWER: Well, this summer I’m going to be writing more Gryphonpike Chronicles novellas. The first three are out right now, with two more coming in the next week or so (have to get them finished up, edited, and formatted). The companions will face a vampire, undead, more undead, spiders, kobolks, undead kobolds, some more undead, and probably do a lot fighting with some witty quips and bickering in there. Also maybe some looting. Here are some of the covers for upcoming work.

I’m also going to be working on a series of fantasy/mystery books (the covers of the first two are at the bottom of the post there). The pitch line for those are basically, What if Robert E Howard wrote episodes of Law & Order set in a city designed by Monte Cook. Or the short version- Law & Order with sword fights. Hopefully they will be as much fun to read as they are to write. There will be four novels in this series (that I have planned at the moment anyway), all out by December.

Thanks, Brad, for the questions!

Catching up with . . . Patty Jansen

Today I’m kicking off a new feature. I’ve met a lot of wonderful writers in the last four years, many of whom have become friends, in addition to being active in the field of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Rather than just post occasional links or put up occasional mentions, I decided it would be much more productive — and enjoyable — to catch up with these people in the form of an author interview. Hence, catching up with…!

Today’s featured author is Patty Jansen:

Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the 27th annual Writers of the Future contest. Her futuristic space travel story “Survival in Shades of Orange” will appear in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. Her space opera novel Ambassador will be published in 2013 by Ticonderoga Publications.

Her novels (available at ebook venues, such as the Kindle store) include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (SF for younger readers), Charlotte’s Army (military SF) and the Icefire Trilogy Fire & Ice, Dust & Rain and Blood & Tears (post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy).

Patty is on Twitter (@pattyjansen), Facebook, LinkedIn, goodreads, LibraryThing, google+ and blogs at Must Use Bigger Elephants.

QUESTION: You’re one of a string of Australian Science Fiction writers to have come through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in the last three years. What was it like for you as an Australian to be thrust into the carnival of Hollywood?

PATTY: You want the honest answer or the politically-correct one? Ah. I thought so.

Well, after having been warned by many of the idiocy of Hollywood, I expected… something idiotic. I did not expect a suburban landscape that’s in fact far less busy and crazy than central Sydney. Or even North Sydney, where they will gouge you $29 per hour for parking.

I found it laid-back, and amusing, but at no point in time did I feel threatened by the busy-ness or the idiocy of it all.

Except maybe once. I got up at seven to go for breakfast the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and found my way out the back door of the Roosevelt barred by bouffy security guards in black. With guns. Guns are not allowed on streets in Australia, except when police carry them, and police are usually few and far in between. Never had I encountered twenty security guards in black in considerable state of agitation informing me that “We have a situation, Ma’am.”

And the “situation”?

Across the road from the hotel, there was a little old lady with a shopping trolley shouting at some invisible demon. She wasn’t violent. She was much too old to do anyone any harm if she wanted, which she didn’t. She just stood there, under a shop awning, shouting. And this “situation” clearly required twenty agitated guys in black.

Because they had a “situation”, right?

Clearly, job prospects in the US are excellent if you’re a security guard. Even when sitting and writing my 24-hour story in a small shopping precinct next to the ASI building, I noticed two, continuously watching me with my eeevil computer.

So yeah, what’s mad about the US? The fact that no one seems to be able to move without the watchful eye of at least one guy in black with a gun. I’m not entirely sure what the big evil is that they were supposed to protect us from, but I suspect it’s less scary than the guys themselves.

Oh, and they have NO sense of humour. That and an Australian mindset do not a happy combination make.

I am told that it’s not like that everywhere. I shall be looking forward to testing that statement for myself next time I visit the US.

Brad’s note: I certainly hope Patty’s able to sample the U.S. beyond the often bizarre and ludicrous buffet known as Hollywood Boulevard, or Los Angeles for that matter. It’s a big country, composed of 50 little countries.

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QUESTION: You’re also a trained and degreed scientist. Do you think science fiction in either the United States or the anglosphere as a whole does justice to the sciences as practiced in fact? What can a serious science fiction writer do better, when approaching his or her material?

PATTY: Out of all the genres I’ve read where science comes up, science fiction does the best job at accurately portraying the lives of those who work in the field. I suppose that might have something to do with the fact that many science fiction writers are either practicing or past scientists, and the knowledge rubs off on those who are not.

I don’t think you’d call yourself a serious science fiction writer if you have a poor grasp of science.

Then again, there is the debate about what is science fiction. Some people would like to restrict it to hard SF, but that is too restrictive for me, because in doing so, it leaves a number of interesting and enjoyable books without a genre. That is, unless the label Futuristic Fantasy takes off.

Yet again, Futuristic Fantasy (representative of the category: Star Wars) could benefit from having more accurate science applied. This is the type of science fiction that gets made into movies. People who read these books and watch these movies are not hardcore SF readers. In terms of SF, these works are entry-level, and I think there is a dire need for entry-level SF that stays within the confines of reasonably believable science. Why? Because it will increase the general public’s awareness and appreciation of science.

Popular movies that take the gong for “best science”? Maybe there should be an award for this at the Oscars:

Moon

Avatar

See also Stephen Baxter’s book on the science of Avatar. They took some liberties, but the science was pretty solid on the whole, much more so than — for example — Star Trek. Red matter, anyone?

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QUESTION: In your own writing, what are some of the steps you take to ensure accurate science? Do you believe it’s occasionally okay to “bend the rules” for the sake of telling a good story?

PATTY: On the Analog forum, when that still operated (if anyone in the know is reading this, I would really appreciate if it came back), it was agreed that as hard SF writer, you’re allowed one get out of jail card. Many writers use this on FTL travel, because it is needed to simply let the story happen.

If you write space opera, the constraints are less rigid. FTL travel is more or less a given in space opera, and so are aliens.

If I’m writing a piece of hard SF and I strike a subject I know little about, invariably my first source is Wikipedia. I’ll read the general and any specialised nested entries, and then will hunt down the references. Through my past work, I have become highly suspicious of second-hand quotes. It is so easy for a subsequent reader to unintentionally misinterpret the original meaning of the discussion section in a scientific paper. This is not a reflection of poor science, but of the fact that spectacular-sounding quotes without context have a tendency to take on a life of their own.

Hence, I have a veritable stack of very scientific references on different aspects of astronomy. I do not have a degree in astrophysics. Spot the problem?

I have also purchased a heap of books on subjects I’ve used in my fiction. The problem is again that the books are aggregates of past research, not necessarily performed by the author, so they are second-hand collations. Especially the more popular books repeat the same bits of information over and over again. If you collate the more outspoken quotes of scientific papers into a book, you have a perfect showcase for science performed, right? Well-uhm — no, because often those quotes come from the discussion section of the paper and are fairly speculative. Taken without context, one could collate an argument entirely quoted from scientific papers, that there is life on Mars. You have to be careful with this sort of stuff, especially on the big, unvetted internet.

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QUESTION: What’s the Australian science fiction scene like? Do you get a chance to mix and mingle with people like Sean Williams much, or is everyone too geographically scattered?

PATTY: Australia is huge, and the SFF writers I see face-to-face on a remotely regular basis number exactly… zero.
I live in a part of Sydney that is an effective cultural wasteland, populated as it is with bankers, stockbrokers and doctors. A number of writers, including [Writers of the Future] vol. 28 winner Nick Tchan, live on the city fringes, but last time I went anywhere near where he lives, it took me three hours to drive there. Sean lives… in Adelaide, which is a good two days’ drive from here.

The country is bigger than the US, and the cities are far apart. There is not much in between. We come together at major cons, but for example the five-hour flight to Perth is a serious impediment to us from the east coast visiting and vice versa.

One thing you will notice about the Australian SFF scene and that is the abundance of writers of horror. Fantasy is a good second and SF comes way down the list. Hard SF… uhm. Greg Egan. That’s about it. He doesn’t even live in Australia anymore.

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QUESTION: With your recent sale to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, what changes did you have to make to the story to make it fit with Stanley Schmidt’s requirements? Did you know when you wrote it, as your 24 hour story for Writers of the Future, that it would be a strong candidate for Analog?

PATTY: When I wrote this story, it had Analog all over it. I really wanted to sell something there. When I finished the story, it was about 5,000 words. I knew I had some notes at home which were needed to fill out the unusual setting, so I added those, cut the beginning a bit and sent it off.
I have made very few changes since having the story accepted. Stan asked me a few questions, which I answered, and I added a sentence or two to make one or two things a bit clearer.

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QUESTION: Can you please talk a bit about your overall writing philosophy: what goals do you have, what’s your “mission” with your stories [if any!] and what kinds of stories do you find yourself writing most of? Near-term, far-term, space-based, et cetera.

PATTY: I have been most successful in my writing of space-based hard SF, or hard SF-edged space opera. I love writing both these genres. All four pro sales have been hard SF. My upcoming novel (Ambassador, with local SFF publisher Ticonderoga Publications) is space opera with a fairly hard edge. OK, there is FTL travel (almost a prerequisite for space opera), but there is a fair bit of real science in the background, especially atmospheric science. Even the FTL travel has an explanation. My as-yet-unsold non-winning finalist WOTF story deals with this.

With my SF, my aim is to entertain as well as educate and inspire. If I can help just a little bit in making space exploration cool again in the eyes of the general non-geek public, I will be happy.

But I also like writing fantasy. In my fantasy I like adding strange elements not normally encountered in the genre. My fantasy trilogy has magic that behaves more or less like nuclear radiation. There are also people without hearts, and giant eagles used as steeds. One of the characters is a meteorologist.

Although it’s all made up, I like there to be a logic that is based on science. Sometimes, that science is real. At other times, it is made up, but it still sounds like science.

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QUESTION: You’ve also done a significant amount of work on e-publishing. Do you think e-publishing is more important for Australian writers who want to reach out and tap the broad UK and American science fiction audiences? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned going through the processes of e-publishing?

PATTY: The great thing about e-publishing is that it makes no difference where you are and so it is a great leveler. Oh, wait, that is also true for traditional publishing. To be honest, being geographically isolated only matters when you need to see someone, or when you just want a chat with friends.

The most important lesson beginners should take away about e-publishing is that it does not make getting good sales any easier. If you’ve self-published something, you have not ‘published’ and you should not behave as such. It’s not a credit.

But that’s not to say it’s not fun. I’ve found it tremendously so. One thing self-publishing can do is to allow you to give out samples of your writing.

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QUESTION: Many aspiring writers around the world look to recent winners of the Writers of the Future Contest, as guides for break-in success. Can you tell these new and aspiring writers five good things you think helped you win, and five things you think new and aspiring writers can avoid, so as not to get bounced?

PATTY: For my own story:
1. Extensive worldbuilding
2. Buying a pair of titanium scissors
3. Research
4. Believing in your own work
5. Make sure the story ends strong

For submitting writers:
6. Send a story every quarter
7. Science Fiction does better than fantasy
8. Longer stories do better than shorter ones
9. Make sure the story has a strong speculative element
10. Make sure the story has a strong plot

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QUESTION: Who would you consider to be influential on your writing? Favorite authors? Any mentors?

PATTY: I would love to say that there isn’t any one person influential on my writing. I came into SF from a completely different angle as most people. I started writing from the science side of things. From the moment I knew there were other planets, I had characters living on them, and wrote stories about this, until I found out shock-horror, that other people also did this.

In addition, I am not a person who does fandom very well. I have a great aversion to hero-worship, and I guess that’s why I never did well in corporate environments. What the boss says — my arse!

That said, of course I do have a number of favourite authors and, non-surprisingly, they write fiction in styles I like to write myself. C.J. Cherryh, Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson, our own Sean Williams are all writers whose work I love.

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QUESTION: What’s your general opinion of public science education, and overall public grasp of the sciences? Is part of the job of the science fiction writer to educate, as well as entertain?

PATTY: It seems to me that the vast majority of the general public is happy to stand on the shoulders of giants twiddling their iphones, without a care for how we got this far or an appreciation of the view. I don’t think this has ever been any different. It has only ever been a very small proportion of humanity that has made serious advances in science.

What I do fear, is that increasingly our connection with How Things Are Done is stretching thinner and thinner. It bothers me immensely that a lot of people don’t seem to have the foggiest understanding of how the equipment they use daily works, or how to do things when said equipment breaks down. People who can’t change the tyres on their car, check the battery or unclog the pump in the washing machine, or who can’t sew a pillow case or can’t knit or crochet. These people scare me.

I think science fiction has a duty to educate. Not just educate the actual science, but to educate how integral it is to our lives, and contemplate what life would be like without it.