Brian Trent’s work regularly appears in The Magazine ofFantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the New York Times-bestselling Black Tide Rising anthologies, The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF, Terraform, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Pseudopod, Escape Pod, Galaxy’sEdge, Nature, and numerous year’s-best anthologies.
The author of the science fiction novels Redspace Rising and Ten Thousand Thunders, Trent is a winner of the 2019 Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF Readers’ Choice Award from Baen Books and a Writers of the Future winner. He is also a contributor to the Baen anthologies Weird World War III, Weird World War IV, Weird World War China, and the newly released Worlds Long Lost. Trent lives in New England.
An hour-long interview with Brendan Wilson, former Army ranger and paratrooper and NATO defense planner and diplomat, master martial artist, and author of The Achilles Battle Fleet, Book 1 in the Mei Ling Lee Trilogy.
Following 25 years of military service as a US Army ranger and paratrooper, Brendan Wilson retired as a lieutenant colonel and then joined NATO where he served as a defense planner and diplomat for the next 15 years. During the course of his 40 years of work as a soldier and diplomat, he saw service in war-torn Libya, Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq. A former coach and team captain for a military martial arts competition team, he holds master ranking (8th Dan) in three different martial arts, and won the silver medal in the 2009 US Open for Taekwondo.
In retirement Wilson turned his efforts to filmmaking. He wrote and produced two award-winning short films (Doug’s Christmas, A Child Lies Here) and served as executive producer for ten episodes of the award-winning web series, Greetings! From Prisonstarring SNL’s Chris Redd. Moved by seeing human lives upended in war-torn areas, Wilson is earning his law degree and, once qualified as an attorney, plans to volunteer to help refugees. A former assistant professor who taught military history and the Univerity of Colorado, Wilson holds a Ph.D. in international relations and has about a dozen publications on defense-related topics. He is the father of two adult children.
Wilson lives a quiet life in Sycamore, Illinois. He spends his days writing, hiking, studying law and practicing his martial arts. The Achilles Battle Fleet, the first book in the Mei-Ling Lee Trilogy, is his first novel.
The First Novel of the Mei-Ling Lee Trilogy
Naval Academy martial arts champion Lieutenant Mei-Ling Lee serves in a backwater assignment as an aide to the inspector general of a rag-tag group of starships thrown together as a convoy evacuating civilians from a contested area of the galaxy. When the convoy is attacked, she finds herself thrust into the center of a galactic struggle as the chief of staff for the newly formed Achilles Battle Fleet. As the conflict continues, Lee is forced to draw upon her martial arts skill and her inner strength as she fights alongside the Fleet’s marine commando unit. Struggling with budding romance, new friendships and startling betrayals, Lee becomes the warrior she was meant to be.
I was just saying before we started that usually at this point, when I’m just getting started, I say, “Oh, yeah, well, I met you, you know, this WorldCon or that WorldCon,” but we’ve never actually crossed paths before this.
So, I’m very happy to have you on. And I just, as I said, also before we started, I just finished reading The Light Brigade last night, so it’s very fresh in my mind.
And we’ll talk about that one primarily as an example of your creative process, but my first step is always…I say this all the time, but I don’t know any better way to say it: I’m gonna take you back into the mists of time and find out how you, first of all, got started being interested in science fiction and fantasy, probably starting as a reader, as most of us did, and then how you got into the writing of it. So, let’s go let’s go way back and then find out how that all started for you.
Way back…yeah. No, I have always had a very vivid imagination, even, I think, when I was in kindergarten, to the point where they would have us, you know, make little storybooks and everything, and I was making this story with, you know, space explorers who went to this strange planet that was blowing up flowers out of the volcanoes and had weird creatures that were crawling around. I had always done stuff like that, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot of positive feedback from it. And I think that’s important, too, when you think about encouraging young people, right, with things that they enjoy and are interested in. My teachers and my family were just like, “Wow, you’ve got quite an imagination, Hurley,” and so I started doing that for, you know, just as part of the English curriculum stuff.
And then it just turned out that that was what I started to do after school, as well. It just sort of became my hobby. I, gosh, I think I wrote…I typed out…I remember typing on an electric typewriter at one point, a story of mine, an early one. And I think that about 1994, when I was thirteen or fourteen, we finally got a word processor. And that was exciting—I could I could actually keep an entire book on, like, four or five floppy disks. So that was great.
But I…you know, it was just something that I wanted to do because I had all of these stories in my head, and I loved this idea that I could take these things that were in my head that no one else could see or experience or whatever, and I could communicate that to people. I thought that was really cool. And I think that that just sort of sparked my interest in kind of delving deeper and how do I, you know, create a book that absolutely gets across this feeling the best way possible, right, to people, and that’s totally clear. So, yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time.
Where there are things that you were reading that kind of also sparked your interest in telling stories?
Sure. Yeah. Tamora Pierce wrote a really great series, The Song of the Lioness, which is about a young girl who swaps places with her twin brother and goes off and pretends to be a male knight, and she gets knight training, and then she gets revealed.
I read that one!
But it was cool when I was a kid because I think it was the first time that someone really wrote that idea in a way that made sense to me, where I bought it, right? I was like, “Oh, I can see how this happened.” Of course, you look at history…that would happen all the time. But it was someone who actually did that in a way that felt really cool. And so I think that was some of the early stuff. And again, I read The Phantom Tollbooth and all that. I think we all really start with fantasy and science fiction, right? Like talking animal stories. And it’s just a matter of, you know, do we continue reading or do we kind of veer off in another direction?
I think a real formative moment was, I think again, at thirteen, fourteen, I had a family friend and I said, “Hey, I’m running out of stuff to read.” There wasn’t really a YA category, right, when I was a kid. So it’s like, I was in that weird stage where the younger-people, the middle-grade, books were too young, but the older-people books, I just didn’t even know where to start, because some of…a lot of them were just like, I had no interest in. It was old-people problems, right? And he said, “Hey, why don’t I give you some of my fantasy and science fiction books?” So, he brought to me a paper bag full of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, and the first, The Eye of the World, the first Robert Jordan book. And that, like, really, really, I just loved. Those Dragonlance books…I’d never read Tolkien, so the Dragonlance books were like my Tolkien. I was like, “This is so original and amazing!” you know, at the time. And I really loved it and enjoyed it. And again, The Wheel of Time, I really got into that one. And that sort of was my gateway into science fiction and fantasy, and yeah, I’ve kind of stuck with that ever since.
Now you mentioned that, you know, your family and friends and all that said, “Oh, what an imagination!” That sounds like you were probably sharing your writing with people along the way. You weren’t just keeping it to yourself?
Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. Actually, what I would do is, I would base characters on some of my friends at school, and so they wanted to read it, to know what happened to their character. And I look at some people who have kind of gotten into D&D and stuff like that, and it’s a very similar sort of idea where it’s like, it’s something you can…it’s something that’s very social, so that if you’re not really good at making friends, not very social, which I was not, it was something to talk about, you know, with people. And it was like, oh, you know, “The scullery maid is revealed as the princess!”, you know, stuff like that. And people did, they really liked it. And all of sudden people said, “Oh, Kameron’s writing stories,” and people that I didn’t even think would ever talk to me were like, “Well, I want to be a character in your story.” And so, yeah, it was…it ended being a little bit of a social activity as well.
Hm. I wonder if you put, like, Oprah as a character in your story if you’d get in her book club or that sort of thing?
I know. Right. Right. It’s like that Obama-Biden comic book. I’m sure he was thinking, “Yeah, maybe Obama and Biden will call me.” Yeah. No.
Were you writing just shorter things? Or were you writing…were these like novel-length, or…?
I just writing pretty long stuff. I called them books. I mean, it was 150 pages, was my first one. And then I think, yeah, we got up to about 200 pages for some of the other ones when I was in my mid- and late teens. I probably wrote, you know, eight or nine books before my first book was published, and some of those early ones were definitely, you know, they were…they were book-sized, for sure.
Well, I ask a couple these questions of everybody. And one reason is because, of course, comparing it to my own experience. My first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you can see where my mind was. But I wrote these longer works, too. And actually mine…I was calling them books, too. And I thought it was novel-length, too, but I recently got the typed manuscript of the one I wrote when I was fourteen, called The Golden Sword, and I scanned it, word recognition, and it’s only about 38,000 words. And I felt it was like this huge, epic fantasy.
Yeah, it feels, yeah, it feels like this. Yeah, absolutely.
I may throw it up on Amazon as by Eddie Willett, which is what I went by back then. The scary thing is it might sell better than my real stuff. That would be really scary. Were there teachers or people along the way who encouraged you at that stage?
There were! One of them—again, it’s somebody you always remember their names, right?—and one was Barbara Kreinbring, who was like my seventh- or eighth-grade English teacher, and she was very, very passionate about it, very encouraging, loved that I had this thing that I did outside of class that, you know, engaged me and I was interested in and, again, something academic. I was from a pretty small town, too, and I think that there was certainly this, you know, push to, hey, you know, “If you’ve got it, let’s go.” You know, “If you’ve got something, let’s get you out of town!” And, yeah, she was super-encouraging. She’s probably the most encouraging one.
I’m trying to think, kind of later on…later on, you know, in college and stuff, I actually had a writer, David Marusek, who’s a science fiction writer, who was teaching a class, and he was actually the one who told me, “Hey, you need to reapply to Clarion,” the writing workshop Clarion, because I had and I was rejected, and he’s like, “No, no, your stuff really is good enough.” You know, I was doing stuff in this class all semester and he said, “Apply again.” And I went to Clarion later on. and it really was transformative for my writing career, just meeting new people and forcing myself to write a story a week. You know, you do level up like two years in six weeks. And so that was a really good kind of a moment as well.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Battleground, Washington. It’s just north of Portland, Oregon. I think now that they’ve extended the freeway a little bit it’s basically, my mom was saying, I was just talking to her about this, basically it’s become like a suburb of Portland because it’s about forty-five minutes away and there’s no housing in Portland, so it’s like, there’s all this growth. But when I was there, it was like…cows. Which is great! I loved it. We had two and a half acres, I had a great imagination, I wandered around. It was a great place to grow up, it was just definitely a small town.
Well, you mentioned going to Clarion. I want to ask you about that in a minute. But you didn’t actually study writing in university to start with, did you? Your degree was in historical studies?
Yeah, yeah. I considered doing an English degree until I realized that basically what they wanted you to do was just read the classics. And I said, “Well, gonna read the classics anyway, why don’t I do something that is writing-adjacent that will…that I feel like I’m actually learning something.” I mean, one of the things that…and that was, again, that came from a teacher, I do not remember his name, but that was…he was a college teacher, but I was still in high school, I was in community-college classes as part of my high school curriculum…but anyway, he was an amazing history teacher because he’d tell it like a story, and all these wild things, right, that people have done in the past, and what motivates them and all of that, and as someone writing fiction and sort of struggling with, you know, character motivation and where do ideas come from and what are some twists and things, that was really awesome for me to take those notes and be like, “OK, how can I work this into what I’m doing?” And I realized that, “You know, it’s probably going to serve me better to go straight to the source of where all the stories come from,” right, which is our own history. And so that was that sort of leading me more and more…
There was another teacher, again, at the same community college, she was exceptional. I think it was a feminist history course of some kind, and it was amazing learning about…it was wild. So we had a really great time with that one, too. And it just…yeah, it just sparked my interest. And my parents were like, “We’ll disown you if you don’t go to college,” so I had to go to college. But I chose to do something and study something that I found really interesting.
And it has, it’s really changed and transformed my writing, because I’m going straight to the source stuff. As I’ve said, people have said, “Oh, your stories are so weird and stuff happens, it’s so creepy,” and whatever, and I’m like, “You don’t understand, this is sanitized. This is sanitizedfrom actual events.” There’s stuff like…I researched…I spent two years living in South Africa, where I got my master’s degree in history, and I researched all these archives from something called the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which is what they did after the end of apartheid in that country, where people could come forward and actually tell stories of the horrors that had happened under the state, and they would be, they’d be given political immunity. Oh, my gosh. Like, the stuff you read is just…you know, I’d have to stop and take a break, like, just the things that people do to each other. But to me that was a much better way of spending my time, like researching the real world and what has happened, than just reading books, which I was going to do anyway.
It’s interesting. You’re my twenty-ninth author, I think, that I’ve interviewed so far, and… I don’t want to say names because I’ll forget somebody…but you’re about the third or fourth who actually has a history background.
And that does seem to feed into their writing, and clearly it feeds into yours as well.
Oh, for sure.
So how did you—and when did you—break into writing?
Let’s see. I sold…I sold a non-fiction piece, I think, when I was sixteen, to, like, a local newspaper, which was a nice little jolt. I think I got like twenty bucks or something for it. It was like, “Wow, I got twenty bucks!” And you know, my mom cut it out of the paper, and it was so exciting. And then I think I sold my first genre…I started submitting when I was fifteen to genre magazines, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, and I think Intergalactic Medicine Show was around then, and Talebones. And I think my first professional…I sold one when I was, like, seventeen to an online magazine for five dollars. And then I think my first professional story was to Talebones, and that was when I was…twenty, I think? And so, that was the first one where I actually felt like, “Oh, I’m a real writer,” like, “a publication I’ve heard of is pushing my…” And it was great, though, because I met, oh, I forget his name (Patrick Swenson – Ed.), but I met the editor of that publication like, ten years later. I had just published a book, my first book. And he said, “Oh, I love to talk about you, it’s like, ah-ha, I first published Kameron Hurley.” He’s like, “But honestly, the reason that you were in that particular issue was because I had a spot of exactly 3,000 words, and I had a pile of stories that were on the maybe pile, and your story happened to be about 3,000 words.” I said, “God bless you.” Sometimes that’s all it is, right? It’s so funny.
Well, having been a newspaper editor early in my career, I know exactly what it’s like to have a specific space that you need to fill. And I’ve added a magazine since then and, yeah, it’s like, “That one’s a good story, but I can’t use 5,000 words. This one’s not quite is good, but…”
But it fits!
You mentioned selling to the local newspaper and I was laughing a little bit. My first sale I got paid for was to Cat Fancy magazine.
They had something called Young Writers’ Corner. When I was thirteen I sold them this terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement. And he found a guy who wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew that he could never work out because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe.
Oh, my God.
And I got paid for that.
And you got paid for that!
So, you know, you take what you can get.
You take what you can get. Exactly. A sale is a sale.
So, you carried on from there. So, were you largely short fiction for quite a while before you tried something longer?
You know, I actually was trying longer stuff. I feel like I’m a natural novelist, so I was writing very long stuff and I think it was from actually encountering other writers. And at the time, you know, the popular wisdom in the genre was, “You need to publish short fiction so that you get known, and then you publish the longer stuff because your stuff will, you know, stand out on the pile or whatever.”
Yeah, I hated that bit of common wisdom.
Oh, man. I hated it. And so I did. So I tried to write short fiction, especially, again, when I went to, again, the Clarion Writing Workshop, they specifically are like, “We would prefer you do a short story, a complete, you know, arc, every week.” And so that gave me a lot of a lot of experience doing that. Again, I think I was twenty when I went to that one, as well. And, yeah, it just…I don’t know. I did a lot of short fiction. I sent a lot of stuff out, and at the same time I was working on longer work, on novels. I think I finally…I sent out a partial, I sent out a novel to several publishers, without…unagented, just to the slush piles, when I was…twenty-two, I think? And, of course, it was rejected across the board and I was like, “Oh, well.” And then I sent out another manuscript again when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, looking for an agent, and all of those are rejected as well. “Well, yay!”, you know, whatever. And again, it’s like I was not having a ton of luck with the short fiction. I sold some stuff to Strange Horizons, again, I had the Talebones sale. I had some stuff to some smaller magazines. I did get into a Year’s Best SF at some point, which was really cool, for one of my Strange Horizons stories, but it just wasn’t…and I could tell, right, that, you know, I could make a short story, but it wasn’t anything special. Like, I look at some of the short story writers who are writing today, Alyssa Wong, Brooke Bolander, like, they put stuff out and everybody’s like, “Ohhh!” The crowd goes wild! And I was not like that. It was just like, well, that was a story. Again, it fits the 3,000-word thing. So I’m like, there’s clearly something I’m missing in short fiction that I was not, you know, it just wasn’t gelling, it wasn’t coming together.
Whereas I think when I finally wrote my first novel, the one that was actually published—ha-ha, “first novel,” again like the tenth one or whatever—when I finally wrote God’s War, I just was like, “Let’s just put in everything. Since I can, I have the space, I’m just going to throw in bug magic and worlds at war and a desert planet, it’s like Mad Max Apocalypse, I’m going to do all this stuff, and—cutting off heads,” and I did, and I ended up sending it out to, I think, three agents, and one came back and said, “Yeah, I’d like to represent this.” And I was like, “Wow, cool.” And, you know, we sent it out and got tons of rejections.
And here’s the…now, here’s the irony, okay? And this is why I tell people that how I broke in is not how you break in today. It’s all very different. Same thing with, like, Scalzi, you know? How it’s done is very different. But I…so the agent sent it all around, we got rejections across the board, nobody wanted it. And then she gets an email from somebody a…an editor at a house that she’d already sent it to, but she’d sent it to a different editor at that publishing house. Well, this editor said, “Hey, I heard Kameron Hurley is shopping a novel, heard it online somewhere, and I read a short story of hers that I really liked, could you send me this novel? I think it’s weird you haven’t sent this to me.” And she, my agent, was like, “Oh, well, I sent to this other, you know, editor. She didn’t want it.” So she sent it to this editor who had read a short story that she liked, and, yep, twenty-four hours later, we had a three-book deal. And that one eventually…there’s a whole thing with that, that didn’t go through, and there was a bunch of messed-up stuff because that editor was fired, it was 2008, it was a disaster. But it was eventually published somewhere else. But that was…like, my first experience was, “Oh, wow,” And then me thinking, “I guess that short story thing really does work,” though I hate to write them. Oh, yeah.
So, yeah, everybody’s story is different. And I do the same thing, when I talk about how I got in with DAW Books, which is my major publisher, it was almost the “here’s a 3,000-word story that fits,” because they had a hole in their publishing schedule, and I had a book published through Marty Greenberg’s…what was it called…Five Star. And they said, “Well, send over some of your stuff and we’ll see if there’s anything that fits,” and they picked mine. And so that’s how I got in at DAW…they had a hole, and I filled it.
That was what they needed. Yeah, totally.
That was…ten books later, I’m still with DAW, so…I also wanted to mention, going back to Clarion, where did that fall in there? Because one thing I often ask writers about their formal writing training, and I get “hit or miss.” You did mention David Marusek was a teacher, so you must have taken some formal writing classes in university at some point. But I get a lot of hit or miss with authors as to whether formal writing training was helpful or not. It sounds like for you, it was.
For me, it was. And it really would depend. I think I started going to, like, local workshops and stuff from the time I was about fourteen, that’s actually when I started reading Writer’s Digest thinking, “OK, if I really…” Again, when I was twelve, I said, “Wow, I could be a writer. How cool is that?” Sometimes I get really mad when I think, you know, how many years I spent studying writing and how long it’s taken, right, to get to where I am, but I also go to the point where, for some people I feel story and structure and all of that stuff comes a lot more naturally, and others of us really have to start early because we have to work at it. But I did, I had to work it, and a lot of it, that was plot and structure. And actually my current agent has been really great with helping me with plot and structure. But I struggled quite a bit when I first was starting out because I could write sentences and there were characters and people did things, but it wasn’t a story, if that makes any sense, it wasn’t…you didn’t get that feeling of catharsis or emotion at the end of it, it was just like, “Okay, so what?” Which is, you know, what Damon Knight would kind of write at the end of somebody’s story that, he’s like, you know, it just tailed off: “So what?” And I had to learn what, the reason I’m writing the story.
So, yeah, I started out doing some of those, some creative writing classes in college, and what I found with a lot of them is, I felt I was a stronger writer than a lot of those people. And I also found that, you know, still, they’re quite hostile toward genre. I think more so than they are now, but nobody likes science fiction and fantasy. They treat it like you are a little kid or something.
I hear that a lot.
Right? All the time. So I got very frustrated with it, and especially having teachers who clearly had, like, they’d published one poem in a literary journal when they were twenty-five. And I’m like, “Okay, what do you have to teach me?” And I think, yeah. David Marusek was the first…I think by that point he had sold about a dozen short stories and possibly had sold his first novel. But it was someone who actually worked in the genre, who took it seriously, who had been published in it, and I was in a class with other people who wrote genre. And it was really very useful to me because they were not only genre, you know, writers—they were also readers, and it was really nice to kind of get that feedback. And I think that was definitely the jumping off point to…again, as I said, he encouraged me to go to Clarion, and then from going from, you know, this sort of small pool of, “Okay, cool, genre writers,” to, like, professional-level, oh-shit genre writers at Clarion, was really, really…it was kind of…there was this feeling of both awe and fear and…I don’t…I can’t explain it. It was one of those things where I went to the writing workshop, and there were seventeen of us, and some had been to Oxford and Stanford and a bunch of them are…one’s a doctor, and all this stuff…and I thought, at the end of the first few weeks, I was like, “You know, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I am performing at a similar level to all of these people.” And I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to live in a cabin in Alaska, I’m going to write, and I’m not going to…” I wasn’t thinking about all the things I could do with my life. And there was just something about going into that environment and being really inspired and thinking, “These are my peers. Like, I’m not like the lowest person here or the one who just kind of slid in, you know, on my backside. I’m actually writing…I’m performing.” I wrote a short story every week. They weren’t necessarily very good, but I wrote them. Some people didn’t, they weren’t able to do it. I totally get that. But I was there to learn, and I was there to do the work. And I think that there was something about…it’s something about how you approach these experiences and how you decide or not to make the most of them. I think for some people, that kind of environment is not good. It is true. A lot of people can’t do, like, the criticism and the like, the pressure cooker, you know, sort of thing. And there’s, you know, cliques form, I mean it’s six weeks, so it’s like a…ugh, it’s a mess. So some people can’t do it. But I really enjoyed it. I felt it forced me again to kind of push myself and to level up my craft, so…
Well, and your craft was leveled up quite nicely since then, with all these awards and everything. But let’s talk about your craft. So, as I said, I just finished reading The Light Brigade, which came out in March 2019. And so, let’s talk about that one as an example of your creative process. First of all, this isn’t…you know the first question is going to be some variation on, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I’m sorry, but you have to start there. So, let’s put it this way: what was the seed from which this impressive growth sprang?
Well, I have always loved military science fiction, certain military science fiction. I love Conan, too. Now, both of these genres are very problematic in many ways. You know, Conan is a throwback to very racist, sexist times, and a lot of military SF, it’s like people talk about Heinlein, especially like, “Oh, this is just him spouting on about, like, fascism is good.” And I’m like, “I understand that. I also love a lot of things about it.” I think John Steakley wrote a really great military SF novel called Armor, and of course, Joe Haldeman, you know, The Forever War, which is an amazing anti-war novel, which is great.
So, there are some really wonderful military SF titles I really like—Marko Kloos is doing some interesting things as well now—and I, weirdly enough, like, I studied, you know, resistance movements and war for my master’s degree in graduate school. And funnily enough, I was like, “I haven’t written a military science fiction novel.” And we had sold…we had done a two-book deal with Saga Press. One was for The Stars Are Legion, which was a weird-ass feminist space opera, and the second one, it was like, “Well, what do we do now?” And my agent actually came to me and she said, “Hey, you wrote a short story for your Patreon,” ’cause I have a Patreon, which is basically supporting us right now, and she said, “Hey, why don’t you—I really love the voice in that, why don’t you expand that to a novel?” And I said, “Oh, I could do that,” And it was a short story, and I had gotten that initial idea because I love time-travel stories, I love military SF, and I was actually playing World of Warcraft, and there’s this point where you can get between two locations where it actually transforms you into a ball of light, and you sort of follow the ball of light, you know, to the next location, and I thought, “How cool is that? What if you broke down people into light and you, you know, took them to different battlefronts?” And I was like, “Well, so once you start messing with light, then you can start messing with time travel and quantum mechanics and all that stuff.” And so that’s sort of where that idea came from, right, playing World of Warcraft.
We should probably at this point have some sort of synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it, because otherwise that may have been just a little confusing.
Yes. The Light Brigade is a novel about a disgruntled soldier who signs up to fight a war against Mars to get revenge for her family, who has died, and soldiers are broken down into light to get them to these interplanetary battlefronts. And what she starts to realize, as she experiences this war out of order, is that the reasons for the war are not at all what, you know, they’ve been told they are. So, that’s the journey of the novel, it’s sort of her learning what exactly this war is really about and trying to take control of that situation.
So, that sort of, you know, coming from anywhere…is that how ideas come to you in general? Some people, you know, they tend to start with ae character, or they start with an image or something. It sounds like it can come from anywhere for you.
It can. It can come from anywhere. I think a lot of times, you know, they do start with a character. And then I will actually start with…I’ll start with a character, an idea for a character, and say, “Well, what kind of a world would make that character,” right? And in this particular case, I had this idea…and that’s the thing, too, is that one idea does not make a novel. You have to take a great many ideas. And I can say, “Yes, this…idea of beaming people back and forth, that started it,” but that by itself is nothing. I had to come up with, you know, Dietz as a character, and say, “Okay, what kind of a world will make this person?” And then I had to figure out the structure of the novel, which is a pain in the ass. I had to do all, you know, all these other things, all of the military…
There’s a lot of stories in there that actually come from people that I know who have been in the military, also from a really great book called The Unwomanly Face of War, which is actually an oral history of women who fought in World War Two in Russia. And there, they had a ton of, you know, just first-person accounts of some of these harrowing and heartbreaking and hilarious, also, things, and those sort of also made it into the novel in various different forms. And it all had to come from the media and the books and the writing and all of those things that you sort of soak up throughout the world and your experiences of it, and you then distill it down into a story.
So what does your planning and outlining and all that look like for you? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you…I’m pretty sure in this one you didn’t just make it up as you go, because the structure is complicated.
I tried. I tried the first time, the first time writing it, I sat down, I got to the 40,000-word mark, which was all through the basic, her basic training, and then, yeah, once stuff started going out of order, I…all of a sudden I, it just stopped, and I, you know, called my agent, I said, “Listen, I don’t know how to make this work.” And she said, “Okay, well, tell me what’s going on.” I said, “Well, here’s what I want to happen, but I can’t make it logically happen.” And she said, “Oh, my gosh, you really have made a mess.” And I was like, “Yes, I have. Yes, I have!” Well, it turns out her husband has a Ph.D. in mathematics, he actually teaches in California, and he saw her with a whiteboard trying to figure out, “Okay, how does this, and check the jump that…now they’re back and they’re doing…” And he said, “Oh, well, you just need to…” I don’t know, it’s whatever I said in the back of the book, it’s this, whatever, kind of graph that links these things together. He’s like, “This is okay, you can just use this mathematical equation to make sure that everything is happening in logical order,” and she’s like, “Oh. Oh, great!”
So, we actually sat down, and what she would do is run characters through this graph to make sure that the events as they were happening out of order…because first I had to note how everything happened in order, so I made an Excel spreadsheet of that. Then I would chuck those out of Excel and mix them up, and then I would go to her and say, “Does this make sense?”, you know, just make consistent sense with math. And she’d run it through and be like, “Okay, yes, math says that make sense,” and then I’d go, and I could write the, you know, each section. And it was a matter of me having to say, you know, “Here’s who’s alive at this time. Here’s, you know, here’s what she believed happened last time. Here’s what her squad actually experienced last time.” And I did need to be incredibly detailed and really pay attention to this book in a way that I don’t think I have with any other book.
I was telling my agent, I think it was the third read through of the novel, for the finished novel for me, where I said, “You know, this feels effortless.” And I was like, “How amazing.” Like that….as an author, like, that’s your goal, is to make it look easy. And I mean, you know, the third time I read it through, I said, “It’s at that point where it feels like, ‘Oh, how obvious, you know? Oh, this was easy.’” And again, and still up until, you know, up until we were in proofs, my agent was double-checking, running stuff through, making sure that it all made logical sense, because we knew, with any time-travel novel, we know…and military SF, right?…people are gonna check, they’re gonna re-read it several times and they’re going to check to make sure that you’re right.
So, yes, this was a very different sort of book for me. I think you look at, you know, my first series, The God’s War series, was just, it was a classic quest plot. It was just, it was Conan, it was a female Conan, so it was just like, “Hey, there’s this object of power or person that they need to find,” and they go about, and they have silly hijinks, and they do it. Like that’s, that’s a…I love writing those sorts of plots because they’re just very easy. This was not that…
No math required?
Yeah, no math required, no running it through the graphs. But this one, you know, was a real level up, where it was…I felt like I could say, “I’m writing science fiction now. We used math!” But, yeah, for the most part, with other things I’ll do broad outlines. I used to be almost entirely, you know, a gardener writer, where I would just sort of throw stuff on the page and wander around and I’d have some big set piece like, “Here’s where I want to go and here’s the kind of the big things I want to happen,” but it was just, you know, wandering around. I can’t do that as much anymore because I’m on contract, so what I’ve found is if I try to do that, I end up spending, you know, six times as long editing the book as I would if I do all the work up front like I did with Light Brigade.
Yeah, those deadlines have a way of doing that.
They change your process. It’s a pain in the butt, yeah.
So what does your actual writing day look like? Are you a plant-yourself-at-the-office-chair-and-type-for-twelve-hours-a-day writer, or how does it work for you?
Well, it usually depends. I think my…I’m a binge writer. So, what I like to do is make sure I have big chunks of time. I like to, you know, be sitting at the computer, certainly by about nine o’clock, and I will usually work straight through, with a little break for lunch, until two o’clock or so. By the time it gets about three o’clock, it’s like, my brain is done, I’m done, and I’m ready to do other things, which is great, because then I can spend the early morning hours responding to email, reviewing contracts, and then the later hours doing whatever. So, that’s really kind of the ideal.
Now, does that mean that’s always what happens? No. Right now, I’m working constantly because I’m on deadline. I have a book due Thursday, a big rewrite of some stuff due Thursday, so now it’s like, “Oh, get up at six, type-type-type-type-aaaah!”, you know, and then go to bed late. So, it really depends on where I am in the process. ’Cause there are some other days, you know, once this book is in, I have another book that I’m actually in the research and ideation process right now, and that means going to the library and taking notes and researching things. And that’s a different process. I’m not necessarily making words, but I am preparing to create that outline and flesh that out and get the world in order before I really start it in earnest. And so that’s kind of different mode of work.
Do you ever get lost in your research?
You know, I try a lot more now to stay on target, just like with deadlines, right?
“Stay on target…”
Right, yeah. That’s also, I think, the reason I like to go to the library, because if I’m just like, oh, I’m a hundred percent doing my research online, it’s way easier to lose yourself online than it is in the library, ’cause at the library you have to physically get up, to look for stuff, you have to put this away, do that, so you’ve got to be very clear about…it is much harder to get caught in that. But yeah, if I try and do stuff online, it’s, I feel like, “Oh, it’s been six hours and now I’m watching a YouTube video about basket weaving, how did that even happen?”
So now…I’m presuming you type and work directly onto a computer because you started with word processors when you were a kid, so…
I have talked to one person, I think, who still likes to write longhand, but…once you have your draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you have beta readers? Do you just get it done and send it off to your editor? How does it work for you?
At this point in my career, my agent is basically my beta reader. In fact, she is involved…again, I talked about working with structure, she’s very analytical and very much involved and hands-on from the early draft stage…so, when I finish a draft, I usually send it to her first. Occasionally we’ve had ones where, you know, it’s due to the editor and I’ve got to send it to them both at the same time and I just ran out of time, but for most of my work, yeah, she reads the first draft, she gives me her first big batch of notes, I rewrite it based on her notes—that’s usually when the big structural stuff happens—send it back to her, she reads it again, I clean up any last little things, and that’s when it goes to the editor. And that’s ideal, right? But sometimes it just goes straight to the editor, in which case, yeah, then I just end up having…
Like, this last book, The Broken Heavens, which is the third in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga…that one is so late, and so it ended up going to my editor and to my agent at the same time. They both read it and I had to incorporate both of their comments—sometimes contradictory, so it’s like any other way of taking notes, some of the times you’re just like, “Well, which one best fits my view of the novel and the way the novel should be. Do I agree with them?” and throw them out if you don’t like them. And then again, I just sent it back, and I got the notes back again, fewer notes every time from my agent and editor at the same time. And so, I work on those.
But yeah, I worked with beta readers for my first series, and I think after my first series, the issue became, you know, a lot of my first readers were from my Clarion class, and over time we all became professional writers, and then none of us had time to actually read each other’s books. We didn’t have time. And by the time I had a draft finished, it was already…there would only be, like, a week before it was due to the editor, and that wasn’t enough time to give them time to read it, so, it just…that just kind of fell by the wayside. But early on in my career, yeah, I did have beta readers.
See, I basically never did. I pre-date the Internet, when I was getting started, and I didn’t have any friends…well, that’s not quite true…but I didn’t have any, you know, people that were going to be any use to me. So I’ve always just kind of gotten it written and sent it off to an editor. It’s kind of the way I’ve always worked. Before you send it to your agent, what does your personal rewriting look like? Or are you perfect at the end of your first draft and ready to send it off?
Ha-ha. That’s only John Scalzi is that way. It drives me crazy.
Oh, my gosh, yeah, no, he drives me crazy. But no, I…some of it is…I do, I revise as I go, but a lot of times when I finish something, I do go back and say, “Okay, what are…were there any notes I made…”, see, sometimes I’ll make notes along the way, “Hey, remember to go back and fix that, remember to go back and do this,” and I will go back and I will kind of fix those things up. But, you know, more and more I do…because I am writing to deadline…I wait for my huge edits until my agent sees it. And then I incorporate my edits and my agent’s edits into it, to be like, okay, kind of a gut check, like the things that I thought were wrong, “Oh, look, she thinks are wrong,” or “Oh, she didn’t even think about that.” So, yeah. And I do, I try to take…when feedback comes in, you know, I try and take the small stuff first and get all the small stuff done, and then look at the bigger ones. “Okay, now we have to go through and fix these large sections. This motivation doesn’t seem right, you know, this sequence of events is messed up.” So, I do kind of try and keep track while I’m writing of all the things that I need to address on the next pass.
And yeah, then I’ll go through, I will read it through, address those things. I’m not terribly worried about, like, word choice and things like that. I will spellcheck it at that point, but I wait to really layer on, you know, worldbuilding stuff and work on sentence-level things once I’ve gotten all of the feedback from my editor and my agent, because I found if I try to work at that level first off, a lot of times it takes a lot longer, and then it might turn out that I have a big section that I spent all this time on that in fact needs to be deleted completely. So, I’d rather make sure all of that big structural stuff is in there—in fact, that’s what I’m doing for Broken Heavens right now—all the big structural stuff is fixed, and then I go back, layer on worldbuilding, layer on character stuff, go to the sentence level and say, “OK, let’s clean this up, let’s make this a little bit more poetic,” and that’s the point at which I really start…again, now it is a polish. It’s really shining it up right before it goes to the copy editor.
My final sentence revisions usually happen when I’m doing a public reading and I come across something I wish I’d changed before it got into print.
Oh, yes, we all have that. “What did I do?”
Yeah, it’s funny. Well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of sad, really, but it happens. Well, that’s the novel we were talking about. I also wanted to mention the short story collection that’s just come out. Where do the short stories come from? How did you assemble this collection? You said you don’t write a lot of short stories? Are these all previously published? Are there some unpublished ones in there? It’s called Meet Me the Future.
Yes. Meet Me in the Future. So, two years ago, I think, I started a Patreon. And a Patreon is where my fans can sign up and they get subscribe for a buck a month and get a short story for me. And yes, I’m like, “Oh, I hate short stories, to write short fiction.” Well, when you’re writing short fiction every month for two years…
They pile up.
You do get better. Yeah, you do get better. It’s amazing. But it was really cool, because, I mean, at this point, I was laid off from my day job a few months ago, and so Patreon and my book earnings are basically what we’re living on right now, and, you know, when you have to pay the bills with it, it’s very easy to write a short story. So, I had been doing that. Yeah, I had quite a few lined up for the last two, two and a half years, and what I did is…and I also took some much older stuff, again some of those old Strange Horizonsstories, some other ones that ended up in anthologies. It’s really a “best of,” and it was me taking the best of the Patreon stories, the best of my older stories, and then I basically presented over 100,000 words of these to Jacob (Weisman), the editor at Tachyon Press, and said, “I don’t know what to do with these, you tell me which ones are best. You tell me what you think is good and what order it should go in.” And he read through them, and he’s like, “Wow, this is like…there’s so many, They’re all so great.” And he picked out the ones that he thought were the best. He ordered them in the way that he felt made sense again. Again, he’s an editor, he does it all time. And it’s getting really great reviews, it got two starred reviews, and people have been really happy with it, which is great, again, for someone who’s like, “I don’t know how to write short stories.” It turns out that if you apply…like again, my whole career, if you apply yourself and you work really hard at it, you know, you can get better. And I think that that’s, you know, this short-story collection especially is a really good example of how, you know, doing something over and over again, but with the intent of excelling and getting better and studying, can pay off for sure.
Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, and this is where I like to get the big philosophical questions. (See, my voice even goes deeper when I say that, “The big philosophical questions.”) And it’s not that…well, it is a big question, really. It’s, “Why do you write and why do you think any of us write?” and concurrently, “Why do you write this crazy stuff?”
I write to change the world. That’s all. I enjoy exploring ways that the world can be really different. And that’s something Joanna Russ actually had said in one of her essay collections. She realized science fiction was the place where she could actually explore how things could be really different. And something about that really struck me, and I really identified with it, because I felt I was writing, especially when I first started, I was writing the fiction I wanted to read then that I wasn’t seeing. And I like, yeah, I kind of grew up in the age of the New Weird genre movement, and which is really strange, really strange, and it’s weird stuff. And I love that stuff because I believe it gets us to think about the world differently. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and kind of pushing that envelope and having people think about the world a little bit differently is really a powerful thing. And I think…my day job, work, you know, the last, like, fifteen years, has been in marketing and advertising, and one of the things that marketing and advertisers know is that stories, and emotional stories especially, can change people’s behavior. You can get people to buy your toothpaste and wear seatbelts or not and smoke or not, and it’s really powerful. And I think they understand that in a way that some other folks don’t.
I think even in genre that sometimes we don’t understand, really, the power of our stories. One of the things that Geoff Ryman, an author, told me the second week of Clarion, he said, “You know, we have to take responsibility for the images that we put on the page, whatever those images are, because they are part of the storytelling, storytelling world that we come from, and that’s how we are each building our own consciousness.” So, I write because I like to show people how it could be different, for better or worse.
I was gonna say, the world of the The Light Brigade is not one for the better.
It’s not a great one. It’s not a great one. It is ultimately, I feel, a hopeful book, but it’s certainly, you know, yeah, it turns around and shows us, you know, a mirror image of certainly some of the things that we deal with now, for sure, so…
A little out of order from my questions, but I meant to mention back when we were talking about it that when I got into it and where the time shift starts happening, I kept being reminded of Gene Wolfe’s book, Soldier of the Mist.
With, you know, the soldier who forgets day to day unless he writes things down. A completely different book in almost every way, but that was something that kind of struck me as a similar kind of thing. And I guess that kind of ties in. I mean, science fiction is often said to be a field that’s constantly in conversation with itself. And I think you mentioned that earlier about, you know, you were reading Conan, and then you wrote a feminine Conan, a feminist Conan. Do you feel that you are a part of this great conversation of what’s come before and what might still be coming?
Oh, gosh, absolutely. And that that to me, again, is what so much of Light Brigadereally was. And I think it really depends…a lot of people have asked me, “Oh, can you write down, you know, all the call-backs and Easter eggs and stuff in Light Brigade?” I said, “No, I can’t,” because some of those are actually just in there for specific people. But it’s a book that’s absolutely in conversation with, you know, all those older military SF books, which I think a lot of people really got in there like, oh, here’s our military SF book for this decade. I’m like, “Yeah, see?” It really is, you know, kind of my riposte to a lot of those books.
And it’s in conversation, certainly, with a lot of those books, with Forever War, with Armor, with, you know, Starship Troopersand all the rest. And I don’t think you can say that your work isn’t, unless you don’t read. I mean, if don’t read the genre, then sure, it’s probably not. But one of the things that I actually love about writing genre is that there is still an established…there’s sort of an established community and a discussion of, you know, that we all have about the work, and that you can actually kind of contribute to that conversation as a writer if you’re kind of plugged into it. So, I do appreciate that. I like it because it feels like…you feel like you’re building on something, right? Like, you’re all building toward something. And no one knows what that is, but everybody is contributing to it. And no matter how much one will try and get away from whatever thing in the past, like, influenced all this other work, it’s like, if you are influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by someone, you’re part of that kind of timeline. I don’t know. I find it interesting.
So do I. And I guess that’s one reason I got into the field as well. Although I predate you by some time, when I was doing all my reading and writing. Well, what are you working on now? I mean, we’ve mentionedThe Light Brigade, which came out in March. The short story collection is out now.
What’s coming next for you?
Next up, in January of 2020, is the third book—third and final, whew!—in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga. That’s called The Broken Heavens. And then I actually just sold a book called Losing Gravity, which I pitched to my editor as “Killing Eve meets Die Hard in space.” And he loved that, and the movie people loved that, too. They called immediately.
That’s an elevator pitch.
And I said, “There’s no book! There’s no book yet, guys. That’s a pitch.” So I now have to write that book. So, that’s the stuff I’m doing research and stuff on now while finishing up edits on Broken Heavens.
We haven’t mentioned your non-fiction writing, but you do a lot of columns and that sort of thing. Is that continuing?
That is, that is. I do a column for Locus Magazine every other month, and I also do an essay for Patreon subscribers every month. Occasionally, I do still do stuff when I am, you know, someone pitches me and wants me to write a column. It depends on, really, my schedule, so…