Gail Z. Martin writes urban fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk and more for Solaris Books, Orbit Books, Falstaff Books, SOL Publishing and Darkwind Press. Urban fantasy series include Deadly Curiosities and the Night Vigil (Sons of Darkness). Epic fantasy series include Darkhurst, the Chronicles Of The Necromancer, the Fallen Kings Cycle, the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, and the Assassins of Landria.
Together with Larry N. Martin, she is the co-author of Iron & Blood, Storm & Fury (both Steampunk/alternate history), the Spells Salt and Steel comedic horror series, the Roaring Twenties monster hunter Joe Mack Shadow Council series, and the Wasteland Marshals near-future post-apocalyptic series. As Morgan Brice, she writes urban fantasy MM paranormal romance, with the Witchbane, Badlands, Treasure Trail, Kings of the Mountain and Fox Hollow series. Gail is also a con-runner for ConTinual, the online, ongoing multi-genre convention that never ends.
When she’s not writing, Shelley is usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or enjoying the garden with her flock of rescued chickens.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to the World Shapers!
Thank you. Thanks for having me over.
Now, I wanted to tell you how I ended up reaching out to you. My wife is an engineer, and one of her former classmates, who is also an engineer, Carol Bachelu, is a fan of the podcast, and she said, “You know who you should get on there? There’s this steampunk author that I really enjoy, and you should reach out to her.” And so, I did, and so, here you are. So, you were recommended to me by a woman engineer, which makes perfect sense.
It does, actually. You’d be surprised how many engineers are in my readership.
I wouldn’t at all, having read the book. Doesn’t surprise me at all. And I’ve hung out with a lot–I’m not an engineer myself, but I’ve written a history book about engineering in Saskatchewan and hung out with a lot of engineers because…my wife is former president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan. So I have a lot of engineers in my circle of acquaintances.
And I’m married to one, so there you go.
There you go. So, we’ll start by going back into into the past, which is where you write, so that kind of makes sense. But we won’t go quite that far back. We’ll go back to when you first became interested in writing in general, and in writing the kind of thing that you write in particular. So, how did that all begin for you?
It began in third grade, as a matter of fact. We were given a writing assignment and I wrote this little story about a ghost in a graveyard. And my teacher, Miss Gilstein, bless her heart, wrote across the top in red ink–after giving me, like, ten out of ten–she said, “Ooh, you have me scared!”, which is, you know, what a lovely teacher would write there–but the thing is, I had never realized before that what went down on paper could affect people’s emotions. And yes, it wasn’t real. But to my eight-year-old mind, it was very real. And I decided then and there that this is what I was going to do when I grew up, was be a writer.
So that’s interesting to me, because one thing I often ask writers on this podcast is if, when they started writing, if they showed what they wrote to people to see how they reacted. To you, it kind of all started with that. And I’ll get authors who’ll say, “Well, no, I never wanted to show it to anybody,” but I always think it’s was precisely that. It was sharing it with my classmates–a little older than five–and finding out that I was writing stories that they enjoyed that actually kind of made me think, you know…
“This could be a thing!”
Yeah, I can tell stories that other people like. And clearly it happened for you very early.
And this is why neither of us has any fear of reviews?
I guess that’s it. Yeah. My classmates were reviewers for sure. That’s for sure. So after you were five, how did it progress from there?
Well, that was eight years old. And then, right in our neighborhood, we used to…we never played house. That was for kids in the city. We played, like adventure. And so, we’d watch episodes of The Wild, Wild West, with James West and Artemus Gordon. And, as you know, that was like steampunk back in the ’60s.
I loved that show!
I know. Me, too. So, I always had to be James West because I was the oldest, but I really wanted to be Artemus Gordon, coming up with the cool tech. So, that’s kind of where it embedded itself in my mind. And time went on, and I got educated, and went through a couple of writing degrees, and finally I came up…I got the flash for Book 1 of this steampunk series, and it just took off from there. All that sort of desire and interest in Victorian technology just came to the fore.
Now, you grew up on Canada’s West Coast. I’m in Canada, but a long way from there.
You’re in the cold part.
Yeah, hat’s for sure. But did you, when you went into university, did you go straight in with the idea of going into creative writing or or did you start somewhere else?
Well, I sort of had a circuitous way of getting there. My family was very blue-collar, so my mom always wanted me to go to university, but I wanted to travel. So, I moved to Alberta and saved up my money as much as I could, and I went to Europe, and multiple times–you know, the backpacking trip to Europe that you do in your twenties–and that kind of opened my mind a little more to other cultures, other languages. I love languages, and they come fairly easily. So, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of German and French as you progress through the series because it’s a very multinational sort of series. And so, once I had the traveling done, I went to school. I emigrated to the States, and I started college when I was, oh, I don’t know, thirty or something. And I always said I was going to get a license plate that said BA BY 2K, because I was on the, you know, one class a quarter plan. But I got it in ’95 and then I went into a Master’s program after that. Got two Master’s degrees in writing, and now I’ve told my mom I was taking this education train to the end of line, so we’re getting a Ph.D. now.
Well, your undergraduate degree was in literature.
What did that entail?
Well, I had a creative-writing minor. So, my undergrad thesis was a novel that will never see the light of day, but it gave me the confidence that I could finish a book.
So that would be the very first one that you wrote to completion? First novel that you wrote to completion?
No, the first novel I wrote to completion was when I was thirteen. A Nancy Drew rip-off. Very adventurous.
Did you write other longer things while you were still growing up? Other novel attempts?
Well, it took it took me five years to write the Nancy Drew rip-off, just ’cause that’s what you turn to when you’re a really introverted kid and you grow up in a religious group that’s closed and you don’t have any friends that are outside the church, and yet you want a larger life than the one you have. So you make it on paper. That’s what I did.
I think at that age…well, my very first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” because I had hit the science fiction thing really early.
But I also wrote…you know, I was reading, like, there was a fellow named William Gault, I think his name was, and he wrote auto-racing books in the ’50s. And so I went through a…that was my rip-off. I tried to write auto-racing books, never having driven a car or even been to an auto race. But I did my best, so…
Well, I know, and I was doing, like, massive adventures, taking cruises and going to foreign countries, and my characters are fourteen.
My favorite bit of juvenilia was the one I wrote called Ship from the Unknown, in which this strange ship shows up in my seaside town…of course I’d never lived in, either, where my characters were…and they end up…there’s the whole hidden high-tech civilization in the middle of the Amazon jungle, which nobody knew about until they got there. And even now, I think,”You know, we had satellites then, you couldn’t hide something like that. What was I thinking?” But it was a lot of fun to write, ao that was the main thing for me then.
Right. When you’re young, that’s the main thing, and it’s exercising your brain and giving it those muscles that it’s going to need later on.
Now I always like to ask the people…and there are a few authors who went the formal creative writing course. Now, they sometimes run into teachers who are not amenable to the kind of fiction that they want to write, especially if they’re tending toward the fantastic or the science fiction. Now, I noticed your Master’s was actually in writing popular fiction, which is different from some of the more literary focused Master’s programs. Did you ever run into that, with any of your teachers, or were they all really good?
In high school, I got told flatly to knock off this space-opera nonsense and stick to what I knew, which was not good advice. I just basically ignored it. And the Ph.D. program that I’m in right now is very literary, so that was…even though I multi-published and I came into that program as a, you know, sort of a professional, that’s not holding any water. But the MFA in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill…I think there’s only two popular-fiction and Master’s programs in the country, and they were the first ones. And they were…they’re just fantastic. I was a romance major, but you can be a mystery major or, you know, a science fiction or a fantasy or a horror major. It’s great.
Oh, if I’d known that existed.
It’s been around since 1999.
Yeah, well, I graduated from university in ’79, so…yeah, I guess I could have done it, but I was busy doing other things by then. Well, that’s interesting. I’m actually mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan right now, and he’s writing a young-adult fantasy novel, which they seem to have no problem with, which makes me feel good. At least they’re not saying you can’t write that kind of stuff.
So, you mentioned briefly how Lady of Devices–the whole series is called Magnificent Devices, is that right?
Uh-huh. Book eighteen just came out a couple of weeks ago.
You mentioned sort of getting the initial initial “flash” for that. But maybe before we talk about it in more detail, give us a synopsis.
Okay…the Cliff Notes version is that a young lady is the daughter of a viscount and Daddy bets the estate on the combustion engine, which, as everyone knows, is a failure, and he commits suicide and she is thrown out onto the street, because it’s kind of based on the idea of the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s, where everyone invested in this thing that turned out to not even exist. So, that’s kind of what I was thinking about. All the investors…there was a riot in London and they came and trashed the townhouse in Belgravia and my heroine had to run for her life. She winds up with a street gang of children and becomes the queen of the London underworld.
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I finished it, as I said before we started, about ten minutes before we started the interview. So it’s very fresh in my mind. The first book. Not a terribly long book. I read it in Kindle. So, how long would it have been?
It’s kind of an introductory book. It’s about 55,000 words. All the other books range between sixty-five and seventy-five. This was the one that I have for free, so it’s a launch pad.
Yeah. That’s how they get you, is that first one’s free…
So maybe in more detail, how did that idea come to you and then how did you go about developing it? Are you a detailed outliner or do you kind of make it up on the fly? How does it work for you?
Well, every book starts with what I call the flash. It’s an image that I don’t know what comes before or after, but I know that that’s kind of like the inciting incident. So, the flash for Lady of Devices was a girl in a steam landau outside an underground station in London. And she’s attacked by this gang of children and is lying in the street. And I’m like, “Whoa, who is this girl? Where her family? What is she even doing in White Chapel at this time of night? And the story just kind of iterates and builds as you try and go backwards and forwards from the flash. So, I’m an outliner, but I’m not like the spreadsheet kind of outliner. I really, really like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat fifteen-point beat sheet. So, that’s kind of how I have been structuring the books.
But now lately, I’ve been doing something that my mastermind group and I call the placemat plot. So, we get large paper placemats from restaurants, and you can lay out your story in sections you can draw, like setting diagrams, mountains and rivers and, you know, how am I going to manage this battle? And it’s all in one spot and you can fold it up and put it in your purse. So that’s how I do things now with the place pad.
What is your your mastermind group?
My mastermind group is a group of friends. We’ve been friends for twenty years, probably, since before we were all published. And we get together a couple of times a year to retreat, to brainstorm plots together, to, you know, we run covers past each other, back cover blurbs. “How does this sound?” “Well, I’d fix it and it would make it more exciting if you did this, this and this.” And all of us have our strengths. I’m really visual, so I like helping people with covers and others of the group are really good at back-cover blurb, so they’re always making mine better, and it’s just a real wonderful give and take between professionals.
Well, that does some terrific, and something else I would have asked you, if you hadn’t mentioned it, was if you had a group of either beta readers or, you know, anyone that you bounce things off of, and it sounds like you do. And again, you get all good all over the map with authors. Some, like me, the first person who sees it as my editor. And that’s kind of it.
Well, I don’t have one of those except myself these days. But, you know, I was always a complete failure at critique groups. I produce much more quickly than they can read. And so having a meeting once a month was just the maximum in frustration and unhappiness for me. So I’ve never…I haven’t had a critique group probably in thirty years, but I really enjoy the mastermind group, ’cause we’re all sort of at the same level. Some of us are higher on the ladder, some of us are a bit behind because of time, but we we really mesh well together and are really helpful. I don’t know what I’d do without them.
I often think that that’s what’s important in those kinds of groups, is that, people are either at the same level or there are some that are a little bit above. If you have people at wildly different levels you may find yourself not getting very useful advice because some people are just inexperienced and don’t really know how to give good advice.
Exactly. And you’re not really in the group to be a mentor. You’re in the group to be like a sharing partner. So there’s a big difference in that kind of disparity,
I just want to back up for a minute, ’cause I was looking at your information here and I noticed that you actually taught or are still teaching, I guess some?
Yeah, well, I taught at Seton Hill for nineteen years from 2002 to just this past winter in 2019. And then, you know, with the Ph.D. I have to step away from it because I can’t do it all at once, plus release four books a year.
Yeah, it’s tough when you’re the only person.
Yeah, I know.
You know, there’s the…what is it…it’s from The King and I, actually, there’s a line, “If you teach, by your students you are taught,” or something like that is one of the lines that’s in there. Did you find that? Did you find that teaching others has helped you with your own writing?
I do. Because having to take your process apart and reconstruct it on a PowerPoint deck is really, really hard. So I found my, you know, “How do I do this? How do I build a world? How do I build a series?” In fact, I’m giving a talk next weekend on planning and plotting your series. But I had to figure out what my own process was in in doing that so that I could transmit it to students. And that has actually been really good for me because I have a very literal brain and it makes it happy to not have the woo woo stuff, but just kind of laid out that this is how I do it. It’s, I don’t know, it’s comforting somehow. But, you know, some people hate that. It’s like, “Don’t touch the magic or it will all shatter and I’ll never be able to write another word.”
Yeah. And again, one of the great things about doing this podcast is the wildly different ways that people people approach all these things. This flash that you speak of that gives you the image. Is that true for all of your books? I mean, you write in other genres, you write romance. Do you get the same kind of start to those stories as for your steampunk stuff?
Yeah, it’s just pretty much how my brain works. There’s some kind of inciting reason for the story to be there, and that’s usually what the flash is like. For instance, there’s a book I wrote called Grounds to Believe, and I got a flash of a guy on a motorcycle trying to find his kid in a religious cult. And that was the start of a four book series.
You mentioned that you’re going to give a talk on writing a series, and I did want to explore that, too. So, you’ve talked about how you build out from that initial flash for the book, but then you’ve got a whole series. So, how did you develop it into a series from that initial thing?
Well, Lady of Devices was only supposed to be, like, one or two books. And I’m on number eighteen now. But there’s a lot of things that brain does in the background that you’re not really aware of. It’s cooking the soup while you’re putting in ingredients on the front end. So one book grew to a four-book sort of little mini series, and then two more books came after that, and two more books came after that, and then four books after that. They’re all, like, in segments, but they’re all connected. It’s one huge story. I had the big bad in book one, but I didn’t know who that person was until book seven. So it…brains…I tell my writing students, “Trust the brain, because it knows what it’s doing.” And I see in J.K. Rowling’s books, like the Harry Potter series, stuff she’s seeded in book one…you know, knowing her, she’s a genius, she probably put them there intentionally. But my brain does that without me knowing about it. So, I can be like six books along and go, “Oh, that’s what that’s for!” and then write and develop it.
Well, that brings up another thing. I’ve been on panels at conventions talking about writing series. The longest thing I’ve written was a five-book young-adult series called Shards of Excalibur. But even in that…and I wrote a trilogy, which I guess technically probably had more words, as many words in it, as the five-book young adult series. Do you ever find that you…something that you did not intentionally seed, you know, you’ve said something you didn’t intentionally seed can develop later into something you use, but is there ever something that you put in on the spur of the moment that then later on causes you a problem, and you think, “Oh, drat, I’d really like to do that, but I closed that door back in book three or whatever?
Yeah, that happens sometimes. In the mystery, The Mysterious Devices spin-off series, I think I’m so smart and I’m planting red herrings up front, and what they turned into is loose threads just waving in the wind. So I have to go back and remove them because what I thought was such a good idea at the time turns out not to be. And then those odd little accidental things like a brooch showing up on somebody’s dress collar turns into a major deal. So who knew? You know, brain. I trust the brain. I just let it do its thing.
For me, at least, even when you make those kind of problems for yourself, that’s actually part of the fun of writing is then finding out a way to solve those problems or work around them or make them work for you.
Or just delete the wretched things.
Yeah, well, you know, that can work too, but not if it’s already published.
Yeah, that’s kind of a problem.
Do you ever run into continuity issues where, you know, the bulk of stuff piles up the longer the series goes on? And do you finding yourself having to constantly refer back to what you’ve written to make sure that you don’t contradict yourself?
I do, actually. My mom has been creating a series bible for me. I think she’s up to like book seven now. So that’s been really helpful in keeping everything straight. And I also have a continuity reader, who lives in Ontario, who is an English expat. And so, he has been incredibly helpful with, you know, “You said this in book three, but now you’re saying this in book six. Did you mean to do that?” And I’m like, “Ah, I forgot.” So between the two of them, they’re keeping me on the straight and narrow, keeping the steam train on the track.
Well, I’ve just started the new series that this podcast takes its name from, it’s called Worldshapers. And I don’t know how long it will run–its with my, DAW Books, in New York. But book two is coming out this this fall, and I’m already wishing I had a continuity reader.
Yes. Well, technically your editor is going to be keeping track of that.
She is, she catches stuff. But even so, going through the page proofs, every once in a while. I’ll find things. You know?
And take it for me, create your series vible now.
Yeah, that’s what I should do. Though I should do…Master of the World is the name of the next one. It’s actually steampunk, so this is another reason this is interesting to talk to you right now.
It’s set in a Jules Verne-inspired world.
So, going back to the actual writing, what does your writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit in a garret and write longhand by candlelight or do you have a home office or do you go out to coffee shops? What’s your process?
Well, when the power goes out, sweetie hooks up the generator and gets everything booted back up so that I can work. No candles for me. I’m actually ,very disciplined because I used to be an executive assistant arranging executives’ time for a living. So, organizing my own time is a piece of cake in comparison. I work from nine till noon on left brain stuff, so, the accounting, the blankety-blank Facebook ads manager, things like that, creating ad creative, you know, all that stuff that you have to do for promo. So, that’s in the morning, nine to noon, noon to one I’m outside with the chickens, just to let my brain expand again back to its normal shape. From one to four is my writing hours. A thousand words a day is my daily output, seven days a week. If it takes me forty-five minutes, great. If it takes me all those agonizing hours, then great, too, but it has to go on the page. So, that’s the shape of my day. People say, “Oh, how are you so productive?” And I look at them and I say, “Discipline.” Then again, I don’t have kids, so I can be disciplined.
Yeah. Discipline is something I’m aware of. People tell me I’m productive, too. But in my back of my mind is always, I could be so much more productive if I were more disciplined.
Well, when you’re kind of floating the boat and this is what’s paying for the power bill, you get pretty disciplined in a hurry.
Well, I’ve been doing this full-time for twenty-five years, so I guess I’m managing, but I’m a bit scattered on the things that I work on from day to day. Just depends on what kind of deadlines I have on what kind of projects since I write all sorts of stuff.
Well, that’s the thing. T deadlines pretty much dictate what you’re going to do from day to day. It’s triage. You just have to do it.
Exactly. So, once you have a first draft, which, let’s see, 7,000 words a week and then say it’s 70,000 words, that’s 10 weeks.
Or more, I allow myself three months per book. And so the final month is the beta readers, editing, layout, that kind of stuff.
And that was my next question. Once you have a first draft, if it works for you that way, do you sort of do a rolling draftwhere it’s done when you get to the end, do you. sstart back at the beginning and do a whole revision? How does that work?
I do a rolling draft. At the beginning of each day’s work I read the previous day’s work and do an edit and that just kind of launches me into the current day’s work. Then once the book is finished and I type those two beautiful words, then I go back and I do, like, a it’s kind of like the flesh and makeup draft, you know, you put in if the scene is missing a certain emotional beat, that goes in, if the description of some device or a landscape is missing, that goes in, just kind of fleshing it out and making it more real, that sensation of of dropping into a story and being able to see it and experience it? I’m really focused on that for my readers. So they they get what they pay for.
That’s kind of what I focus on in my rewrite. Like, it’s pretty good. I would say it’s about eighty percent done when I get to the end. And then that pass through the next time is all about beefing up the language and specific details and things like that. You say you don’t have a critique group, but you do have beta readers.
How many of those do you have and what do they do for you?
I have my English gentleman in Ontario, my lifesaver. I have…one of the people in the mastermind group likes to beta read my mysteries in particular, ’cause she’s writing cozy mysteries. Nancy Warren, she’s doing the Vampire Knitting Club cozy mystery series. So she’s been extremely helpful in, “Oop! That red herring is now a waving piece of yarn in the wind. You need to tie that one up!” Victoria Thompson, the mystery writer, was very helpful. She’s on the faculty at Seton Hill, and as we would drive to school from the airport, I would get private master classes in how to do a mystery really well from her. So she’s she’s been wonderful.
And then once you have the comments from them, do you do another pass through?
Yes. I layer in everything they’ve said, which sometimes has the ripple effect and things down the line then change because of what they suggested. So I have to catch the ripples and fix them. And then the book is done and it goes into layout and up for preorder.
‘Cause you’re your own editor.
I am. I can’t afford me. I mean, I couldn’t afford someone like me.
But you have in the past written for traditional publishers.
How was that change from having an editor to being your own editor?
Well, to be honest, for the Regency and the Amish books, I send them to my old editor and she does what she used to do when were both at Hachette. Leslie Peterson was my editor at Hachette and we had a great working relationship, and so for those two genres I send them to her for a developmental edit, which adds, you know, a couple of weeks into the production schedule, but I think it’s been worth it.
And what does she do? Do you get a lot of line-by-line edits or what exactly is she looking for?
She’s…well, the thing about being the project manager for these, is that I know what it needs. So I say, “I need, like, an emotional edit.” for the romances in particular, because I’ve been doing adventure for, what, almost ten years or something. And sometimes you want the emotional stuff in there, but you forget because you’re so busy, you’re so caught up in the adventure. So that’s why I have to go back and make sure the beats, the emotional beats, are there. Particularly in a romance, this is vital, and sometimes I’m too close to it. And she…I ask for an emotional developmental edit, and Leslie delivers. She knows what it needs, and so she’ll write in, “You know, the motivation to back up ts declaration of love is not here. Here’s where you could work it into these scenes and you need to add a scene in chapter three that brings this out…” And so, she’s very, very detailed and very good at helping me get that right, because I don’t want to disappoint the readers in that department, either.
So, it sounds like you would say that there is definitely a value to editors for writers.
Absolutely. Oh, yeah. The good ones are worth their weight in gold.
You are happy with yourself as an editor?
I’m a copy editor. I’m not a developmental editor. For the steampunk, I’m so deep in the world that I kind of know where it’s going. I know the characters so well that I can bring out their emotions and bring out the world without the developmental edit. But for the romance in particular, I feel like I needed a dev editor and the Amish, certainly, because that’s a whole other level of complication. But for copy editing, I’m pretty confident and I think my beta reader, she found two errors in the last manuscript, so I was feeling pretty happy about that.
I did want to ask you about the Amish romance, because that’s an unusual genre and not one that I have encountered talking to science fiction and fantasy authors very often However, what was it, two years ago?…Yeah, I guess it was the sesquicentennial. So yeah, would’ve been two years ago. I was at a thing for, at our local Chapters, with several other local authors, you know, Canadian authors in the house kind of thing, and they had us scattered around the store and for some reason I was seated up where I was looking at this rack of romance novels and I was looking at and I was seeing…maybe it was one of yours. I was seeing Amish romance and other subgenres that I had no idea that they existed. So, how did you end up writing in that particular subgenre?
Well, there is a parallel universe out there called the Christian Booksellers Association, and Amish is the biggest seller in that. It’s like the ABA only for the Christian publishing side. Amish is pretty much the Tyrannosaurus rex that ate the rest of the industry. People in that readership love them. And so, my editor at Hachette gave me the beady eye one time when we met at a conference to have lunch. And she says, “Why aren’t you writing Amish romance? You grew up plain. What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “Well, you know, I left that in my thirties. I kind of…I’m okay with leaving that behind.” And she looked at me and she said, “Hachette needs an Amish author.” And she offered me six figures and I said, “OK, we’re in.”
Well, you know, I guess I vaguely knew it existed. But I suppose if it’s not what you read, then there’s all sorts of these subgenres out there that you may not be familiar with. So it was interesting to me.
Well, the learning curve was not as high as it could have been because I grew up in a plain church. So, the doctrines and things were very much the same. But the customs, the clothing, the worldbuilding, the lack of electricity and all that stuff that that means was like a ninety-degree learning curve. So, I’ve been out to Pennsylvania many times. Luckily, Seton Hill is in that state, so it was pretty easy. I go out there twice a year and I do a little research trip on the side.
Do you think it’s kind of that low-tech lifestyle that actually makes it appealing to people?
Yeah, the getting off the fast lane and taking a country road behind a horse and buggy. I actually drove a horse and buggy. Nearly ran into a bus.
I’ve trundled along behind a horse and buggy.
Yeah, it was quite the experience. But you know, how are you supposed to know how your characters feel and behave with the reins in their hands? Who knew that the reins came through the windshield into a little slot? I mean, stuff like that that Amish readers just eat up because they love the detail. And so, for me, feet on the ground research in the Amish genre is necessary.
Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and, you know, that whole idea of how we shape our fictional worlds..it sounds like also, you know, you’ve been in Belgravia in London and you’ve been in Lancaster County, talking with Amish women. Research is something I always ask about, so what kind is what kind of research do you do for any of your books? I mean, in the case of the steampunk books, there’s also some technical things in there, and I don’t know how much…how much work you put into making these devices practical or if they could really exist? You said you’re married to an engineer, so does he help with that?
He has been very helpful, as a matter of fact, I had to blow up a dam once. And so we’re like, you know, Arlo Guthrie with the 8 by 10 glossies in the X’s and the circles and the arrows.
And you just hope that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Well, exactly. People wonder about my Google search history.
Yeah, that’s true of all of us. So you do a lot of research.
I do a lot of research. Yeah. And some of it is just serendipitous. Like, I was at a bed and breakfast one morning and I was moaning and groaning to the innkeeper about how I needed to know whether there could be a steam-powered submarine. And he turned around and he said, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s a submarine captain.” So, you know, book seven took shape right then and there because I had undersea dirigibles. And they’re technically correct in how they operate. But, you know, some things, like the behemoth in books nine through twelve, I sort of take it for granted that the readers’ imagination will lead them into the guts of that machine where I am afraid to go.
So, the other thing, you are publishing most of this now…well, I guess all of the steampunk books are published yourself…and having started my own similar company last year, Shadowpaw Press, I’m always interested in that. What I have found in my dabbling with it is, there’s a lot more work goes into putting out your own books than you might think before you launch into it. So, how do you balance that with also getting the writing done?
Well, that’s…running the business as part of the stuff that happens in the morning with my left brain. Because I do publish one or two other people’s books and I’m actually kind of not doing the best job. They’re very forgiving people. But because these days, with the whole pay-to-play advertising thing, you can get lost in a rabbit hole of advertising and never come out. And it kind of affects your emotions, too. So the emotions affect how you’re writing the books. If you spend too much time in that rabbit hole, you’re you’re not going to be able to put the words down on the paper. So it’s a fine balance. I use time to make sure that the balance happens, like nine to noon. That’s all you get. You can’t have any more of my life than nine to noon. And then then I’m free. The brain shuts off and then I’m free to go into my imaginary worlds in the afternoon.
Do you…you’re your own copy editor? But do you then farm out cover design and layout?
I was going to say I got the free e-book and I started the book and I said, “Oh, she’s using Vellum.”
Yes, I’ve loved…
Because I use it, too, and I instantly recognized that little swirly symbol.
Scene break. Yeah. Oh, yes.
They do a fabulous job…it does a fabulous job. It’s only available for Mac, I think, if anybody is curious about it. But if you’re a Mac user and you do your own books, you should definitely check out Vellum.
Yeah. It’s like a creative act in itself, and I like making beautiful things like costumes and quilts and books that look pretty.
I have done three so far with my press and they’re all, they’ve all been done on Vellum and, yeah, I haven’t had any complaints about it at all.
Yeah. And I do copy edit for other authors, so those morning hours are sacred also, if I have a client on deck, then they get those morning hours when I’m fresh.
Clearly, I need to adopt your schedule because I do all of this stuff, too, only not in as organized a fashion.
Well, remember the executive time in fifteen-minute blocks? That’s kind of, this is what it derives from.
So, and then you mentioned that you do farm out your cover art. Do you give a lot of. input into what you want, or do you leave quite a bit of that up to the artists?
Well, I figure I’m hiring a pro who’s good at what they do. And I would say something like, “I need a Victorian woman on the cover.” Like, for my Mysterious Devices series, each mystery has a watercolor color in it from the 1800s palette. So the one that came out last week or the week before, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, I’ll send Jenny at Seedlings, she’s my cover designer for these books, I’ll send her mars yellow from the 1800s palette and say, you know, “Find me a Victorian woman. Here’s the dress color, and I need a watercolor background.” And she creates it. We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s like one and done. She’s really good.
Well it’s nice, I guess, to have the same artist for every cover in a series.
Yes. And actually, I think that’s really important, because there is that continuity. Once the reader’s eye is trained to look for your covers, if suddenly in the middle of the series you go with something different, then you lose them. Like literally on the results page.
How quickly do you then get things published once all this is done? One of the nice things about the self-publishing is, of course, that it’s like once it’s ready to go, it goes.
You’re putting out four books a year, I think you said?
Yes. The last Wednesday of every quarter, in the middle month of the quarter, is release day. And so I have everything…everything is kind of backed up from there. So Jenny is now booking out about six months, so I have booked my February cover already and she’ll be starting work on it in September.
And what has the response been from readers?
They really like these watercolor covers and they’re selling quite briskly. Thank you, readers.
But what has the readers’ response been to your books, was what I was actually asking.
To the Mysterious Devices?
Well, the steampunk readers were willing to give me a chance. They were willing to follow me, follow these new characters into the same world. They like being in that world and they like coming back to it. One reader wrote on, I think it was on Amazon, that it’s like coming home again and they can just sink into the world and be in a familiar place that they love. And these new characters, they’re willing to go along with them. Some people don’t like the new sleuths, but, you know, to each their own. So, I think building the world and having people that your readers can relate to is really important when you’re doing a long-running series, because they want to come back to it. And so, the response has been pretty healthy. I think that the preorders have been nice to see.
I guess one thing that I have run across is that people follow…they’re usually following a series that they like. They’re not necessarily following an author that they like? Do you think that’s fair, that it’s the series that draws them in? And will they follow you to something else if you’d completely changed? Like, do you have overlap, I guess, between your Amish romance readers and your steampunk readers? Or is it one or the other? Are they sort of separate groups?
They’re separate groups. There were some of the steampunk readers that told me flat out, “You know, I can’t read romance. I’m here for the adventure.” And there’s others that said, “Well, you know, it’s you. I trust you. I’m going to take a leap. I’ve never read a romance before, but because you’re writing it, I’ll try.” And that reader was happy because she got the worldbuilding, she got the characters, the sympathetic characters that she liked in this new genre that she had never been exposed to before. So I call that a win.
Wwll, I guess that kind of leads into my big philosophical questions here towards the end of the conversation. And I always ask, first of all, why do you write? Second, why do you think any of us write? And third, why do we write fantastical stories of stuff that never really existed?
Oh, boy, hard questions. Why do we write? I write to shut up the voices in my head.
I hear that a lot.
My mom says, “How do you know a book is done?” And it’s like, “They stopped talking.” So that’s pretty much…I mean, I’m hearing bits of description in my head all the time. I’m hearing people talking. I see the flash. It’s like you have to…and the only thing that cures that noise is writing it down. So, part of it’s therapy. Part of it is, it comes out of you. You can’t help it. I suppose it’s like a composer. We went and saw Rocketman on Tuesday, and the way they showed the music playing in Elton John’s head all the time as a kid. That’s kind of how I feel now with writing, that the stuff is, words are happening all the time. And…what was the second question?
Why do you think…well, why do you think people write in general? Why do any of us write? Why do we tell stories?
Because that’s a basic human need, right from in the cave around the campfire. You told the story of the poisonous plant, or the small creature with the nasty bite, to be kind of a cautionary tale for your companions. And so, it’s transmuted, I think, into, “Here’s situations maybe that you will never live. But if you did, here’s what you could do.” It’s…I used to love the series of books called The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, ’cause it’s like, OK, I do know how to jump from a moving train if I ever need to.” So, you know, I could steer an undersea dirigible if I never needed to. I think that, and we want to be heard. We, you know, sitting in our rooms, we want to say something that someone will want to go, “Oh, I want to come and live in your world with you. Let’s be friends.” I think that’s why I do it.
And then, why do you think we write stories of the fantastic? I mean, there will never be a world in which steam took over and the internal combustion engine failed, so.
Well, you never know. After the apocalypse, anything could happen.
Well, that’s true. What’s the appeal of the fantastic and the made up and the imaginary?
Well, for me, it’s that limitless horizon, that I could…my imagination is free to play in this space. And by golly, it’s going to. And I’m gonna write it down and have fun and then say, “Hey, come on, look, look at this thing. Isn’t it cool?” And somebody else will say, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s tell somebody else.” And so, not only do I have a world I’m living in that’s fantastic and, you know, there’s giant behemoths, and Venice is built on a huge clockwork, and it changes every time the church bells ring. You can have that and you can live there and have adventures that you couldn’t in real life. I think it’s just….it’s kind of like space exploration from your armchair.
Well, that occurs to me that I failed to ask you something off this top, which is, most of us when we become writers, it’s because of the books that we read. So, what were the books that drew you into telling these kinds of stories back when you were reading as a kid?
Oh, boy. I well, I read the classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I have the entire library of Lucy Maud Montgomery in first editions. I was that…I’m that big of a fan. Yeah, if the house ever burns down, those are coming with me. I read so I read that I read a lot of Elizabeth Goudge. Not the one that wrote that story about Savannah. That was Eileen Goudge. I don’t know if they’re related, but anyway, it’s kind of turn-of-the-century children’s authors I really liked, and I didn’t really get into fantasy and science fiction as much until I was grown up and I could kind of, I don’t know, handle it, maybe. And then steampunk just seemed to be…the characters seemed to be an outgrowth of those English characters that I knew and loved as a child. And there’s that element of the Saturday afternoon serial in the theater also that I really liked, those adventures in the theater as a kid.
Steampunk is very much where those two things come together, isn’t it? The kind of Victorian era story that Dickens and all that, and then the super science story, they all kind of meet right there in Jules Verne’s time.
Yeah. And you can make it up. And as long as you make it believable, it doesn’t have to be, you know, physically correct. I don’t have to build models or anything. But my my aim is, is this believable? And so far, I think it’s working because I check it with my engineer husband.
A useful thing to have. As I said, I have an engineer wife, so…
I know, they’re very handy.
They are. Well, in my case, not least because I often say tha…she kind of hates this joke. But my best move is a freelance writer was to marry an engineer.
You know, I agree with you.
So, what are you working on right now? Although at the pace at which you’re working, it might be what are you working on next will be what you’re working on when this comes out.
Well, I alternate the Regency romances with the steampunk mysteries, so I have just plunged in…I’m three chapters into The Rogue Not Taken, the follow up to The Rogue to Ruin, my Rogues of St. Just Regency romances. So we’re on the middle book now.
And looking ahead?
Looking ahead. I will be…let me see. I’m looking at my schedule here. So that would come out in August. My November book would be what I call the Manor House novellas, that are kind of in The Magnificent Devices world and follow some of the characters. So the next one in that little series is called Gwynn Place. We’re going to go to Lady Claire’s home. In February, the next Mysterious Devices book comes out. And then after that, the next Regency. So, yeah, I’m eyeballing my calendar because it’s all laid out. I have to have it. I have to have dates to work towards. I’m very date driven.
And for your readers, where can people find you online?
I am at shelleyadina.com. That’s Shelley with an ey. Like the poet. And I have lots of…I have an ongoing blog. I’m doing a blogging the Ph.D. series, which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. Also, things about the books. I’m going to be talking Mysterious Devices 3, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, is very,…it’s, you know, it’s the Wild West. So there’s a lot of old pistols and armaments and things in that book. And so I’m going to be doing one or two blog entries about the inspirations for those guns, which again, may or may not be very interesting to a whole lot of people, but it’s interesting to me.
And you’re also on other social media, are you?
Yes, I’m on Twitter @ShelleyAdina. I’m on Pinterest–you can see all kinds of inspirations for the things that I put in books. And some of them are just made up out of my head but some of them…you know, there are amazing steampunk artists out there. And I’m like, “Wow, I could take the leg off of this creature and really do something with it.” And let me see, what else am I on? I’m a failure at Instagram, so don’t look for me there. And I’m on Facebook as Shelley Adina.
I did realize there’s one last thing I forgot to ask you about. Why do you like chickens?
Because the engineer that I live with has allergies to pet dander, and this chicken walked into our yard one day and said, “Hey, I’m going to stay.” So, we built her a coop and got her some companions, and I’ve been doing rescue for twenty years now.
Because the affinity for chickens is one of the things that Claire…
Shares with me. Yeah, exactly. In fact, I have…Dinah the office chicken is overseeing this conversation at this very moment.
And doing a very good job, I’m sure.
She knows when to be quiet.
Well, thanks so much for for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Shelley. It’s been a great chat.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Robyn Bennis has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration.
She wrote most of The Guns Above within sight of Hangar One at Moffett Airfield, which was once the West Coast home to one of America’s largest airships, the USS Macon.
She currently resides in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Robyn, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you for having me.
Now, I always like to start off these things by trying to figure out my connections to the author, but I think in this case it’s that I met your editor Diane Pho at WorldCon in San Jose and she suggested that you would be somebody to talk to and I’m very glad that she did because I really enjoyed the book.
I loved Diana. She’s fantastic. She is a great coach have on your team.
And I think I just said Diane but I meant Diana. It was interesting, because she was up for the Hugo Award this year, but so my editor at DAW, Sheila Gilbert, and I couldn’t really wish her the best of luck when I met her. And Sheila won. So, yay! But Diana has put me in touch with two or three authors that I’ve been talking to for the podcast.
She has an amazing roster.
Yeah, she sure does. Well, we’re going to talk about your book The Guns Above and a little bit about the sequel By Fire Above, but first I want to take you back into history, perhaps not quite back to the ages of airships but back to when you started becoming interested in writing and in writing, particularly, this kind of stuff. Did you start with an interest in sort of the science-fiction/fantastical/ and then the writing came later, or how did that work for you?
Well, if we’re talking about steampunk and airships in general, it started on an airship, strangely enough, in the age of airships, which not many people know extended into the mid-aughts. There was an airship–people in the San Francisco Bay Area might remember the airship Eureka, which used to fly overhead and flew out of Moffett Field–and through a company, the biotech company that I was working at at the time, I had the chance to go up in it, and it was an amazing experience. Airships, as–you know, we might talk a bit later about how impractical they are, but once you actually manage to get them working and you manage to get them in the air safely they are just a magical experience. You are floating above the world and it’s relatively quiet. It is a nice stable platform to see around in. And it is just…there is a certain sort of calm wonderment that overcomes just about everyone who steps into an airship.
Very few people have that opportunity, though. There aren’t very many of them around.
No, they’re incredibly impractical to run. In fact, I was…we were ticketed to fly on the airship Eureka about a month and a half before we actually managed to get onto it. Its daily run was scrubbed due to weather twice before we actually managed to get up in the air on it.
But going back a little further than that, when did you first become interested in science-fiction/fantasy and in particular in writing. First of all, I guess, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff?
Well, those answers are related to each other, because I got interested in SF/F…probably second or third grade is when I started reading fantasy novels and getting into that. And this would have been in Dunedin, Florida, where I grew up, not perhaps the most inspiring town in the country.
I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so, you know…
So, yeah, there you go. We both come from a little podunk towns, I guess. But, you know, perhaps I wanted to escape it, and fantasy books and science fiction books, which I got into a little bit later, really provided a doorway into an entirely different world that I could just step into. And almost as soon as I started reading them I wanted to start writing them. I think I wrote my first short story in, maybe, fourth grade? It was obviously godawful, but I never really stopped after that, just kind of kept writing. I was always writing something. I was usually writing just for myself and, you know, as is the case for most people who start writing, it’s terrible at first, but after you know 20, 25 years I think it started to get a little better.
Do you remember any of the books that first got you interested? I always like to ask that, I get some interesting responses. Was there anything that really stuck out for you in your early life?
I remember…I can remember a few images. I do not remember any titles. They were mostly pulp kind of books that even if you showed me the title I might not remember it. They were not from the big names. I was reading out of the school library and I’m not sure the library was the most supported department in that school. It mostly had just kind of paperback novels that, you know, didn’t have legs but were probably available cheap at some estate sale.
I grew up I read a lot of Ace doubles and things like that and I remember reading a book once, we were in the car with my parents, and I was maybe ten or nine or eight or something, and they wanted to know…I got really excited. and I read them this section where some guy with a laser beam cut the head off of somebody and it rolled across the floor and there wasn’t any blood because the thing was an android, there was just this glistening gray mass at the top of the neck, and there was a sort of dead silence after I read that out loud, and then my mom said, “What are you reading?”.
I would really like to find out what that book was because I remember that scene so distinctly because of my parents’ reaction, but I don’t remember the book.
That doesn’t ring a bell for me, either.
So, you continued writing then as you were in high school and getting a little older. Did you ever start sharing your writing with your classmates or anything like that?
Woo, boy, I was always way too embarrassed. It was, you know…and I have occasionally–and by occasionally, I mean every five years or so–gone back to look at some of that early stuff that I wrote in high school and in college and in my early 20s, and at the time I was too embarrassed to show it to anyone. And in hindsight I believe I was 100 percent right about that. It was the correct choice to not show that to anyone. I did join a writing group briefly and, you know, from the comfort of anonymity showed some of my my short works to the crowd. I will never admit which one. So that you can never track those stories down. And I think that was kind of critical in making some improvements that just are sometimes not possible on your own. You can’t always find your own flaws, and also, just critiquing other people’s work is an excellent tool set for finding flaws in your own work and working on the areas where you’re weakest.
Hence, I always recommend when I teach writing that people find some way to share their work with somebody, because you don’t really know if you’re doing something that readers will connect with until you actually have a reader.
Yeah. You know, there’s a certain amount that you can do, you know, you can recognize on your own when something is just godawful, which you probably will be when you start out, that’s just, that’s how it goes, none of us are good at things right away except by unlikely statistical chance, but yeah, there comes a point where you just can’t objectively evaluate your own work, you have to turn to someone else to see if there’s something worth keeping there. And, you know, even if there isn’t anything worth keeping there they can show you and help you find the areas where you can improve. And, you know, you just try to improve your work in that area. And if you do that enough times, if you go through enough iterations of that, you will eventually become a really good writer.
Now, after high school, you went to university, and you did not study writing at university.
I sure didn’t.
Where did you go and what was your degree in?
I went to the Ivy League school, Florida State University–we have a proud tradition of burning ivy. So, I studied biology there and went into biotech afterwards, because I had the mistaken impression that by going into biotech I would be able to revolutionize the world, I would find a cure for cancer and, you know, make dogs fly, and just do all kinds of amazing things and, you know, not everybody can do that.
But you stayed in the field for a long time. Are you still working in the field as well as writing?
I do occasional consulting, but I would say I’m semi-retired from biotech now.
Your book deals with the first female airship captain in the world that you’ve created, and I’m married to an engineer…
Oh. I see where this is going…
Yes. So, did you did you experience in a still, I would assume, somewhat male-dominated field–although that does seem to be changing, I know a lot of women who are going into biology–did that inform your story when it came time to write it?
Not yes, but hell yes! My experience, in biotech was…I would not say it was positive overall. There were definitely some bright spots, often when I had a female boss. Hello! I think if any of them are listening they probably know who they are. Hi! You’re awesome! But most of the time it was such a slog to even get people to believe your math. You would think that that would be one thing that would be objective, right? Like, you know, “Hello mister male surface chemist, you have a calculator you can you can demonstrate this on your own, you don’t have to trust me.” But, no, it’s kind of amazing the degree to which women just get shut down in data meetings and experimental planning. You just…you wouldn’t think that that would still be happening today, but it happens in subtle little ways that you definitely notice it when you’re on the receiving end.
Were you writing during all this time?
I was. Yes. I wrote a terrible young adult novel, which if I ever have a Patreon it will be on the $10,000-a-month tier. You’ll be able to see that, because it is…it’s not good. But I would say that that was kind of my final hurdle to becoming a pretty darn good writer, if I say so myself. That was kind of my senior year of writing class that taught me what I was missing. And, you know, the end of it’s definitely better than the beginning, I can certainly say that. It took me three years to finish it, so you can kind of almost see it as an archeological record of my improvement as a writer. And once I was done with that, I was ready to do it for real. You know, I stepped out of that and thought, “Hey, let’s do this for real. Let’s write something that’s marketable.”
Where did the writing group fall into that timeline? Was that still while you were in university or…?
That stretched out…that was a bit after. That was probably when I was in biotech. I definitely remember that being connected to San Diego, where I worked for a year at a small company. So, kind of right in the middle, in between those initial forays into writing and actually getting serious about it. But I took the lessons that I learned from that and I’m still using them even today. Just be…the things I learned critiquing other people and having myself critiqued are still…you know, there are definitely elements of that that I’m still looking for when I go through my own work to edit it today and to evaluate it.
Well, that brings us to By Fire Above. Before we delve into the process of writing that maybe give a synopsis.
Do you want me to talk about By Fire Above or The Guns Above?
Oh sorry. Yeah. The Guns Above and whatever you want to say about By Fire Above that won’t spoil The Guns Above.
All right. So, The Guns Above follows the exploits of Josette Dupre, who has unfortunately been promoted into an airship where she is going to be the first female commander in the nation of Garnia. Her chief enemies are her superior officers, her own crew, and then the actual military enemies of her nation, in that order. She is being countermanded and undermined at every step. But, you know, no spoilers, it’s just possible that she might win some of these folks on her side by the end of the book.
One would hope so.
Not to give anything away.
Yeah. No, that’s why I always ask the author to do the synopsis so I don’t accidentally give away something that shouldn’t be given away.
So, what was the genesis for this. How did this all begin?
Well I so I have always enjoyed Aubrey-Maturin series, which is an early 19th-century setting, which follows the captain of first, the captain of a brig, a rather small ship in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and later the captain of a frigate. And if you’ve seen the movie Master and Commander, that was based on this series of books. I’ve always loved them. I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of them as well as the interpersonal relationships between the characters, and when I stepped aboard the Eureka at Moffett Field I thought maybe I could bring that, bring airships into that world and tell the same sort of story. You know, obviously, theft is better than creativity when you’re trying to sell something. Kind of bring airships into that world, tell the same kind of story with the same kind of characters and an attention towards technical detail, and see what happens. And, you know, I believe it turned out pretty well.
I would agree with that. I enjoyed it very much. So, with that idea in mind, how did you go about further developing it into an actual novel?
Oh, boy. So, that started with about three months of research and brainstorming. About the moment I stepped off the Eureka I went to Amazon and started ordering books about airships, non-fiction books, some of them written by the war department during the brief flirtation with airships during the ’20s and ’30s, some of them just, you know, historical pieces from secondary sources, and I kind of learned everything I could about airships, not only about the people who flew them and what they were intended to be used for but also the, you know, the technical aspects of putting them together. It’s kind of funny, you know, you don’t really think of it today when you look at these ships, the grand airships of the ’20s and ’30s, but at the beginning of that period nobody really knew how to make them work optimally, and there are some interesting books that are almost arguments with other engineers about the best ways to build airships. I got an interesting kind of background that is reflected in the first act of the book, where my captain is lamenting the fact that she is being put in an airship that is a “revolutionary new design,” which is otherwise known as a death trap. Of course, at the time I had no idea how I was going to use that. It was just, you know, I just kind of built up this knowledge base in my head for later use without considering how it might be useful. I just picked up as many facts as I could along the way and brainstormed as many little elements to the world. I was kind of building the setting, or at least the building blocks from which I would later build the setting at this time. And after that, I spent a while outlining it. I didn’t actually start writing until five or six months after I actually began the project.
I’m going to ask you about your outline and what it looks like in a minute, but I want to go back to the airship. First of all, how closely does your airship design model anything that we had in the real world?
It doesn’t model any particular airship. It does take elements from various ships, however. There was never, to my knowledge, a successful design that used a steam turbine, for example–that was outdated technology by the time we were actually building large airships in earnest. The one element that I know people may be least credulous about is, however one that is rooted in the history, and that’s the fact that for a little while we made airships out of wood. The…I’m probably blowing this pronunciation, it’s German…the Schütte-Lanz Company actually built airships out of wood for about a 10-year period, and in many ways they were superior in performance to the contemporary aluminum, or duralumin designs being produced by the Zeppelin Company at the same time. The downside was that the airships fell to pieces in a few years because wood doesn’t stand up well to moisture, of course.
Which you comment on with the steam power and its effect on wood.
That’s the way I cheat about that. I say, “Well, you know, we’re always scraping off the laminates and repainting it.” That’s my little nod to realism there. There’s a few of those little moments where I say, “Well, you know, yeah, this might not be very practical, but we work hard at it.”
I went through a period when I was fascinated with First World War aviation and I still remember as a kid being startled to find out that the airplanes were made out of wood with doped fabric stretched across them and I read a story years later about the Mosquito bombers in the Second World War, which were also made out of wood.
You know, it has its qualities. It’s not practical overall but there are definite definitely niche applications. I was recently, in fact, at the Boeing Museum in Seattle, and they have an example of one of the very first fighter aircraft up, and the damn thing looks like it’s going to fall apart on the ground. When you look at it, you look at this thing and you think, “This is made from string and papier mâché, probably.” It’s just an absolute mess, and you wonder about the bravery/madness of the people who went up in these things.
You touch on that, too. But we’ll talk about that in a minute when we get to characters. We never in our world had airship-to-airship combat, did we?
I don’t believe we did. Unless there’s some obscure historical incident that I don’t know about. Mostly it was airships versus fixed-wing aircraft. And it was a race, you know, essentially it was a race into the air. The most famous examples, of course, being zeppelins flying over Great Britain. And they would, you know, start out at a fairly high altitude, which they could achieve with relatively little effort. The aircraft that were scrambled to shoot them down had to first climb up to that altitude and then had to catch the airships. The speed difference at that time between an airship and a fixed-wing aircraft was not huge. So, it took quite a bit of work, actually, on the part of the fixed-wing pilots to actually get those Jerries.
Were they still using hydrogen in the First World War? Weren’t they?
They were, in fact. Yes. Which, you know, not a super great idea, nut I believe Germany was simply limited by the resources. This is another thing that I just kind of dance around in The Guns Above, where the hell they get their luftgas, which is this world’s version of helium. In the real world it requires natural gas deposits or oil deposits, where the helium tends to collect in domes above those deposits. And it also requires extremely low-temperature separation technologies. So, I just kind of decided to not mention it. That’s my way around that particular problem.
So, when it came to the airship combat, which is lovingly detailed, that must have taken a considerable amount of thought on your part. I realize that some of it does bear resemblance to sailing ships trying to maneuver to, you know, rake them from the stern, that sort of thing. It comes across as very believable.
Well, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it might actually work. This is something that never happened in the real world, so, you know, that is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because I have to come up with a convincing way to get these folks shooting at each other. Of course, it’s an opportunity in that I could be completely wrong, and no one will ever know because hopefully this will never happen. But I really did make an attempt, including to the point of doing, you know, calculating angles and determining the apparent size of vessels at varying distances to try to get an idea of what this would be like. I think I spent several days just trying to get in the heads of my tacticians and, you know, what would you want to do. If I was trying to blow up an airship from another airship which, you know, is not hard to think about, because that’s one of the coolest things you can imagine except for all the death and chaos. Once you sanitize that, though, it’s pretty awesome. What would I be trying to do? What would I be trying to hit? How would I try to avoid taking damage? What would the situation be on deck? What would be going through the minds of the people involved in this in, you know, in this terrifying chaos? I just spent several days trying to get inside their heads and, you know, I think the results speak for themselves.
Now we go back to the outline. What did that look like? What does your outline look like? You’ve done two and I presume there’s a third one coming? I hope?
Well, we’ll see. I’m not currently contracted for a third one. So, if you like the first two, tell your friends, get those sales numbers up so we can get a third book. But my initial outline actually looks surprisingly like the finished product. There are a couple of chapters that are in the outline that did not show up in the final book because I was running out of space. You know, some of your listeners may know this and some may not, but when you’re writing a debut novel in this sort of SF/F genre, you kind of want to keep the links under 100,000 words. Anything above that has a tendency–this isn’t a rule, but there is a tendency to scare off potential publishers if your book is too long, and so, I had to kind of cut out a couple of chapters in my outline. But other than that, it is largely what I originally wrote.
How detailed was it?
Not super detailed, which…you may have gotten to the heart of the reason it didn’t change very much. I tend to write in broad strokes in my outline. I think it might have been two or three pages long, and then I write slightly more detailed smaller outlines for individual chapters as I’m going through the book.
You started with…obviously the airship was the big idea…but then you had to have characters. So, how did you come up with the characters that you needed? There are two main characters, I guess. How did you decide what characters you wanted to tell the story and then how did you make them come alive?
Well, initially, I stole them, which, you know, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I stole from the best. though. I stole from the Aubrey-Maturin series, and I think astute readers who have read that series and my own books will notice elements of Captain Jack Aubrey in Josette, and they will notice elements of Dr. Maturin in Bernie, but, you know, from there, obviously, you’ve got to file the serial numbers off. So, I did much the same thing that I do when I’m approaching technical problems. I tried to spend a few days in their heads. Times when I was not writing or outlining or researching, I just kind of spent my free time during the day, you know, during boring biotech meetings, just trying to imagine how these characters think. I think this gets to what some authors describe as letting the characters speak for themselves. And I’m not sure if I buy into that, but it’s certainly true that when you start thinking about how a person, how a fictional person thinks, it doesn’t take you very long to develop their moods, their quirks, their driving goals, you know, you just kind of have to find those moments to think about this and to put yourselves in their head, and it just kind of seems to emerge.
You mentioned, you know, sort of approaching it like you’ve got a technical problem and you’ve talked about how your experience and biotech influences Josette’s experiences, and you just mentioned that sitting in boring meetings gave you time to think about this, so, are there any other ways in which your experiences in the sciences helped you with the writing of the book, or influenced it in some way?
Certainly, you know, I think you might have just gotten to the heart of Josette’s problems right there. You know, I’m sitting in a data meeting where people are ignoring me, and I’m like, “Well, how would she feel about this? I think she’d want to shoot somebody. Hmm. Interesting character trait.” I do think that just having a background in science or technology in general does certainly teach you, one, to do your homework, and two, to really think things through before you commit to them. Anyone who has worked in biotech for very long knows that the best ideas don’t pan out. Nine times out of ten you can have the best most succinct and most elegant idea for, you know, a particular chemical process to deposit the chemistry that you need on your device, and then you run it in the lab and it’s a complete disaster. You get used to that kind of stuff, and I think it teaches you to…I always hate these succinct one-sentence bits of advice, but I think this is essentially the equivalent of the “kill your darlings advice,” which, you know, if you could expand on it is, “Don’t get too attached to any given concept, to any given plot point, to any given scene that you want to put in your book. Be willing to adapt to the needs of the story and the needs of the character. Let the character takes you where they want to. Don’t railroad them into a particular path.” Be willing to let go of your brilliant ideas. You can always use them later in a different book.
Now, of course, this is a war novel, which meant setting up a geopolitical situation that would support the war, and then it’s also…I mentioned that I have the interest in First World War aviation, and also recently I edited the memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, who was in the Canadian military to start with in the First World War, first as a truck driver in France and then he decided that wasn’t exciting enough, so he joined the Royal Air Force.
Oh, good Lord!
As a navigator on a Handley-Page Bomber.
Which typically, you got about six missions and then you crashed, or were shot down, and he indeed was shot down, but he survived. And reading your book…and also, recently, you may be aware of Peter Jackson’s movie They Shall Not Grow Old.
Yeah, I saw that, that was excellent.
And all of that related to this a little bit, because the people in your book are fighting this war. They’re really just doing a job, but they’re kind of trapped in this war that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
No. I mean. I’m sure it makes sense to the higher-ups. Of course, they’re not the ones who have to do the dying. As someone points out in the second book, they’ve got people to do their dying for them. And, of course, all of their little desires for land and influence and power make perfect sense to them, even as the war devolves into a pointless morass, which is evident to anyone who opens their eyes to it. And I did very much draw from the, just the pure pointlessness of the First World War, to capture that, you know, that sense of, you know, patriotism/just complete incomprehensibility of what the hell we’re fighting for.
And yet, you know, essentially the characters are fighting for their comrades and for each other, which does seem to be very true to the way things work in real-life wars as well.
Yeah. Once, you know…and that’s the trick, right? That is what allows a guy in a funny hat to tell you to go die on that hill is, you know, you would tell him to get lost if it was just you and him. But, you know, you’re there with everyone else and everyone’s going there. So, you know you can’t abandon your friends.
Now with the book written…did you write the book and then sell it?
I did. Which is usually the case with debuts with rare exceptions. I had the entire thing written and then did, you know, essentially cold emailing to catch the attention of agents. Out of, I believe, thirty-two agents that I submitted a query to, one was interested in the book straight through. A couple asked for, you know, twenty pages, and a few asked for the complete manuscript, but only one saw the, you know, the full potential of this book when he read through it, and that was Paul Lucas who is a rock star. And then he went about, you know, shopping it around.
I should back up just one step. Once you had the draft written, what did your rewriting process look like, your revision process?
Ooh, it was a lot of trimming. I went through and tried to trim out every extraneous technical detail on my first edit pass–and there sure were a lot of them. My ultimate goal, which, you know, I was semi-successful at, was to not have any information dumps, to not have anything that feels like it’s just information for information sake.
“As you know, Bernie, this and this and this and this…” In this case he didn’t know, but…
Oh, yeah. That really gets my goat. So, I tried to cut…there was a bit of that, certainly, and there was a lot of people wandering around thinking about the technical aspects of the things around them, which is another thing that kind of gets me. So, I took that out wherever it was not absolutely necessary for a reader to understand the environment that, you know, that I’ve put them in. So that was my first draft, or rather my second draft, and then I just kind of went through it over and over and over again, paying particular attention to the beginning and the end and the most critical plot critical points in the story, just trying to make it a little bit better with every draft. I think I ended up with something like 16 or 17 drafts by the end of that.
Did you share it with anybody to read along that way, or were you doing it yourself?
At that point I did. I shared it with a combat veteran that was working with me at the time, and I shared it with a couple of writing pals, and, you know, I think they really did help make it better. They saw things that I missed.
How long was this entire process before you were ready to submit?
I think that might’ve taken about three to four months. I really took my time on this one.
Now, you did sell it to Tor, and your editor was Diana Pho, Hugo-nominated editor. What was her…what’s her editorial process? What did she come back to you with?
So, she came back with a lot of questions about the world and just an amazing depth of understanding. I mean, I think she connected with this book immediately and she wanted to make it better in the same way, you know, a parent wants to make their child better. She had a real passion for it and she really pushed me to flesh out the world, to make it feel lived in, to make it feel as if it had depth. That was three or four more edit passes, just kind of going through and getting her feel each time and, you know, making adjustments as necessary. She was wonderful.
So, then it was time to think about the sequel. Did you have more than one book in mind when you wrote the first one, or was this one where you had to discover a way to carry on the story?
I did have more than one book in mind, mostly because I had heard that you always want series potential when you’re shopping your first book. And so, I kept that in mind from the outline process onwards. I wanted to tell a complete story, but I also wanted to leave room open, and people who read carefully will notice that there are a few little nuggets, little nuclei, seeded throughout the first book that will come back in the second book. And if we get a third book, there are more in the first and second books that will come back in the third book.
Would it be a trilogy, or would it be an ongoing series?
I would love for it to be an ongoing series.
It’s always an “if,” I know.
I will milk this for as long as it’s a cash cow. I mean, I love writing and I wish to continue…I have always been the kind of writer who thinks out the potential. And so, yeah, I, just in my idle moments without even trying, I’m coming up with ideas for more and more sequels. I could keep writing this indefinitely, essentially, because I come up with thoughts on two additional books for every one I write so far.
What was the response from readers when the book came out? How did how did you feel about the response that you had?
I was, you know, ready for the worst. I had braced myself for, you know, all these these…”Not everybody is going to like your book, Robin,” is what they told me. “You’ve got to be ready for those horrible reviews.” But everybody seemed to love it. So, I don’t mean to pat my own back here, but I really had no trouble with the feedback that readers and reviewers gave me, because it was almost all glowing. I’m awesome, it turns out.
Have you done the convention thing, where you meet your readers in person sometimes?
I have. I’ve been going around to conventions and I’ve been to, you know, ReaderCon and WisCon, hung out at some of the Bay Area cons while I was still living there. I’ve since moved to Wisconsin. And I love to meet readers. I just love talking to them about anything but my book, which usually I managed to get them off of after a few minutes.
Well, it is something that I think readers sometimes don’t realize, that by the time a book comes out you’ve seen it a lot.
And you might perhaps like to discuss something other than the thing that you have spent so much time reading and thinking about.
Yeah. You would never think that you would get tired, you know, talking with someone who loved your work, but just…you know, I have been over and over this book so many times that, you know…”Hey, let’s talk about that new CERN super-collider that they want to make. Let’s talk about SpaceX. Let’s talk about the Mars probe. Let’s talk about anything but my book.
Now, brings me to the more philosophical questions. You started writing because you started reading, as many of us do. Why are you still doing it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?
Boy. Well, you know, I see human beings as natural storytellers. That seems to be a fundamental part of our psychology, rooted so deep inside of us that you could never shake it out. People that you meet on the street, you know, telling you about their brother-in-law or something will tell stories in a three-act structure about their own life. It just comes so naturally to people to want to tell a compelling story that interests somebody. There is a thrill, you know, a little hit of some kind of addictive substance that is released into the human brain every time you look across the table at somebody and see them captivated by the story that you’re telling them, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And, you know, it’s an addiction. Once you get into that you are never getting out. You’re just going to want more and more hits of that, and you are going to keep on writing.
If somebody could turn it into a…you know. somebody in the biotech industry…could turn it into a drug, they’d make a killing.
You wouldn’t have to read anymore. You just, you know, inject something and you feel like you’ve read a great book.
I would not be able to get anything else done. Yeah, I would be terrified to do that. That might be the end of the human race right there.
And have you ever thought of writing something outside of the science fiction and fantasy field? Are there other kinds of stories that would appeal to you as a writer?
Hoo boy. There certainly are. I don’t have anything in particular in mind, apart from the notebook full of random ideas, rather the eight notebooks full of random ideas that I’ve kept over the years. I kind of love the freedom, though, that fantasy and science fiction give you. You’re not restricted by the real world. You can, you know, you can think of something cool and have it happen, whereas with boring old reality you have to make it actually make 100 percent sense, not only makes sense on a theoretical level but, you know, make sense on an empirical level, because people know how stuff works in the real world. So, yeah, I think I’m probably gonna stick to SF/F for now, but, you never know.
Are there people writing in the field right now that you are particularly enjoying their work? That you would like to mention?
Oh. my God. Becky Chambers keeps putting out such wonderful stuff. She has…and, you know, she is one of the people who in fact read The Guns Above before anyone else did and gave me very valuable feedback on it and, she just…the things that come out of her mind. I am in awe of. Justina Ireland, too, is just writing these amazing books. I did not think zombies could be cool again. I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Dread Nation, but holy crap, she has such amazing skills as a writer. Everybody who hasn’t read that just needs to pick it up immediately.
Do you find that as a writer you read differently than you did when you were just a reader…or was there ever a time when you were just a reader?
Unfortunately, yes. This is, you know, being a writer kind of ruins some books for you. You start to notice tropes that you’ve used. And in particular you notice ideas that writers fifty years ago somehow managed to steal from you. You know, like, somehow Terry Pratchett went forward in time, stole one of my notebooks and took some of my ideas, and I really resent that. You know, when I’ve built my own time machine I’m going to go back and have a talk with him.
I find that…one thing I find. I do quite a bit of copyediting, too, and one thing that certainly leaps out at me from anything I read now is whenever there’s a repeated word or, you know, some sort of infelicity in that way. It really jumps out at me now. Usually it doesn’t ruin the story for me, but I’m suddenly aware of the…you know, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?” I’m suddenly aware of what’s going on behind curtain. So, you don’t have a third book contracted yet. Are you working on it anyway, or what are you working on right now?
Right now, I am working on a urban fantasy which will hopefully be out sometime this year, and tentatively entitled The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People. It is about a woman who speaks to the Devil and gets unwanted life advice from her. It is semi-autobiographical and it’s a bit more of a fun kind of romp. It’s a little less serious, but hopefully also stabs the reader in the heart at least a couple of times. I just can’t avoid doing that, obviously.
There’s not a firm publication date on that?
No, not yet. At the advice of my agent, we’re going to try self-publishing this, which is, you know…I want to see how that world works It’s becoming more and more popular and it is becoming more and more practical for a writer to do self-publishing. So, you know, I’d like to dip my toe into that.
Well, it does have the advantage, too, that you don’t have…one thing I’ve found–I’ve dabbled in it myself, I have a publishing company called Shadowpaw Press that I put up the those First World War memoirs through, and also a collection of my short fiction–and one of the things is you don’t have that enormous “hurry up and wait” thing that happens in traditional publishing, where you write the book and then you wait, and then you revise the book, and then you have to wait for publication. So I think you’ll find the speed at least is something…and you don’t do it until you’re ready, of course.
Yes, of course. And that is that is one of the nice things, you know. This book has to be perfect before I will put it out. That is kind of part of my psychology. And I have found that, you know, this is somewhat…you know, publishing a book is never a calm process but, you know, this is a bit less of that stressful “we have just come up with these changes we want you to make, you have a week” kind of kind of situation that occurs to you after your book has been sitting in a line somewhere for three months. Which is, you know, that’s just a natural part of publishing with a big publishing house, they’ve got a lot of other authors, so that “hurry up and wait” is going to be part of your life.
I think, too, perhaps…I’m guessing…that in your time in biotech that you have quite a bit of project-management experience which should also be a valuable skill in self-publishing.
It certainly is. It’s certainly helpful to juggling all of the different tasks that your publisher will usually take care of for you, such as the cover and the copyediting and the marketing and all of that stuff. Being able to do all of that and work on other projects is an incredibly valuable life skill for an author. So I definitely suggest that any author who wants to succeed spend 25 years in biotech.
Well, as I mentioned, my wife is an engineer, with a lot of project management, and I really should get her to give me a few tips because I’m not very good at it myself.
It’s definitely helpful. It will cut down on your stress level. I can just about guarantee that to you.
So just wrapping up here, where can people find you online?
Well this should go live sometime, probably towards the end of February, I think, so this will time out well for that. And if by any chance you’re listening to this after that, because of course it doesn’t go anywhere once it’s up, I’m sure if you go to Robyn’s website you’ll be able to find out where she’s going to be next.
Yes, correct. And this is 2009 for you folks in the future. It was an interesting year, at least, starting in January I feel like we’ve lived about five or six years since January 1st.
Actually it’s 2019.
Or else we’re already in the future. I guess we are in a way.
Yeah. Yeah, ’cause that future sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?
It sure does. Well, thanks so much for doing this, Robyn. I really enjoyed the chat.