Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything ) Transcript
I was honored to be invited to host an AMA on Reddit's /r/suggestmeabook and /r/sciencefiction last month. I had a terrific time chatting with everyone and hopefully provided some interesting answers to their questions.
In case you missed it, here is the transcript of the AMA, unaltered except for formatting and specific-to-Reddit details. It includes more details on my writing process, thoughts about writing and publishing, and juicy tidbits about Aurora Rising than I could ever consciously fit in one blog post, so I hope you enjoy!
jbs090020: Hi GS. After reading both your books -- twice -- I'm amazed at your intricate story lines, as well as the amount of detailed, futuristic technologies used by your characters.
- How do you plan your story lines and determine how many characters you want to include in your books?
- How do you come up with all the cool technologies in your book? Some of the technology seems like it could almost be available right now.
GS_Jennsen: 1) I'm an obsessive planner, probably to the point of a personality disorder (but it works for me!). When I started Aurora Rising, it was very important to me that I know where the story was going before I began.
I outlined all thee books at a high level, including the crucial events and character decision/transformation points. Then I outlined Starshine a whole lot more. I'd like to call out one tool I used, but the truth is I used a bunch, and each one helped me fill in more of the story: Visio, Workflowy and yED Graph Editor, to name a few. I used flow charts and Gantt charts and timelines. I actually have a beautiful 3x3 color timeline/flow chart taped to the wall behind my desk which covers all 3 books. It's the best piece of art in the house ;).
The characters, initially, came into being to serve the plot. But as the story grew, the characters took on a life of their own, and more than once the plot has morphed to serve the characters. As far as determining how many characters, the answer was and is, as many as I need. I'm certainly cognizant of needing to be careful with having too many POV characters, though, and work hard to ensure new characters are introduced organically and each have their own memorable voice.
2) As far as the technologies in Aurora Rising go, inventing those is one of my favorite parts. I'm a total tech geek, and would really prefer if we had most of these things already! An author friend of mine and I frequently joke back and forth on Twitter about how awesome it would be if we could "pulse" people instead of pulling out a phone and broadcasting to the world that we're ignoring them.
It's important to me to make sure the scientific and tech advances presented are at least plausible from a theoretical scientific perspective. For instance, the sLume drive is based on the Alcubierre drive proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre, which is generally considered the most sound and promising idea for possible future FTL travel.
How do I come up with them? Let's see.... I think about what I would want, about what would be useful to us as a spacefaring species and what might be the natural outgrowth of current technology. You're right - some of the tech could be available next year, or the year after. We're already seeing flexible device screens - how much longer will it be before they're virtual and generated by our Google Glass? But I think people will always need to see and touch and interact with information.
We're a bit further away from having a computer in our heads that heals us and stores information for us and acts as a communications hub...but maybe not THAT far away from it!
jbs090020: Even with the level of planning and outlining you use, do you find as you write dialog or write a certain scene for your characters, that their personalities change or evolve from what you initially planned?
Your books have some great humor as well as some romance. How did you decide how explicit you wanted some of your romantic scenes? How do you balance the right amount of humor in a serious scene/dangerous scene?
GS_Jennsen: Early on in writing Starshine, the characters definitely evolved as I began writing them. The best and most distinct example is Miriam Solovy.
During planning I didn't devote a tremendous amount of time to her - she existed mostly in reference to Alex, as a foil and an explanation for some of Alex's personality traits. But once I started writing her, she totally came to life as a fully-realized character all her own. Every scene I would write with her in, she would completely take it over. Writers talk about their characters being in charge, and Miriam has been by far my most dramatic experience of that. Then when I sent Starshine to some beta readers, several of them really latched on to her character to an extent I never expected. As a result, she ended up playing an even larger role in Vertigo - I've had several readers insist she's the real hero of the second book.
Oh, and Liam O'Connell was always intended to be a fanatic on a crusade, but he wasn't initially intended to be so damn cranky, lol. But his blustering and perpetual crotchetyness was just entirely too much fun to write :).
Writing romance is actually kind of difficult for me, because it involves exposing the most raw and personal emotions. I'm a strong INTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality scale, which means among other things that "talking about my feelings" is not something I do!
But I did it anyway, for several reasons. (I'm probably getting a bit off-topic here, I hope that's okay). In my opinion, romance has a natural place in any story, in any genre, if only because it's so important to our lives. Love - the search for it, the joy of it, the loss of it - drives so much of society. In that way, I think its inclusion makes the characters far more relatable and believable.
In the case of Starshine, I also had an ulterior motive. My intent was for the reader to get to know Alex and Caleb through their reactions to one another. The attraction and feelings triggered by the other exposed their deepest fears, hopes and desires, hopefully in an organic, natural way as part of the story. I'd like to think readers fell in love with Alex alongside Caleb falling in love with her, and vice versa.
As far as how explicit certain scenes were, that is a delicate tight-rope to walk! In large part they were as explicit as I was comfortable writing, but also as explicit as it felt like they needed to be given everything that had come before.
Humor is always a challenge in dramatic, life-threatening storylines, but so very important. I think I've largely dealt with it by developing certain characters who are naturally funny, so when faced with a tense situation it isn't out of character for them to introduce levity.
By the time Noah finds himself in a dangerous/life-threatening situation, the reader isn't the slightest bit surprised when he cracks a perhaps inappropriate joke (in fact, they're probably counting on it). And of course, Kennedy snapping back at him serves to remind everyone it IS a dangerous situation.
jbs090020: Thank you so much for your explanations and insights. It's always a pleasure to be able to ask my favorite authors direct questions. :-)
GS_Jennsen: No, thank you for asking thoughtful, substantive questions that enabled me to ramble :D. It is my pleasure.
revzman: When reading this I saw technologies that reminded me of MMOs such as EVE, SWTOR, STO, and Star Citizen ... just to name a couple. That said, what scifi games do you currently play or have you played (in all your free time, chuckle) that contribute to your work?
GS_Jennsen: Seeing as I've played EVE, SWTOR, STO and can't wait to play Star Citizen, I suppose it was inevitable their technologies and environments crept into my writing :). EVE is in my opinion still the best incarnation of a true space game so far. In fact, Alex lives in it, too: Alex Solovy Pilot Profile.
I'm also a huge fan of the Mass Effect trilogy - there's even a 6-inch model of the Normandy on my desk. I loved both KOTOR games, and Jedi Academy was the 2nd or 3rd PC game I ever played.
I look forward to the day when games advance to the point where we can come close to experiencing what Alex experiences when she stares out the viewport of the Siyane - because I, for one, really want to.
revzman: Considering I'm putting a lot of time in EVE right now, I felt like I was flying a Nemesis or something cloaky and stealthy as I was reading some of it. Good stuff! If that Alex is yours, I'll set her Blue. :)
GS_Jennsen: Much appreciated :).
revzman: I found an Alexis Solovy as well and she looks very similar. There are a few others ... it is a semi-common name in Russia?
GS_Jennsen: Not that I'm aware of - but they may be my aborted beta versions of Alex :).
Julijamis: Now THERE is a question I have been wanting to ask: How do you pronounce Siyane?
GS_Jennsen: Since I made it up, any way we want ;). Okay, serious answer. The audiobook narrator and I agreed on this: Si-YAHn(e). The "i" is soft (like "sit"), and there's just a slight hint of the "e" at the end (almost like rolling the "n" a little).
Juliejamis: Much better! I was saying it as theant4 says below---sigh-YANE. Now it is a beautiful name! Here's another: where is the accent in Solovy?
GS_Jennsen: There isn't one! All 3 syllables are given equal weight: sah-loh-vee. I love the name, I'm so glad I chose it :).
theant4: Wow now I'm sad because I've been pronouncing it wrong the entire time. I'd basically been saying it phonetically, like sigh-YANE. But I like how you described it - wasn't it based on something semi Russian from Alex's childhood? Your pronunciation definitely encompasses the eastern European sound.
GS_Jennsen: It was - a child's mangling of the Russian for "you will shine with more radiance..."
It's okay, I will forever say "Metis" wrong in my head. I say it 'MEH-tis', but it's actually a very distinct Greek word that hasn't been anglo-philed, and thus is pronounced 'meh-TIS' with a soft 'i' (sounds like the plural of 'tea'). It was one of the few pronunciations the Starshine narrator stood firm on.
mysheepareblue: Having read your fanfiction works (it's how I found out about your published stuff, great stuff), how did that experience affect your writing? Did you encounter difficulties during the publishing process due to having the fanfiction available online?
GS_Jennsen: Second question first - thus far I haven't encountered any issues whatsoever due to having fanfiction "out there." If anything it helped Starshine get off the ground, as I already had a solid base of readers who enjoyed my writing and were excited to buy it. Perhaps if I had tried the traditional publishing route it might have been an issue (one of many, many reasons not to go that route).
Fanfiction is a bit of a touchy subject, with many varying opinions out there; I can only talk about my experience. From my perspective, fan fiction is like training wheels for writers: you're given plot, setting and characters, and you can concentrate on learning to put one word in front of the other in a way that is engaging and entertaining.
Early on, I did just that, while also working to get character depictions down and consistent. Once I was more confident in my technical writing skill, I started adding original plot elements, then a LOT of original plot elements (see the ME3 ending, right?). Freed from plot restrictions, I started experimenting with original characters and settings.
Honestly, it was only after I wrote IIML: Beyond, with a wholly original story, setting, alien races and tons of original characters - over 450,000 words after I began writing - that I was READY to write Starshine.
Oh, and the day someone writes Aurora Rising fanfiction, we are going to throw a party at my house, burn something down and buy expensive champagne, because I'll know I've "made it." :).
revzman: Where do we find IIML: Beyond ... whatever that may be? :)
GS_Jennsen: GSJennsen on Deviant Art. If Deviant Art isn't your cup of tea, you'll find links to my profiles on fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own and Wattpad in my Deviant ID (below the Journal, right column).
I can't promise you'll enjoy it if you haven't played the Mass Effect trilogy, but you're welcome to give it a look :). The entire anthology goes in this order: If It Meant Living ("IIML") (called 'If It Meant Living: From the Beginning' on some sites) (72 chapters) --> IIML: Tales (8 chapters ) --> IIML: Beyond (23 chapters).
mysheepareblue: Thank you for your reply! Here's to that party happening soon!
GS_Jennsen: :: cheers and toast ::
kcrosswriting: Okay, here's my question:
As a fantasy author myself, I find that creative writing burns a lot of mental energy. I think it's the creation of worlds, themes, characters, and ALL THE DECISIONS that go into SF/F writing. How do you deal with that kind of mental requirement? Do you take frequent breaks? Do you work 7 days a week? Is this too many questions since it's like four instead of one?
GS_Jennsen: You hit the nail on the head. Creating something out of nothing is hard work, albeit of the mental kind you can't quantify. ALL the decisions - each and every single one - are yours to make. That's wonderful and amazing and fulfilling...but also exhausting.
To some extent this is true for all fiction writing - the writer must imagine then create then bring to life the setting, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, and so on. But in SF/F, you then pile on top ALL the worldbuilding - invented history and places and tech/rules of magic. Throw in some original magical creatures or aliens, and before you know it things get seriously out of control.
I don't have a defined, formal approach to dealing with the mental fatigue, though I can foresee a day when I will. I suppose the best way to state my approach is that I'm not afraid to stop - whether it be for an hour or a day - when I'm mentally drained. I do work 7 days a week, many weeks, but I may spend a random Wednesday playing a video game all day, or doing something super-fun like reformatting my PC :p. Going hiking or skiing would also be entirely viable options, I think ;).
On a less extreme level, once I've got about 50% of a book written (first draft), I'll alternate between writing and editing what's been written (starting at the beginning). That way when I get to the end I have a draft that's already moved beyond its first-draft terribleness, and I've mixed up the work along the way.
And that was at LEAST four questions. But they were all related and utterly topical, so I can't fairly hold it against you!
olaroyale: I read Starshine last week and I absolutely loved it! I just bought Vertigo and can't wait to begin reading it:) Thank you so much for your hard work! I hope you reconsider the part about Aurora Rising being a trilogy. I would love it to be much more ;)
GS_Jennsen: Thank you so much :). I hope - I think - you will enjoy Vertigo just as much.
As far as what happens after the trilogy.... First, there will be what I hope is a fulfilling conclusion to the storyline of the trilogy which wraps up many plot threads and provides satisfying answers. But that doesn't mean it's the end of these characters' stories - in a lot of ways it's only the beginning, for them and for humanity as it finds itself at the end of the trilogy. Without going into detail, there are some discoveries and events in both Vertigo and Transcendence that open up virtually endless possibilities for the future.
As if I could walk away from these characters... :p
Beardy_Will: What's your favourite Culture novel by Iain M Banks?
GS_Jennsen: I'm sorry to say I've not read his novels, though I'm very much aware of the impact on science fiction he's made over the last decade. After his death I intended to pick up one of his books, but all this writing and publishing has cut severely into my reading time :/
I'd love to hear your recommendation on where to start? Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata have always caught my eye, based on covers alone.
aceapollo77: How long was the creation process for your books? Where did you get inspiration? I've wanted to write a book myself, and I have no idea how to even get started! All advice is appreciated!
GS_Jennsen: Aurora Rising began as a single image in my head. I was in the shower one morning (thinking about what my next writing might be about of course), and the image popped into my head, clear and crisp and fully-formed. It was of a woman with dark red hair pulled back in a ponytail, dropping her head out from the hull of a small starship in a hangar bay (she accomplished this by hanging upside down out of the hull, naturally). The ship was of course beautiful. The woman was obviously working on the ship; I had the sense it was her ship.
I spent the next few weeks figuring out the answers to all the questions which immediately followed: Who was she? Where and when was she? What brought her to that point, that moment? And most important, how was she going to change the world?
That was July 2013. It took me maybe a month to develop the overarching plot for the trilogy, create all the major characters, construct a timeline of events from now to 2322, work out the world as it existed when Starshine opens (EA/SF split, current state of tech, medicine, space travel, pop culture, etc.), name all the colonies, and so on. The next month I spent fleshing out the plot for Starshine, writing and editing Chapter 1 and 2, and designing the website and some initial artwork - so that when I unveiled the website, visitors were immediately able to read the first two chapters and learn a lot about what was to come.
From there, it took me 6 months to write and edit Starshine, then another few weeks to get all the ebook and paperback formatting in order and publish.
Vertigo took a little less time, in part because all the preliminary work was already done, and in part simply because it was easier the second time around :) - and 'm already much further along on Transcendence than I was on Vertigo a month after Starshine's publication.
The advice you see floating around out there all the time is, "If you want to write, starting writing." But of course, it's not quite that simple ;). But you SHOULD start writing down whatever strikes you in moments of inspiration (usually in the shower or while driving, the two most difficult places to write things down). It could be a character, a scene/interaction/conversation, a place in time, an event, or a theme you want to explore.
Then start poking at the idea/ideas, pushing yourself to explore it. Obviously writing contemporary fiction is easier in some ways because you don't have to worry about worldbuilding like you must in sci-fi and fantasy, but if you do want to write sci-fi or fantasy, don't be afraid of the worldbuilding :).
Outlining and character creation is important to do early in the process, but it's totally fine to sprinkle in actual writing, too. I wrote a rough early draft of Chapter 1 of Starshine when the outline was maybe 1/3 done, because I needed to get a feel for Alex's voice before I could develop her story.
From that point, every writer's process is different, and there's no one right or wrong way to do it. There are many terrific resources on the internet with excellent guidance. Google+ has some great writing groups, and I link to some good standalone sites in the blogroll on my website.
I hope that helps a little!
waborita: I saw this going on and wanted to stop in. Congratulations on the new release. As an author myself, I don't have much reading time but Aurora Rising One is loaded on my kindle and ready to go :)
GS_Jennsen: Thank you :). I know all about that lack of reading time once you start writing - it's one of the (very) few negatives to being a writer. I hope you enjoy it when you find that time!
travjack: Hey G.S. Found your books through Amazon's recommendation system and read through your reviews before I bought. Loved both of the books, but noticed some subtle changes between Starshine and Vertigo in tone and content. On your blog you've indicated you read all your reviews and try to take all the feedback into consideration. My questions:
- Did the feedback you received from reviews result in changes to your writing between Starshine and Vertigo? In what ways?
- Is there anything you'd change from either book that you didn't see as a flaw until a review pointed it out?
Love the series and am very much looking forward to the third book.
GS_Jennsen: Reviews. Oh man....
1) A positive review absolutely makes my day; the sun shines brighter, colors are more vibrant and all is right with the world. A negative review stings as badly as that boy you had an epic crush on in 9th grade saying you were ugly or stupid or boring or whatever your worst fear was.
BUT, as I said on my blog, it's my responsibility as an author - and especially as an independent author - to take all feedback into consideration. I don't let it dictate what or how I write (the story will always be at its core my own to tell), but I do let it point me toward ways I can improve and mistakes I might have made.
As a result of several reviews of Starshine which pointed out excessive use of certain words, I was far more ruthless in scrubbing Vertigo for overusage of "crutch" words. It was something I called myself doing in Starshine, but obviously I wasn't as vigilant as I should have been.
One aspect of Starshine which didn't sit well with some readers was the level of attention given to the romantic subplot. In this case, though, the reaction was something I expected going in. In more than one way, Starshine is a bit genre-defying, and this is one of those ways - I've heard both "There's too much romance in my sci-fi" and "There's too much sci-fi in my romance." While in some ways even more meaningful in its nature, the romance plot is far less of a focus, and receives far less attention, in Vertigo - but this isn't as a result of the reviews.
I talked about it in another comment, but in Starshine an important role of the romantic subplot was to serve as a sneaky way to allow the reader to get to know both Alex and Caleb from the inside out, by "watching" as their interactions provoked each of their innermost fears, hopes, desires and secrets to make themselves known. Hopefully, readers fell in love with Alex alongside Caleb as he did so, and vice versa.
In Vertigo, this was less of an issue, as hopefully readers now know them quite well. Now, their relationship fuels both the plot and their personal development in other ways :).
2) The most obvious flaw reviews exposed was the lack of a character index making it way too hard to keep track of all the characters. I knew I had a lot of characters and tried to introduce them as carefully and gently as possible, but readers don't have the Aurora Rising Encyclopedia residing in their heads like I do.
One of the great things about independent publishing is the ability to react quickly. Within 2 days of the second reviewer complaining about trying to keep track of all the characters, I had updated both the ebook and the paperback of Starshine to include a complete Dramatic Personae, with important information about the major POV characters and jobs/affiliations for the minor characters. It was also posted on my website (with links included in the book as well), so anyone who had already bought Starshine could get the benefit as well. I don't know how long something like that might have taken with a traditional publisher, but I suspect it would be closer to 2 months than 2 days - if it happened at all.
There is definitely a shift in tone and content from Starshine to Vertigo, as there will be to Transcendence. Though together they will form a cohesive whole and a single story, each book is deliberately unique in tone and approach. Starshine is a space opera/thriller/romance. Vertigo is an adventure/first contact/fantasy/detective story. Transcendence will feature more cyberpunk/AI themes, even more military sci-fi (read: epic space battles), as well as some deep philosophical questions - and a few surprises. The plot lent itself beautifully to this kind of division, which made it all the more fun to explore a variety of techniques for storytelling in each book.
travjack: Thank you G.S. That actually pretty much answered exactly what I was asking about (tone shift) between the books.
If you don't mind, I had one more question. At one point you had indicated (again on your blog) that you had talked with a publisher and decided to not pursue an offer with them. Is that still the state? Any second thoughts?
GS_Jennsen: Seconds thoughts? None.
At the time I made the decision not to pursue the publishing deal, there was definitely an element of "What if this is the wrong choice?" But within a week later, there were decisions I was able to make and opportunities I was able to grab that made it clear it was absolutely the right choice.
While the #1 reason I do this is without a doubt the writing - and everything which comes with it - the #2 reason is probably the freedom. A year into this venture, I've realized I never want there to be someone - anyone - who can tell me "no." "No, you can't use that storyline/cover art/non-hetero relationship (or hetero relationship)/curse word/blurb/villain/etc/etc/etc." "No, you cannot publish your novel."
Of course, that means the responsibility is on my shoulders to make sure when I say "Yes", it's regarding the best work I can possibly produce. I don't want or intend to let down my readers by putting out second-rate anything.
I won't go into a long-winded discussion of the indie/traditional publishing divide, the Amazon/Hachette war or related matters. I will just say I am grateful to Amazon for enabling authors to reach readers directly, and for extracting only minimal compensation in return for doing so. And I'm grateful to B&N, Smashwords, Kobo and all the others for embracing and spreading this new model. Collectively, we--the retailers, the authors and the readers--are revolutionizing the book industry, in my opinion for the better.
TheDudeNeverBowls: I do not know if you will ever see this, but you give me hope. I don't know you, but your words in this AMA is what I have often envisioned my future AMA would be like. You give me hope because I CAN do this. It will be hard, and I will probably turn out less successful, but I can do it.
I will buy your books tonight. Thanks to this thread, they will be the most inspiring.
GS_Jennsen: Thank you for your own inspiring words :). If you write because you love it - because you can't not write - then the work you put in to improve, learn and succeed won't be so "hard." Long hours, yes, lots of effort, yes, but when it's your passion "hard" isn't the word I would use.
In my opinion success isn't owning a huge house or expensive car or whatever - it's being able to do what you love. Get there, and you'll be just fine :).
Spodson: First off thanks for the AMA, and best wishes on your new book’s release. I’m a writer of sorts too and I realize that sometimes the books I read can influence my style, for better or worse. How do you keep from allowing those whose work you admire from influencing your work too much?
GS_Jennsen: The short answer is: a talented and well-read editor. They will tell you when something crosses the line from homage to straight out imitation.
The slightly longer answer is that you don't prevent it, not entirely. Hopefully you're influenced by more than one author and more than one style, and thus create something unique and all your own out of all the inputs. One of the skills I think a writer is well-advised to develop (though it's not easy), is to learn to read as a writer, not just as a reader. Recognize what an author does well and the tricks you'd like to add to your repertoire. Pick and choose the best from many - but only what naturally gels with your own writing style, lest your readers decide your book was written by a schizophrenic.
theant4: What's your favorite color????? ;) Certainly not blue........
GS_Jennsen: ROFL, you know it's blue. The deeper blue the better. Though, as Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters said, the deepest blues are black (Deepest Blues Are Black Lyrics). So perhaps my favorite color is black.... Hmm.