The latest issue of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild newsletter, Freelance, features this interview with me…
What drove you to science fiction writing?
Like most writers of science fiction and fantasy, I became interested in it because it was what I read. I have two older brothers, both of whom read in the genre, so those were among the many books around our house. As a young reader, I was gripped by the wide-open nature of science fiction and fantasy: they allow for the unfettered exercise of imagination. I can set stories anywhere and anytime in the real universe, or anywhere and anytime in any world of which I can conceive. What’s not to like?
I wanted to write it because I wanted to tell tales that other readers would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the stories I loved to read. I started writing stories in elementary school. The first complete short story I remember writing, when I was 11 or 12, was entitled “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” which shows how thoroughly I was already enmeshed in science fiction! My mom, who was a secretary, typed it up for me, and I showed it to my junior-high English teacher. He gave it a proper critique (rather than just congratulating me on writing a story), pointing out ways it could be better. That started me writing seriously, longer and longer things. I was hooked.
Where do your ideas come from for your novels?
Ideas are everywhere. I often say that idea-generation is like a muscle you exercise: the more you work at generating ideas, the more ideas you can generate, and the stronger they’ll be.
Looking back at my twenty-some novels, ideas have come from mental images (my recent novel The Cityborn started that way, with the image of a city above a canyon, a city that has been there so long the canyon has filled with centuries of rubbish; my first published novel, Soulworm, began with an image of a castle replacing the old water tower on Signal Hill in Weyburn), news items (my YA science-fiction story Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star was partially inspired by a news item about one-hit teenage pop stars in Japan), objects (my trilogy The Masks of Aygrima, written as E.C. Blake, was inspired by an image of a Venetian carnival mask), or simply a turn of phrase (The Dark Unicorn, my second published novel, resulted when my niece got the movie titles of The Dark Crystal and The Last Unicorn mixed up, producing the title from which I then wrote the book).
My current series, Worldshapers, is more of an intellectual what-if scenario: what if the authors of novels could live inside the worlds they create? The Shapers of the title aren’t authors, but they do live inside worlds they shape.
So, really, ideas are everywhere! I’ve got more than I can write.
What is more important, strong characters or a well-devised plot?
A false dichotomy. They’re both important. Some stories will be more character-driven, some more plot-driven. It depends on the idea you’re trying to develop.
That said, I tend to start with plot and then develop the characters who inhabit it. The characters, however, often twist the plot in unexpected ways once I start writing, so that my finished novels vary considerably from the original synopsis.
How important are the character’s names and how do you come up with them?
Names are important. I mostly come up with them by looking for interesting names that have the right…flavour? Rhythm? Musical appeal? I’m not sure what the right word is, but I pick names that feel right to me.
Sometimes, I’ll deliberately choose names that are inspired by the plot line. In Worldshapers, the main character’s name is Shawna Keys. The name comes from the Gaelic word seanchaí—a traditional Gaelic storyteller/historian. The other main character, Karl Yatsar, has a last name that’s the Old Hebrew word for “to form, fashion, frame.” In other words, his last name means, more or less, “shaper.” This is never explained in the text, but it seemed right to me.
How do you see the future of science fiction in literature?
Science fiction and fantasy have a bright future. I’m seeing a lot of young writers in the genre coming to me during my current term as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. In the indie ebook market, while romance outsells everything, fantasy and science fiction are also strong. And, of course, the bestseller lists almost always contain genre titles. There is a strong fan base and a lot of terrific writers just getting started.
What will last—what will be remembered decades from now—well, that I don’t know. I write about the future, but I don’t try to predict it.
Do you think the film industry helps fuel interest in science fiction novels?
It certainly helps the novels that are getting made into movies and TV shows, and there have never been more of those, from Game of Thrones to The Expanse to any number of upcoming series. The explosion of streaming services has created an industry hungry for exciting tales, and the advances in CGI mean that literally anything can be believably brought to life on screen.
Does this spin off to all the novels that aren’t made into movies and TV? Harder to say, but I suspect it does to a certain extent. How great that effect is, I’m less certain. There are a lot of fans of TV and movie science fiction and fantasy that aren’t interested in the literary form of their favorite genres: they watch, but they don’t read.
Can you recommend any particular resources that have been invaluable to your writing?
Honestly, the only thing that has been invaluable to my writing has been reading the kind of stuff I want to write…and then writing, writing, writing, literally millions of words. Oh, I’ve subscribed to writing magazines and gone to workshops and read books about writing, but there’s nothing like that I can really point to as invaluable. Reading, writing. You learn to write by reading writing you admire, and then trying to write at that level…and probably failing, for a long time, but eventually, with hard work, you just might get there.
What advice can you give an aspiring science fiction writer?
I think I just gave it!
First, read in the field. Watching TV and movies won’t cut it. They’re a different form of storytelling. You have to read science fiction and fantasy to write it.
And then, write. Write without ceasing. Write a short story, or a novel, or whatever it is you want to write, to the best of your ability. Send it out and see if you can get it published, and while you’re waiting, write the next thing. I had, I think, at least eight unpublished novels written (and rejected over and over) before one was finally published. I just kept writing, and tried to make each new thing I wrote better than the last thing I wrote.
That’s still what I try to do.