A number of years ago— I’m hazy on the details— I made the online acquaintance of one Henry Gee, author of numerous science and fake science books and an editor at Nature. Maybe it was through his role as the wrangler for “Futures”, the series of SF supershorts that finish off each issue in that otherwise august journal— and to which I’ve made a couple of sales myself, hopefully to the chagrin of all those former colleagues who turned up their noses when I left academia to write about ray guns and talking squids in outer space (and who then spent endless years trying desperately to get a paper into Nature). Maybe it was over an early draft of Henry’s Siege of Stars, an SF novel combining some terrific ideas with some rookie mistakes (the latter of which seem to have since been fixed, given all the Big Names lining up to praise the published version). Maybe it started with that interview Nature did with biologists who write science fiction.
They were good times, all of them; I just can’t remember which one came first.
Anyhow, a couple weeks back Henry tagged me in something called “The Writing Process Blog Tour“. It’s kind of an authorial chain letter. An author receives a series of questions (presumably of interest to the reading public); answers them on their blog; passes them on in turn to three other authors downstream. It’s a geometric progression which, if accommodated by all tagged targets, would rapidly swamp every cat picture on the internet.
Reluctant to be part of such a fission reaction, I asked Henry if I could maybe just pass the questions on to one other writer when I was done with them, to keep the proliferation cone a bit narrower. Henry had no problem with that; the rules are neither hard nor fast, and besides, I never signed anything.
So here they are.
What Am I Working On?
I can’t tell you. Really. It might not even go anywhere. But I just started, and it’s unconventional.
How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?
It is significantly more insecure, emotionally. Scarred by a past life in academia, I feel compelled to try and cover my ass against any manner of nitpickers. You may have noticed my habit of sticking lengthy technical appendices on the end of my novels. You may have even admired me for the effort, thinking I do this to Educate the Masses or to Share My Excitement about Real Science.
Why Do I Write What I Do?
Because nobody wanted to buy my children’s novel, Pancake, Snookums, and the Balance of Nature— in which the eponymous leopard frog and garter snake, trapped in the same terrarium, work together to effect their escape. (Then Snookums eats Pancake.)
Denied my dream of writing Children’s Literature, I’ve settled for a sandbox big enough to explore the ideas that interest me. That’s science fiction, almost by definition. I suppose that technically it would be possible to explore the relationship between Theology and Digital Physics in a western or a historical romance, but that would take someone with considerably greater skill than I have.
How Does My Writing Process Work?
By cutting corners. For example, should I be presented with a question in a Blog Tour that’s identical to a question I’ve already answered in a previous interviews, I’m likely to just cut-and-paste in order to save time. Here comes an example right now:
Something gives me an idea: Hey, if that’s true, then what would happen if…? (Or sometimes: what utter bullshit. If that were true, then…)
I sketch out a plan to embed that question in a story. There follows a variable period spent writing and cursing, from which emerges a product that looks like a half-assed Rubik’s Cube badly wrapped in pages taped together from a paperback novel. Then I go running, to give my subconscious time to crunch the numbers and serve up a fix. If that doesn’t work I go drinking with friends or take a shower with my wife, and use them as sounding boards to whinge about all the parts that won’t fit. I listen for ideas to steal, rewrite until the wrapping looks prettier and put it away, vaguely unsatisfied but resigned.
Three days before deadline I wake up in the middle of the night with a whole new angle fully-formed in my head. I throw out most of what I’ve done prior and start from scratch; I am frequently unaware of the passage of time at this point, even though time is now most pressing.
I hand it in.
The whole process generally consumes 30-60 hours for a short story. With novels you can stretch that out over a year or more, and bolt a detailed outline onto the front end (20-40 single-spaced pages— Cory Doctorow once described them as “not so much outlines as novels without dialog”). Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.
I go through a lot of pants.
So now I get to stick someone else with these questions— and the person I tag is Caitlin Sweet, even though I know her answers to some of them. I tag her because she has taught me so much about our shared craft (sparing the lot of you from more clunky writing than you’ll ever know, by the way), that I can’t imagine not learning something new when she sits down to hammer out her own answers. Also because she’s more likely to forgive me for sticking her with a chain letter.
Take it away, BUG.