Conversation Corner with James Pailly, Sci-Fi Writer and Science Blogger Extraordinaire

I’m thrilled to have James Pailly as a guest today on Doorway Between Worlds. I’m a devoted follower of James’s blog Planet Pailly, where he shares knowledge about science in a way that never fails to make me laugh while I learn. James also writes science fiction, and I thought he might have some interesting ideas to share about how to communicate sciency concepts to readers. I was right! Here is our conversation about high school fears, molecular personalities, and the art of bringing science into science fiction.

On your blog Mission Statement page (I love that title, by the way – very science fiction!), you talk about how you’re working on improving your scientific knowledge, so you can grapple with its complexities in your writing. What prompted you to share that research on science with others through your blog?

First off, thanks for inviting me!  I could never resist crossing a doorway between worlds.

I guess I started my blog because of a deep-rooted sense of insecurity.  As a kid, I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, but I hated science class.  Especially chemistry.  Chemistry and I are old, bitter adversaries.  So I grew up really wanting to write science fiction and knowing next to nothing about actual, factual science.

Most of my writing instructors reassured me that it didn’t matter.  Good storytelling comes first; just make up the sciency stuff.  But I couldn’t shake the fact that when it came to physics and astronomy and biology, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, and that stopped me from writing anything at all.

I believe the best way to overcome that kind of insecurity is to face it directly.  So in a moment of either extreme courage or extreme foolishness, I decided to teach myself science.  In order to ensure that I’d stick to it for more than a weekend, I also decided to blog about my research.  I figured regular blogging would keep me from getting lazy and that readers would hold me accountable if I made mistakes.

For the most part, it’s worked.  There’s still loads of science for me to learn, but I don’t feel so insecure about my ignorance.

That’s fantastic. I’m ignorant in a lot of areas of science, too, and I love learning about all the different things you talk about through your blog. How did you end up developing the ideas for your various series?

I’ve had multiple special series come and go on my blog.  Sciency Words is by far the longest running.  The original idea was that I’d write brief, dictionary-style definitions of important scientific terms.  Now Sciency Words posts are much longer and usually include what I describe as “highly technical scientific diagrams.”  Like this one:

Earth: Ahh!!! What are all these things crawling on me? Moon: I think some of them got on me too.

Image courtesy of James Pailly

The other currently active series is called Molecular Mondays.  Every other Monday, I focus specifically on that subject I dreaded most in school: chemistry.  This is another case of me directly facing my insecurities.  I’ve tried to talk myself into canceling this series several times now, but the feedback I’ve gotten has really surprised me.  Apparently I’m not the only one who struggled in chemistry class, and I guess people like to see that I’m not giving up on something just because it’s hard.

Yes! I am one of those who struggled with chemistry. I think part of the issue was that it wasn’t very relatable for me (as opposed to biology, which I did quite well in) – it felt abstract and boring. But your posts on chemistry are inspiring me to learn more. And your “highly technical scientific diagrams” are a big help in making it fun. Do you have a background in art? What do you see as the role of art in communication?

You know, the funny thing about studying art is that when you really get into it, when you’re learning to mix pigments and get them to adhere to a surface, you’re actually doing chemistry.  With figure studies, you’re doing anatomy and biology.  When you’re working with light and shadow, you’re starting to do physics.

I think a lot of science can feel abstract and boring, as you said.  Chemistry is especially guilty of this.  But once you get to know atoms and molecules, you find that they sort of have their own distinct personalities.  Carbon makes friends with everybody.  Helium just wants to be left alone.  Oxygen’s super greedy for everyone else’s electrons, and most metals are sort of blasé about letting their own electrons go.

Oxygen: Gimme, gimme, gimme!Oh, these old things? Take them, if you want.
Images courtesy of James Pailly

That’s not really a scientific way of thinking.  It’s sort of my artistic interpretation.  I take a bit of creative license on my blog, but I think a little creative license can help make science feel less abstract and more familiar.

Applying character development to scientific concepts is brilliant. (I can imagine science teachers taking fiction writing classes to broaden their communication skills.)

Actually, one of my favorite teachers — my high school physics teacher — wrote two episodes of Star Trek, one for The Next Generation and another for Voyager.  Now there was a man who knew how to turn science into good storytelling!

That is so cool! I wish my high school physics teacher had been a sci-fi writer. Although he had his own talents – he was a born comedian and a talented dancer. (He used to entertain us with some Russian dances if we asked nicely.) 🙂

I love that whole idea of cross-pollination between different knowledge areas. I’m curious – have you found that learning more about science has helped you with your original goal of improving your science fiction writing?

I have two science fiction projects that I’m actively working on.  The first is called Tomorrow News Network.  It’s a short story series about a journalist who travels through time, covering the biggest news stories in the galaxy before they happen.

I started writing T.N.N. shortly after I started blogging.  The T.N.N. universe is filled with fairly standard Sci-Fi tropes: wacky time machines, emotionless cyborgs, sprawling space empires, etc.  From the beginning, I’ve tried to fit my research in wherever I can, but T.N.N. is still what some would label “soft-core” science fiction.

Tomorrow News Network

Image courtesy of James Pailly

My other project is still in the world building stage, and I’m sort of approaching it in the opposite way to how I approached Tomorrow News Network.  This time, I’m starting with my research — specifically my research on planetary science, orbital mechanics, and chemistry (of course) — and I’m fitting in traditional Sci-Fi tropes wherever I can.

The result is a universe that feels much more grounded in reality.  At least, I hope so.  Also, with all the omnipresent hazards of space travel hanging over my main characters, I think this is a universe that will feel a whole lot more dangerous.

I’m so glad it’s been a worthwhile endeavour for you. I can’t wait to see the results! Before we wrap up our conversation, I was wondering — do you have any recommended resources for those who are interested in writing in the sci-fi genre?

A lot of science fiction writers seem to skip the research part of their work.  I’m not saying you have to go research-crazy like I do, but you can find a lot of cool story ideas buried in scientific literature.  Real life science is often weirder and more wonderful than anything you could possibly imagine.

So I’m going to repeat a piece of advice from Isaac Asimov (at least, I think it’s from Asimov).  He told new science fiction writers to get a subscription to Scientific American.  They’re one of the best at making science accessible without oversimplification.

Of course, the world has changed a bit since Asimov’s time, and now you can find quality science journalism all over the Internet for free.  You’ve got websites like Live Science, Universe Today, and Space.com (although these websites are sometimes guilty of oversimplification). Magazines like Popular Science and Scientific American post a lot of their articles online too.

And if you feel like diving into the more technical stuff, check out Google Scholar.  It’s Google for academic papers (as opposed to regular Google, which searches the entire Internet).  Actually, Google Scholar is an amazing resource no matter what subject you’re trying to research, and I’m surprised by how few people seem to know it’s there.

Thanks, James! I used to love reading Scientific American, and I need to get back to it.

Finally, just for fun, I have to ask: Which do you like better? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Or something else? I’m a Babylon 5 person myself.)

Oh jeez, you’re going to get me in trouble.  Okay, I’d normally pick Star Trek, but… the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just came out.  I’m pretty excited about Star Wars right now.

I think we all are! Thanks so much for being such a great guest, James, and sharing your thoughts with my readers. You’re welcome back any time!

***

Do you have a question for James, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

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Conversation Corner with Carrie Rubin, Author of Medical Thrillers

Carrie Rubin

Carrie Rubin

I am so pleased to be hosting Carrie Rubin for today’s Conversation Corner. I love Carrie’s blog The Write Transition, which showcases her wonderful insights about life and writing. Carrie’s blog has many followers, and yet she somehow finds the time to provide thoughtful answers to every single comment. I am frankly in awe of her mastery of all things media.

Carrie is also a truly funny woman who happens to write novels about disease and serial killers. (Go figure.) Her wonderful second novel Eating Bull has just been released, and I asked her if she would come on by to chat about her experiences writing in the thriller genre. Here is our conversation about teenage heroes, book promotion, health, and funny words.

Carrie, I love the beginning of your About page:

Physician, public health advocate, writer. I believe every experience is worthwhile, even if our paths deviate from where we started.

I hope you don’t mind if I steal that second sentence as an inspirational quote. 🙂 I’ve always felt that whatever we learn is never wasted, since it helps us grow later in ways we couldn’t have foreseen. How have your experiences as a physician contributed to your career as a writer? And what prompted you to make that transition?

Please do take advantage of that quote! Other than my teen sons parroting me in a mocking falsetto, no one ever quotes me.

My medical background plays a big role in my writing, first as a write-what-you-know tool and second as a platform of authenticity. This legitimacy is particularly important for my newest novel, because the social issue at play in Eating Bull is obesity and the food industry’s role in it. Readers want to know the author has experience in the area, and between my years of clinical practice and my public health research, I do.

I have always wanted to write novels. In fact, I wrote my first book fourteen years ago. But as so often happens, life got in the way. So, during a career transition from clinical to nonclinical medicine a couple of years back, I jumped off a cliff and dived into writing instead. (Thanks to the amazing support of my husband whose words at the time were, “It’s now or never.”) Of course, I keep all my medical licensure and public health requirements up to date for life’s next chapter, as well as ties to my hospital of employment, but for now I’m enjoying the life of a writer.

It’s clear in Eating Bull that your authenticity has served you well – including your experience with teen boys! Your main character, Jeremy, is so well drawn. What helped you get into his mindset? And how did you handle the ongoing switch between his point of view and that of adult health worker Sue?

Thank you. My oldest son was fifteen years old when I wrote the book, so having a character the same age as my son helped me get into a teenager’s mindset. Plus, my son served as one of my beta readers. I wanted his opinion on whether Jeremy rang true to his age. If he thought something was off, I fixed the issue. This was particularly helpful in relation to Jeremy’s video game playing and his interactions at school.

Since I enjoy writing in a third-person limited narrative, I had to make sure Sue’s chapters sounded different from Jeremy’s. A 48-year-old woman will have different insights and reactions than a 15-year-old boy. So I tried to don the personality of whoever’s point of view I was writing from. Of course, that meant thinking like Darwin, too. Getting into the mindset of a killer makes for an interesting experience!

I’ll bet it does! I’ve always thought writing thrillers must be challenging because of its inevitable focus on the negative side of human nature. How do you get into that mindset? How do you shake it off? And have you come across any useful resources that helped you write this type of thriller?

I’m not sure I do anything specific to get into the mindset, but when I’m focusing on the negative, particularly when writing from the antagonist’s point of view, I remind myself of Stephen King’s words:

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

—Stephen King, On Writing

In other words, I try not to censor myself. As much as my antagonist’s actions might disturb me, they are what fuel the story, and I need to be willing to go there.

I’ve read a variety of books on the craft of writing, but two of the most helpful for me in terms of writing thrillers are Story Engineering and Story Physics, both by Larry Brooks. Structure is very important when drafting thrillers, and I like to have it all laid out beforehand. Brooks’s books help me navigate how to do that.

As you know, I’m a fan of Story Engineering as well. It seems to me that engineering is a perfect concept for a lot of the activities involved in writing a book, including the engineering involved in coordinating its release. How do you handle all the various bits and pieces that are involved in promoting your work?

Honestly, that part’s a bit stressful for me. There is much to coordinate, both online and face-to-face. In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, I:

  • wrote blog posts and articles, either for my own site or elsewhere
  • sent out ARCs (Advance Reader Copies)
  • updated my various platforms and included the book’s links
  • contacted potential reviewers
  • designed bookmarks and other promotional items
  • got emails ready to send to local newspapers, alumni newsletters, and professional contacts
  • set up book signings
  • created posters for book signings
  • developed a “talk” should any speaking engagements arise
  • explored other marketing venues

Eating BullAnd, of course, during all that I was reading through the final electronic and print versions of Eating Bull before my publisher gave it the official go. It’s amazing how a typo can slip past 2,000 previous readings!

But I handled it like most of us do: making lists and tackling the elephant one bite at a time.

That sure is a big elephant! You’ve talked a lot on your blog about your introversion. As an introvert, how do you keep yourself from running out of energy with all these activities?

The busy work I listed above doesn’t really drain me. It’s the social interactions that do, particularly the face-to-face ones. So now that the book is released, and I’ll be facing more in-person promotion, I’ll need to make sure I get wind-down time every night, either in the form of a good TV show or some reading. Those always help quiet my mind and recharge my batteries, especially if they are followed by a good night’s sleep and a morning workout.

Sounds like an excellent plan. I know I need that recharging time after a busy social day (although I’m still struggling with the workout part). 🙂

You’ve mentioned that the face-to-face interactions involved in promotion are particularly challenging for you. I’ve noticed that you are active on Twitter and Goodreads and comment on many blogs. Do you find communicating through social media to be easier? And how do you manage to keep up with all your online platforms?

I do find interacting on social media much easier. No eye contact, no small talk, and communication in short snippets—perfect for an introvert. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain mentions that many introverts thrive online. That being said, I’m a big girl, and I can function in the real world when needed. It just saps my energy more than online communication.

I devote a couple of hours each day to social media, but I don’t keep up as well as I’d like. I do best with Twitter and my blog, but even the latter I find challenging since I follow so many others. While I can’t catch every post, especially on the more prolific blogs, I try to stop by when I can. It’s always fun to see what others are up to, and I’ve found the blogging community to be genuine and supportive. In fact, I’ve ‘met’ remarkable people from all over the world.

I wholeheartedly agree – the blogging community has been wonderful to me as well. And of course I got to meet you! 🙂

I have one last question (one that will hopefully help this introvert impress people at awkward social events): Do you have a favourite obscure or funny medical term?

This is one of those questions where you can’t think of a great answer at the time but later come up with something perfect, usually at three in the morning. But here are a couple of medical terms I like: Borborygmus, which is the term for stomach growling, and myokymia, the term for involuntary muscle twitching, like when your eyelid keeps contracting. And if you have both at the same time? Well…you might want to skip your next meeting.

Thank you so much for having me today, Sue! I had a lot of fun, and I’m honored to be a part of your fabulous blog. For anyone who hasn’t seen Sue’s Rogue Word series yet, it’s definitely worth a look. Lots of great writing tips there. I found the s and apostrophes post particularly helpful.

Thanks, Carrie! I’m glad that my series was helpful for you. And thank you so much for stopping by DBW today and sharing your experiences with my readers!

***

For those of you who enjoy thrillers, I encourage you to take a look at Eating Bull.

And if you’re interested in reading previous conversations on various communication topics, you can find them here. Thanks for reading!

Big Words, Clean Teeth & Jell-O for Brains: a Lovely Recipe for Life

Today I am holding a special edition of Conversation Corner with children’s author and humour blogger Shelley Sackier on her blog Peak Perspective. You don’t want to miss my first ever illustrated interview! Please come visit and read about our conversation on using large words, writing for children, how to be funny, and the advantages of having Jell-O for brains.

Peak Perspective

Sue Archer: Editor, blogger, and master of not only English but nearly every science fiction and fantasy language to boot. Linguistic skills more impressive than the blinking and confusing cockpit lights of the Starship Enterprise. Have you need of a first-class editor to guide your manuscript to lofty heights of high-class quality? Sue’s your gal. Hungering for a few golden writing tips to sharpen your blog, your essays, your work-related writing skills? Look no further.

Peruse Sue’s new editorial site and her blog site too—and I do mean peruse in the truest sense of the term. DIG DEEP. There is pure gold in them there words.

And if you feel like putting your feet up for a spell, see her fine interviewing skills down below. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with this lovely, talented lady.

A woman with cosmic talent, and universal appeal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Conversation Corner with…

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Conversation Corner with Alex Hurst, Author and Traveller

When I first ran across fantasy author Alex Hurst’s blog, I was immediately attracted by the quality of her writing (as evidenced in her Archetypes in Fiction series) and her beautiful photos. I soon found that Alex is also a wonderful person who is very supportive of her fellow bloggers. During the April A to Z Challenge, Alex wrote an excellent series of posts about her life in Japan. I asked her if she would like to come by DBW to speak about her experiences communicating in a different cultural environment. Here is our conversation about travelling, introversion, English teaching, and the perils of ferocious kanji.

On your About page, you talk about travelling around the U.S. while growing up “in the wilds of the south.” How did you go from being a local traveller to living in Japan? And did you find your experiences of moving around helped you at all as you made that transition?

Well, that’s a very long story, but I’ll try to keep it short and interesting. I was born close to a bayou in Louisiana, where I spent a lot of my formative years playing outside in the woods around our property. My father collected a lot of Asian art, as well, so when I wasn’t outside pretending I was on some grand adventure with my siblings, I was inside looking at Buddhas, thangkas, and giant calligraphy scrolls. This would become important later, naturally, as my interests shifted from living in the U.S. to studying Japanese, and eventually coming to live in Kyoto.

A few years after my family moved to California, when I was around twelve, my family decided to have a real grand adventure and circumambulate the United States in our car. For 10,000 miles, it was just my father and my three younger siblings, with my mother staying in San Francisco for work. Though there were hard days, I think that was when I caught the travel bug. I need to explore, to go to new places, and often, as with Japanese, I tend to choose things that I know I’m not inherently good at, in order to challenge myself. But yes, moving around so much as a child, and my home life, more than prepared me for the move. When I came to Japan, I didn’t experience any culture shock and settled in quite quickly. However, whenever I visit my U.S. home, I always find myself getting what’s known as reverse culture shock, and that’s a bit uncanny, given how long I lived there!

It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I think it’s wonderful that you challenged yourself to learn Japanese and experience a new culture. I’m curious – what are some of the key differences that you notice when you come back to the U.S.? And what do you like most about the Japanese culture?

If I were to go with the first thing that pops into my head: the noise. U.S. Americans, and Canadians, are just louder, in all things. When I lived stateside before, I never noticed, but in Japan, things are so quiet all the time. On the train or bus, no one talks to each other (it’s considered rude). In restaurants, conversations are carried on as quietly as possible. Even in parks, children are so quiet that you can still hear the small birds in the trees several meters away. My ears have become much more sensitive to sound while I’ve been here, so when I go home, I constantly find myself flinching to regular noises, as if someone is always yelling when they shouldn’t be.

Otherwise, I would say the openness of Westerners is much more pronounced once you’ve been in Asia for a time. People like to keep direct eye contact in the West, shake hands, even hug strangers. There is a certain willingness to bare yourself to another human being in even the most base of interactions. But in Japan, it can take years to get to that point, and not even family members hug one another. It’s actually one of the quickest ways to make a young Japanese person uncomfortable: hug them. However, every now and then I find an old lady who is more than eager to get a hug from the exotic foreigner.

That’s not to say that either extreme of the above two observations are bad. I love both cultures for those things, in different ways. I’m just generally more quiet and reserved, being a low-key introvert, and so coming to Japan and adjusting to their way of things was very easy. But I do miss big bear hugs and people’s general, every day excitement in the West.

Of course, there's excitement here too...

Of course, there’s excitement here too…


As an introvert, I can relate to enjoying the quiet. 🙂 You mentioned that it can take a while to get close to someone in Japan. How did you go about making connections with others? What kind of new communication approaches did you need to learn?

That one’s a bit tougher! To make connections with other people in Japan, I didn’t change much inherently about myself, or my approaches in meeting people. I can’t honestly say that I “cracked the cultural code” in my time here, either. I did have to learn that where Americans are often shown to pigeon hole their friends (golf friends, poker friends, shopping friends), the Japanese people I’ve met are even more intense in their separations. It feels, at times, that my friends will not discuss any family matters with me at all because I am not family, or will only discuss one subject consistently, and it’s usually the topic we met under (like traveling). The only exception to this has been in the relationships I’ve built with my adult students over the years. Because I can decide the topic, I’ve gotten to know so many of them very well through our English conversations in class.

My best example of this is actually also my best friend in Japan. We chatted weekly for about a year, going to various places around Kyoto together and talking all about cultural differences between America and Japan, before I even found out that he was married and had a daughter. A full year! When I asked him why he never talked about them, he said that it was his private life, and not something he shares. And he is the most open person I know!

I’m curious how this type of separation works for the Japanese in the age of social media, where everything ends up online. How are online social platforms used?

Actually, social media is not used in the same way it is used in America, I think. Most Japanese people use Twitter or mixi (the Japanese equivalent of Facebook), but they use it to share photos, mainly, or gush about various things they are interested in. I don’t have a mixi account, but the friends that do use Facebook use it like Instagram, taking photos of food (sometimes adding very detailed explanations of the daily bento they are making for their children every morning). I rarely see a post that discusses anything personal. In that respect, I think Japanese people are still a bit reserved about digital things. The use of credit cards is still quite low (you can’t use a credit card to pay for a lot of things over here – it’s a cash-based society), and I think the mistrust of digital presence is one of the reasons it hasn’t changed (much to the chagrin of international visitors).

I’d love to hear more about your experiences working with your adult (and child) students. Did you find there were aspects of English that were difficult to teach? What helped you?

English has proved a very difficult language to teach, once you move past the stage of simple vocabulary and grammar study. I’ve found that prepositions are the most difficult. Japanese only has a handful of prepositions (は、が、に、を、で、として), which can be combined to create a further meaning, similar to the combination “into” in English. However, as most people know, English has well over a hundred prepositions, and their meanings are quite distinctive. As a native speaker, these meanings are quite clear, but for a Japanese learner, where に [ni] can mean ten different things (screenshot attached!), the idea that prepositions aren’t flexible is a difficult hurdle to overcome.

ni

The other thing that is hard to teach is stress in speech. Take the sentence “I never said she stole my money.” In writing, this is rather simple, and in certain contexts, the meaning is quite clear. But, change the stress on any word, and the meaning actually changes! So, teaching this is also difficult, since in Japanese, there are basically no stresses in a sentence until the very end. Their stresses denote questions, or confirmations, or invitations to respond. Ours are quite trickier, I think!

Teaching these things is difficult, but also fun. I find that doodling on the white board helps a lot, to show the difference between being “at” a place, and being “in” a place, or “on” a place. For intonation, I get my drama on, and exaggerate my delivery in speech, so students can understand the real meaning of a sentence based on how it is spoken.

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Japan with my readers. It’s been great having you here. One final question: Do you have a favourite kanji or Japanese expression that you’d like to pass along for those of us who may visit Japan someday?

Oh, yes, I do have a favorite kanji. It is not really practical, in the strictest sense, but that is what elevated it to “never forgotten” status in my mind.

The kanji is: 悪循環. It is read aku-jun-kan and means “vicious circle.”

Why is this my favorite kanji? Well, when I was in my third year of studying Japanese, the kanji understandably got way more difficult. And our teachers gave us a lot of kanji to study, many of which we would never need again, like “International Date Line” (don’t ask me why). But akujunkan became this sort of mantra in my class. The students would repeat it all the time, and even start using it as the reply-all to any complaints about the class. So, it’s very much an inside joke, but given the stressful course load and its compounding effects on mental health, it definitely fit.

Plus, it’s just fun to say. Akujunkan. Akujunkan. Akujunkan.

Thanks so much for the wonderful interview, Sue! I had a fabulous time! 🙂

***

Images courtesy of Alex Hurst

For more about Alex, I would encourage you to check out her blog or her latest illustrated novella, D.N.A.

Do you have a question for Alex, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

Conversation Corner with Lori MacLaughlin, Author of Lady, Thy Name is Trouble

Shortly after I started DBW, I ran across Lori MacLaughlin’s blog Writing, Reading, and the Pursuit of Dreams. With a blog name like that, how could I resist investigating? At the time, Lori was in the thick of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and I loved following her series of posts on favourite fictional characters.

Since that time, she has chronicled her self-publishing journey, and recently published her first novel, a wonderful sword-and-sorcery adventure called Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. I asked Lori if she would be willing to stop by and share her thoughts on writing and communication. Here is our conversation on finding inspiration, interpreting body language, surviving the self-publishing process, and squawking.

On your About page, you talk about imagining tales while growing up on your parents’ dairy farm. How did your love for story come about? Who or what inspired you?

Lori MacLaughlin

Lori MacLaughlin

I read voraciously while I was growing up. My parents had instilled in me a love of books by reading to me at an early age. They had shelves of books that filled my head with stories and sparked my imagination. Many of them had animal protagonists, like The Poky Little Puppy and other Golden Books, the Thornton W. Burgess Green Meadow series, and one of my favorites, The Wind in the Willows. Another book I found inspirational was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The idea of traveling through some kind of portal to a magical world fascinated me and inspired me to create my own fantasy worlds and adventures.

I was very much a tomboy and spent a lot of time in the woods and pastures and in the barns with our animals, so it was very easy, by extension, to think of them and other real and imaginary woodland critters as story characters. I’ve always been intrigued by fantastical creatures and wished I could see unicorns and fairies and such in the woods.

There is something magical about animals, isn’t there? I grew up in the suburbs, so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be around animals. But one house I lived in had a little pond down the street, and I used to love going on toad-catching expeditions and watching for squirrels.

I noticed when reading your book Lady, Thy Name is Trouble that you did an excellent job describing the horses and how they behaved. Did you work a lot with the animals on your parents’ farm? What was that experience like?

Thank you! Yes, I worked with both cows and horses. I had a saddle horse and enjoyed riding. My dad loves horses, and his stories about his experiences both riding and working with horses on the farm where he grew up were inspirational, too. Mostly, though, I worked with the cows and young stock. Interacting with the animals was my favorite part of farming. Each animal had its own personality, and I really got to know them well. Animals have body language and expressions, just like people, and being able to read those allowed for so much better interaction with them. I found I had a way with animals. There were skittish cows and calves that I could do anything with that no one else could get near.

That’s wonderful. My experience with farm animals is largely limited to a pony that stepped on my foot at summer camp. I was quite intimidated, and I’m sure it showed! That’s a true skill to be able to read body language. Non-verbal communication is so important, and yet it’s something that a lot of us have trouble with. Have you found that this skill at observing others has helped you in other areas of your life? Does it affect how you approach your writing?

Ouch. That had to hurt. Yes, I’ve found that it helps immensely in communicating with others. Some years ago I worked as a feature writer for a local newspaper, and the job involved interviewing people from all walks of life for various reasons. By listening to them and watching their visual cues, I was able to find an approach that put them at ease and got them to open up and really talk to me. It was very rewarding to communicate on that level. Just the simple act of listening — giving someone your full attention — works wonders.

Observing body language was also important in a job I had as a clothing salesperson. I was required to greet the customers who came in the store and ask if they needed help with anything. The customer’s tone of voice and body language told me quite clearly if they didn’t want help at all or might want help later and wouldn’t mind being approached again. It also helped tremendously with children. I worked for a number of years as a kids’ shoe fitter. It’s not always easy to get kids, ages 1 to 10, to cooperate during the fitting process. Being able to read them helped me find ways to coax them into cooperating and made the experience a lot more pleasant for everyone involved.

Because non-verbal communication is such an integral part of expressing oneself, I try to include as much as feels natural in my writing. Expressions and gestures say so much more than just words and really bring characters to life.

Speaking of bringing characters to life – you recently published your first novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. Congratulations! I am sure you went through a lot of work to make this happen. How did you come to the decision to self-publish your story? What has the experience been like for you?

Thank you! Yes, it took a LOT of work. I began writing this story as a hobby many years ago. As I began to get more serious about my writing, I read how-to books on improving my craft and joined a writer’s group to get feedback, which was so helpful. Eventually, I hired a freelance editor and proofreader, whom I met through the League of Vermont Writers group. She loved my story and understood my writing style. Her suggestions brought the story out from under a pile of extraneous words and really helped it shine. From going through this process, I learned how to self-edit, so my work is much cleaner from the start.

I began sending out queries to agents in the traditional manner, hoping to land representation that would keep me out of the publishing houses’ slush pile. I garnered some interest, but no takers. Some responses came right away. Others took months. To wait that long, only to receive a standard rejection letter was discouraging, to say the least.

Lady Thy Name is Trouble book coverAfter a couple of years of not getting anywhere, I decided to re-evaluate. It seemed like there were fewer and fewer opportunities for unpublished writers in the traditional publishing world, and the books that were coming out in my genre were mostly young adult and paranormal/urban fantasy. My novel, I think, would be described best as sword and sorcery, with the emphasis on the sword. It’s action and adventure with romance thrown into the mix.

Not wanting to spend many more months or even years waiting for acceptance from an agent, I chose to go the self-publishing route. My decision was also influenced by the fact that if I did it myself, I would have control over every aspect of the publishing process. Having heard and read about problems other writers had encountered with publishers, this aspect particularly appealed to me.

I have learned so much since taking the plunge. I started building my social media platform. I researched the pros and cons of Amazon’s CreateSpace vs. publishing under my own imprint and decided if I was going to do it myself, I was going to do it my way, to quote an old Frank Sinatra song. I started my own company, Book and Sword Publishing, and registered it with the state, going through a lawyer to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. I bought my own ISBN numbers. I learned about book layout and cover design, book reviews, and blog tours. I taught myself how to edit music and make book trailers. So many things. I made a list at the beginning of this process of all the things I’d need to do. It seemed a very daunting list, but as long as I took things one step at a time, it was doable. I’ve had my share of frustrations. My successes, though, have blown them all away. There are no words to describe how it feels to hold my own book in my hand or to read it on my Kindle.

Wow, you have been busy! I’ve seen your book trailer, and it’s fantastic. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve tackled all the different aspects of publishing your book. Do you have any advice for writers who are thinking of going the self-publishing route? Are there any resources that you found to be particularly helpful?

Thanks! Yes, the book trailer was a lot of work, but it was fun to make. I think the most important thing for anyone who decides to self-publish is to hire professionals to edit and proofread your work. I know it’s expensive, but it will be worth every penny. A professional-looking cover is also a must. The only way self-publishing will lose its stigma is if everyone who goes that route puts out a quality product. The second-most important thing is to get on social media. Blog, Facebook, Twitter — use whatever works for you to connect with people. It’s the best way to get the word out about your book, and you get the added benefit of meeting and making friends with some wonderful people. Get on Goodreads and network with people there. You don’t have to jump in all at once. Start slow and build up as you feel comfortable.

There are a ton of online resources for self-publishers. I’ve found answers to almost every question I’ve had just by doing a search on a few keywords. Two sites that have been really helpful for me are the Insecure Writer’s Support Group at www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com and The Book Designer at www.thebookdesigner.com.

I’ve also had good luck with Audacity music editing software and Calibre e-book conversion software, both free downloads off the Web. I purchased a template from the Book Designer specifically tailored for MS Word files that would be uploaded to the distributor Ingram/Spark, and that worked well. I used www.istockphoto.com for images for my book trailers. Their one-month subscription worked fine for me, and I had no problems with them, whatsoever. I found great music at www.freestockmusic.com. Font Squirrel has a good selection of fonts that are free for commercial use. I discovered not too long ago, in my naiveté, that even fonts must be licensed for commercial use before they can grace the pages of your books. Always be sure to obtain the necessary permissions and/or licenses for anything you use before publication.

Yes, it’s always good to be on the right side of the law. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your advice with DBW readers. I have one final question, just for fun. I noticed in your bio that you are a pilot. (From horses to planes – you really know how to go places!) I’ve written in the past about the perils of nonsensical corporate jargon. Have you encountered any weird or funny piloting jargon while learning to fly?

Thanks so much for having me here, Sue! Well, it has been a long time since I piloted an aircraft, but one thing that stood out to me was the constant use of abbreviations. For instance, I was licensed with a VFR, or visual flight rules, rating, which meant that I could fly using outside visual cues, such as the horizon, the landscape, buildings, etc. In other words, I could see where I was going. I was not IFR, or instrument flight rules, rated, so I couldn’t fly in places or at times when I couldn’t see outside and would have to rely solely on the instrument panel for altitude, pitch, direction, and so forth. All airports, in the U.S. anyway, are identified by a three letter code: Los Angeles, CA — LAX; Newark, NJ — EWR; my local airport in Burlington, VT — BTV.

Deciphering a weather report was like reading some kind of weird shorthand. Here’s an example of a PIREP (pilot report) out of my old Manual of Flight book:

DEN 275045 1745 F330/TP B727/SK 185 BKN 220/280 – OVC 290/TA -53/WV 290120/TB LGT-MDT CAT ABV 310

This means: “Denver VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional range) 275 radial 45 NM (nautical miles) at 1745Z (zulu time). Flight level 330 (33,000 ft.). Type of aircraft Boeing 727. Sky cover consists of two layers: first layer base at 18,500 ft., broken top at 22,000 ft., second layer base at 28,000 ft., thin overcast top at 29,000 ft., outside air temperature minus 53 degrees Celsius, wind 290 degrees true at 120 knots, light to moderate clear air turbulence above 31,000 ft.”

And here’s an example of radio communication from a student pilot ready to leave the airport:

Pilot: Ground Control, Cessna 69210 at Montair — going to the north practice area with information Alpha.

Ground Control: 210, taxi to runway 19. Departure on 121.1; Squawk 0325.

(This means turn your radio to frequency 121.1 so you can talk to Departure, and enter 0325 in your transponder so the air traffic controller can identify your aircraft on the radar screen.)

Pilot: Roger 210.

Sometimes it felt like I was speaking a completely different language. It was quite the experience.

That is definitely a different language. And I thought corporations used a lot of abbreviations! Thank you for giving me an inside view into the life of a pilot. And thank you for sharing all your helpful advice with DBW readers today. It’s been a great pleasure to chat with you.

***

Image courtesy of Lori MacLaughlin

For more about Lori, I encourage you to check out her blog or pick up her debut novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble.

Do you have a question for Lori, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

Conversation Corner with Dylan Hearn, Author of The Transcendence Trilogy

When I first came across sci-fi author Dylan Hearn’s blog Suffolk Scribblings, I was immediately impressed with the vibrant community feeling I found in the comments. This was a place where people felt engaged. As I continued to follow his blog, I discovered that Dylan provides great support to the writing community through his insightful posts and his “pay it forward” support of indie publications. I asked Dylan if he would be willing to share his thoughts about writing and community with DBW readers. Here is our conversation about desire and opportunity, world-building, reader engagement, and electronica.

On your About page, you state that you are an author, and that “it has taken me a while to admit this.” How did you get started on your writing journey? What was holding you back?

When I was younger I had two loves, reading and music. I’ve always enjoyed reading. According to my mother I started when I was three years old and I don’t believe a day has gone by since that I haven’t had a book (or more recently a Kindle) in my hand. It was the same with music. I’ve sung since I was able to talk and got heavily involved in choirs at school. It came easily to me.

Writing was a little different. I loved writing at school — and even won some prizes for my work — but it took me a long time to appreciate the value of hard work. My stories would always start off well but end quickly because I’d get bored with the idea and want to finish things off. Eventually my writing subsided as I focussed on things that came more easily.

The other thing to bear in mind is that growing up in rural Suffolk, to working class parents, the thought of having a career in the arts was completely alien. It was something ‘other people’ did. Rather than ‘waste my time’ with writing, I left school at 16 and went out to work to earn money.

Dylan Hearn

Dylan Hearn

In the intervening years I carried on with my music to meet my creative needs, playing in bands in the south-east of England. I also worked my way up in my company, moving around the UK and then Europe. I worked with lots of people from different backgrounds and realised that what was possible to achieve in life had nothing to do with background but all to do with desire and talent.

After 25 years working for the same company, predominantly in marketing, I took voluntary redundancy. For the first time since I was 16 I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t take long before the thought of writing a novel took hold. By this point I’d learnt the value of hard work. I’d never lost my love of the written word and had in fact honed my writing over years of crafting communication, so the challenge of writing a novel appealed. That important combination of desire, opportunity, and appetite for work was finally in place.

I can recall a lot of my own stories that never got properly finished. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging so much – it’s a chance to tell really short stories, and fit them around the rest of life’s obligations. I’m glad you got that opportunity to return to one of your first loves, and that it all came together for you! It’s so easy to lose our dreams.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you love science fiction, but that you never set out to write in that genre. What inspired you to write your first novel, Second Chance, as a sci-fi dystopian thriller? What attracted you to the sci-fi genre?

I’d challenged myself to write a novel, but had no idea what to write about. For years I’d toyed with the idea of writing a fantasy novel. The Hobbit was the book that first got me hooked on reading, and that love for fantasy has stayed with me ever since. My book shelves are full of the greats of fantasy, from the classics by JRR Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey and Guy Gavriel Kay through to the darker novels of George R R Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. The problem was, I had such a deep knowledge of the genre I wasn’t sure if I could think of anything new, and I didn’t want to write a poorer, derivative version of what was already there.

So I started thinking about what I was interested in. I enjoy politics and current affairs and have a deep rooted love of technology. I’ve always been interested in psychology and understanding what makes us who we are. I knew writing a book would be a long slog. I wasn’t afraid as I’d been involved in projects in the past that were delivered over years rather than months, but I also knew I needed to have something more to what I’d written than just the story itself. The best way of doing that was to use the story to explore questions nagging away at the back of my mind.

As soon as that mental leap was made, it made sense to write a science fiction novel.

For me, the best science fiction has at its heart the exploration of an idea. Whether that’s the origins of mankind (2001), the challenge of living on other worlds (Red Mars), or how to extend life (Frankenstein). One of the idea seeds for Second Chance was around politics and the democratic system. I questioned whether the current trend for focussing on the short term in politics, and in business for that matter, gave us the platform to deal with the big issues like climate change. And if not, what could? By setting my novel in the near future, I could extrapolate out (and exaggerate) trends that are happening today and take them to logical end points. Science fiction gave me a way of talking about what’s happening in today’s world without directly talking about what’s happening today.

At the same time, I didn’t want to write about an apocalyptic future. I have great belief in humanity’s ability to make the right calls. We may take our time but we usually get there in the end, so I wanted to write about a world that had pulled back from the brink. More interesting for me was how we did it and what sacrifices had to be made in order to do so.

That’s one of the things I loved about Second Chance – the examination of those moral grey areas through the perspectives of the four main characters. I also loved how the world they are grappling with is gradually revealed through the actions of the characters, rather than through set pieces of exposition. World building is such a critical aspect of science fiction – too much detail and you bore readers, too little and you frustrate them. How did you decide what information to include, and when, to effectively communicate the setting?

Before writing Second Chance I spent a few months looking at what is happening in our world today, what things have changed since my childhood and what is completely different. Because Second Chance is set in the near future, and because humanity had pulled back from the brink, as opposed to lived through, an apocalyptic scenario, I knew I didn’t want to create a world radically altered from our own. I made a conscious decision not to change social behaviours, which at the most basic level haven’t altered in millennia, but to look at emergent technologies happening today to see their likely impact on the future. In this I was heavily influenced by the film Children of Men, based on the book by PD James. I loved how it blended in much that was familiar and then almost shocked the audience with technology far outstripping what we understand today. It just rang true. I realised this is how our world today would look to someone from the Victorian era. They would recognise the clothes we wear and much of what we do socially, but being able to access the world’s information from an object you carry in your pocket would blow their mind.

My first draft of Second Chance included lots of this research and lots of description and came in at 130,000 words. It was enormous. It was only when I came back to read it after putting it away for a few months that I realised much of what I’d written wasn’t needed. There were great swathes of backstory, information and description that were redundant. I’d needed them to help develop the world but they weren’t needed for the story.

As a reader, I’m not a great fan of large passages of description. I prefer books where an author includes the bare minimum and trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. I break up the description across a scene, gradually filling in detail without being too obtrusive. I am also very careful not to over-describe new technologies. I never say how a pod (a form of transportation) is powered, what it is made of, or even if it has wheels. I deliberately describe the doors “peeling open”, to give the reader a feeling of difference, but never how it works.

For this particular novel, I had another reason for taking a minimalist approach. Second Chance is written from the POV of a group of characters whose lives are split between the digital and the real world. This digital immersion means their focus on the real world is lessened. They are too distracted to take in detail like we (especially writers) possibly would. I only broadened the description in the latter stages of the book when real world events become too big to ignore.

Once I’d culled the ‘boring bits’ my book came in at 80,000 words. It’s then you have to rely on your beta readers to let you know when you’ve gone too far, either by not giving enough description or accidentally culling information crucial to the plot. It’s one of the biggest challenges in writing a book, because you know everything. It’s easy to assume you’ve conveyed key information when in reality it’s missing. Beta readers (along with editors) are absolutely essential to getting this process right. By the time I’d made my alterations based on beta reader feedback, despite further tightening of my prose, Second Chance eventually came in at 86,000 words.

I think you and your support team did a great job preserving the thread of the plot while allowing for some mystery. When I read Second Chance, I kept feeling like I was just on the edge of understanding things, and I didn’t want to put the book down!

When you talked about the characters’ lives being split between the digital world and the real world, it made me think about how much time people spend on social media in the real world today, and the many things that are competing for their attention. Given this environment, I imagine it was a bit challenging to gather an audience for your work. How did you engage your readers? Do you have any tips for DBW readers who are trying to build an audience?  

When people first start out on social media, especially writers looking to build a platform of readers, it’s tempting to continually promote your book or books, but it’s a big mistake. It’s called social media for a reason. These systems were created to allow people to connect and interact with other people. The problem is, because it’s online, many people behave completely differently than they would in similar situations in real life.

Say an old school friend you hadn’t seen for years held a party at their house and when you arrived you realised it was full of people you didn’t know. It would be a daunting situation for many of us. Now in that situation, how many people would walk in saying, “I’ve written a book. Buy my book, it’s on special offer. It’s a great story. 5-stars on Amazon. Buy my book!” You just wouldn’t do it, or if you did you’d end up standing alone in the corner fairly quickly, but that’s what many do on social media all the time.

You need to build relationships with people, one at a time, and as any dating expert will tell you, the best way of attracting someone is to show an active interest in them. Ask questions. Listen to what they are saying. Don’t just broadcast, engage. If you do talk about yourself, do it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, but most importantly, natural. It’s very easy to detect when people are being false, or are engaging with you in order to sell you something.

With blogging, the most popular posts I’ve written have been those people can relate to. I write a lot about writing but not how to write. If people want to learn the writing craft there are much better qualified folk around than me. I tend to talk about life as a writer, self-publishing, editing — often seriously, but sometimes with a little humour. I also buy and read a lot of indie books and promote those I enjoy. It’s my way of paying something back to the supportive indie community.

One of the things I rarely do is actively promote my own books. I may share a nice review somebody else has written, and have once or twice run promotions (and I do leave a little promo at the end of my blog posts about my mailing list), but I don’t shove my books down people’s throats.

That’s not to say you can’t gain sales over social media, but the majority of people need to get to know you first, before they’re willing to have a look at what you’ve written.

I had to laugh at the image of someone running around at a party shouting “buy my book.” That type of behaviour is certainly out there on social media. I like the philosophy put forward in a great book called Your Network is Your Net Worth (by Porter Gale) – “Give Give Get.” That’s really what it’s all about.

Speaking of relationship-building, I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a lot better through this interview. I didn’t know, for example, that music was such a large part of your life. I’m a piano player myself, and music has been a great source of energy for me, almost like a form of meditation. Before we wrap this up, I’m curious – do you still play in a band? Do you listen to music as you write? What type of music do you enjoy?

I’m afraid I don’t play in a band any more. What with writing, working, having a family with young children and some voluntary work I do, there just isn’t the time. It’s a shame, though, as I really miss playing live. I’ve not completely let go, however. I have a good friend who plays in a number of bands, runs a recording studio and arranges regular live gigs, and he often persuades me to do things with him. Most recently he asked me to sing backing vocals and develop a few harmonies for his latest track. You can listen to it at https://thegoodyearsband.bandcamp.com/track/run  or even buy the track if you like it enough!

There was one lesson I learned while being in a band that is just as appropriate for writing. You have to put yourself to one side and concentrate on what’s right for the song. It might have a riff that’s boring to play, or lyrics which are monotonous, or a beat that’s not particularly challenging, but you sacrifice your own interest or feeling in order to play a great song because it’s the song that’s king. It’s the same with writing. As Bill Clinton may have once said, “it’s the story, stupid.” I continually review what I’ve written in terms of what’s best for the story. I’m not precious about what I’ve written at all. If deleting a phrase, paragraph or even whole chapters improves a story, then I’ll do it regardless of how much effort it took to write them in the first place. I’ve just come to the conclusion with my current draft that a large part of one character’s journey isn’t necessary to be experienced — we just need to see the before and after. It works for the book but it means deleting four chapters, well over a week’s work.

My personal music tastes are really varied. I’ve always loved film scores, not so much those with a strong melody (like those by John Williams) but those that convey atmosphere and emotion. One of my favourites is the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, especially the journey to the line. Beautiful.

I have an abiding love for alternative music. Anything with discordant guitars, interesting song structures or just bags of energy will get me going. I’m a great believer that the music you listen to in your late teens stays with you for life. For me, I can listen to songs from bands like Radiohead, Ride, Nirvana, Blur, Pavement, and Elbow that are now twenty years old and they still sound as fresh today as they did then. That said, I’ve become a lot more open to all types of music, from electronica to modern classical, Americana to a good old pop song.

When I write, I can’t listen to music. I get easily distracted and find song lyrics mysteriously appearing in my text. That said, I use music a lot to get into the mood of a scene. I see writing as very similar to acting — you have to get into the heads of your characters. Sometimes this can be difficult when you’ve just dropped your kids off to school and you have to come home, sit down (with a cup of tea) and write an emotionally charged scene. I’ll use music then to help me slip into the right mood.

While I don’t normally talk about my personal thoughts on characters or scenes for fear of altering the picture readers have built in their own minds, I’ll share one example of a track I used. The final scenes of Second Chance were written against a backdrop of the song “Angel” by Massive Attack. If Second Chance was made into a film, I’d love to see this used as the story reaches its climax.

I can’t write with music on, either. I keep getting absorbed into the song. 🙂

And that’s a perfect song for the end of Second Chance. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for sharing all your thoughts on writing and community with my readers!

***

Image courtesy of Dylan Hearn

For those of you who are interested in checking out Dylan’s debut novel Second Chance, you can find it here.

Do you have a question for Dylan, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!