This is a rough summary of the author talk I just gave. Thanks so much for coming, everyone – to those of you who weren’t able to make it, I hope this is helpful!
First, a brief introduction – who I am, why I wrote these books, etc.
My name is Sabrina – I live in the Boston area and I’m a science writer (primarily physics and new/emerging tech), as well as the author of Aestus. I was inspired to write the book(s) after waiting in a burning hot bus tunnel during a miserably hot day (incoming thunderstorm, 90% humidity, 100+F heat) and waiting for the late bus to arrive, which then turned into me wondering (a) how we might survive if, God forbid, the heat got even worse, (b) what it might be like for my commute to end with a tunnel trip down into the earth to an underground city, and (c) what might happen on the way (bus breaking down? Creatures with claws? A giant pit left by miners?) (my commute was very unexciting, clearly).
Anyway. I went home and started to write. Then I posted it on a blog for a couple of close friends to read. I did nothing with it for months. Then a friend informed me that “Sabrina, I need more than one chapter a month.” (Thanks, friend!).
Here are some of the questions you all asked – thanks again! I’ve tried to answer to the best of my ability:
WRITING – IDEAS
I’m curious about your sources of inspiration! Do you develop your story ideas primarily from other books (and if so, any top recommendations/favourites?), or do you also spend time unpicking films, TV, music, or other media that convey some narrative? Thanks!
Ok so. A few things.
To preface this – I think I just sort of come up with things. I may pull in elements of dystopian fiction in general, but nothing specific. I could not decide how to even market this book because it’s…I can’t think of any other sci-fi or epic books that resemble it enough to draw a strong comparison. Maybe Dune to an extent in the worldbuilding sense (and that’s someone else’s comparison, not mine!). In the dystopian sense…again, I can’t think of an immediate comparison. (Maybe I haven’t read enough sci-fi or dystopian.) It was honestly an experiment both in worldbuilding and suspense/thriller/chase scene-writing – and then it just kept getting bigger.
TV writing and arcs: In terms of how I think of writing in general, I actually find TV writing to be useful in the way arcs are constructed (with larger season arcs), almost like the old saga format. It sort of mimics how things actually work in real life – you can joke about side quests vs. the main quest (although here the side quests are integral to the larger plot and inform it, much as real life functions), but people aiming toward a specific thing and being constrained by specific things (and what happens naturally in the meantime as they try to get from point A to point B) is a solid basis for writing.
Re: narrative and such, I do appreciate good plot twists and reveals and such that I find in media. I’m not sure I consciously take them apart though when I see them in literature/movies/TV/etc. I actually was confused in a writing class when I had to lay out what the “stakes” were and otherwise explain the structure of my story. I didn’t know how to articulate those things. I just sort of…wrote the story and built in characters’ natural actions/reactions to things based on their motivations. In fact, I struggle to put together the structure for a story too much other than as I go (and other than the core elements that need to happen) because it can feel artificial. I guess you could think of it almost as a crystal – it mathematically builds on itself.
How long did it take? Process while working on a scene? Do you focus on characters, the scenario, a bit of both, or something else?
The books took four months total for both drafts to be written (I originally wrote them as a single book). Then…a lot longer for editing (I was also working on learning the publishing process, getting a cover designed, etc.). I started them during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which was very helpful as I had to write daily (my friend’s wanting to read more also was a great motivator). I published the first one about six months after I finished the first draft. I took a break from writing from February or so until May, if I recall correctly, so I think I edited for about three months for book 1, and about the same for book 2.
Re: writing itself, it depends what the scene is for – but how I actually write it? Let’s go back and talk about writing overall. Again, my general basis is characters (with their own personal motivations) and external constraints. Those two things interact to produce the plot…and then scenes become necessary. For me, the characters and the scenario are intricately tied to each other.
I just…feel the environment and “experience” it VR-style through my characters’ eyes. Specifically, what would that character notice? If you strapped a camera to their head, what would you see? What would they likely smell/feel? How would they likely experience the world? I don’t do a checklist – “Smell, check. Sight, check.” I just imagine what it’s like to be them, and write down what they notice (and not what they wouldn’t probably notice – for example, waxing eloquent about technology that for us as readers may be futuristic, but wouldn’t stand out to the characters living in that fictional future world). I’ve said elsewhere that fiction writing is acting, but on paper.
See this blog entry for an example of what I mean. Poor Wickford (character).
That also means interestingly, that there’s a slight filter to each interaction (and the story as a whole!) because it’s from a specific character’s POV (and that POV shifts). The book is in a sense from Jossey’s or whoever’s fictional POV, and only rarely from an external “neutral” one. It’s immersive as much as I can try to make it (ideally).
Where do you get stuck while writing and what do you do to get unstuck?
I get stuck when it feels inauthentic, or when I get into what I call a “plot tar pit.”
Inauthenticity is the biggest issue for me. The plot should follow naturally from what’s come before, even big things, if your worldbuilding is solid. If it feels wrong, I stop and ask myself why. Is the character out of character? Try writing the same scene from a different character’s POV to see if it feels in-character at some point. If not, try to figure out why. Is it the character? The motivations? The external constraints? The environment itself?
Re: plot tar pits, which usually happen when I did not, uh, do my research thoroughly and now find myself mired in a plot that doesn’t hold up scientifically (oops – and by the way, “I can probably figure it out later” is usually not a good strategy)…same idea – go back, line up the structure and the facts, find weaknesses.
In general, if I have writer’s block, I sit down and “look around the scene.” What are the people off to the side doing? Why are they there? What is character Y or Z thinking? What’s going on? Or (I didn’t mention in this in the author talk) I just write another scene that I’ve wanted to work on. Don’t feel you need to hold yourself to it. It’s a writing exercise.
WRITING – THOUGHTS
Do you set out to include commentary on our world/society in your writing, to convey specific viewpoints? Or do you take inspiration from the world as we know it, and let readers take what they will from it?
I think there’s a bit of both. Without spoiling anything – my dystopian world doesn’t necessarily reflect any specific current or historical reality, but there are elements that are sadly common to much of human history and many many societies. How power functions and its results, for example. The subtleties, in some cases the ignorance involved, and in other cases the attempted justification to self. The “greater good” – yes, I included the word “utilitarian” in there somewhere, but not in a lecture-y way, more in a “character thinking about what he’s just been told” kind of way. My goal is to have people recognize those elements and to think about them.
I can’t really say much at all here without spoiling the books (sorry!) but I can say that I do my best to make dystopian fiction reflect actual reality. I struggle with fiction that has “a secret” or “a problem” but lays it out in a way that would likely not happen in real life. So I tried to write a version that I felt might accurately portray power dynamics etc.
Maybe at some point I should do a book 2 talk because then I should be able to speak more freely. 🙂
Did you do anything to pre-promote your books before they were publicly available? Like advanced copies to select people for reviews? or… any other form of marketing for the launch dates?
First of all, I must admit I hate dealing with ads and numbers. I prefer to engage with people.
I did have a few people read my books beforehand and got some good feedback (and very kind reviews!), but essentially my marketing was some Facebook ads plus talking about the book(s) on FB/IG/Twitter/my mailing list/my website. Obviously a solid cover and gorgeous marketing images (thanks Books Covered!), which I then also made into a book trailer and such using Adobe Spark and similar. My hope is that reviews will continue to add up and eventually Amazon will help boost the books, and that people will share them with friends/family/etc. I’m in no hurry. I just love the books (and want others to love them!) and want to keep writing. I do occasionally do a free book promotion (through Smashwords or similar) but a lot of my time has been spent on the writing side and the marketing side has been a steep learning curve, so I’m still figuring it out.
Thanks so much all for coming! I’d love to do another one of these. I’m happy to talk about sci-fi, writing, climate fiction, and more!