I recently read Dan Harris’s Ascension Point with great relish—to the point that I couldn’t help myself from dropping Dan a line or two by e-mail. Our conversations quickly revealed an author who had clearly done his homework in many respects—not just about the writing process, but also in terms of what to do with a book once it has been written. Dan was kind enough to accept my request to interview him, and we ended up having a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from writing in a foreign country to writing about the distant future. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
First of all, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on your debut novel, Ascension Point, which I found to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I must admit to doing a bit of a double-take, though, when I saw that you lived in Brazil. Although I’d be curious to know how you came to find yourself living there, my bigger question really concerns the experience of being an English language writer in that country. What advantages or challenges did you experience in writing to an English market while living elsewhere?
Thank you very much for having me, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book.
Interesting first question! I honestly hadn’t considered it before. The slightly dull answer is that for me personally, there are no real advantages or challenges. I can well imagine that for an ‘ex-pat’ who was more firmly embedded in the culture of his new country, who lived and worked every day in a foreign language, the disconnect between that day-to-day, and an ongoing project in his native tongue, could be difficult.
But I’m in a slightly odd situation in that my day job is conducted entirely in English, from my home office, working for the same company I was with while my wife and I were in London. As a result there was a very smooth transition, and I’ve never needed to immerse myself in Brazilian culture to the point where I’d struggle to come back to my ‘English writer mentality’.
Whether I should have immersed myself more is another question, but like most writers I generally prefer to be at home at my desk writing!
What about from the perspective of publishing or marketing your work? Are we really at the stage where an author can seamlessly self-publish and promote his or her work to an English audience while living in another country? Did you experience any limitations that might be of interest to potential authors in a similar situation?
Are we at that stage? Absolutely. Any writer, wherever they are, has the ability to upload their work to a variety of retailers. Amazon’s KDP is the most well-known, Kobo is probably a close second. Both of these have no restrictions on the author’s nationality or location.
There are a few other major retailers (iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Diesel) which currently only accept direct uploads from US-based writers. International authors can get around this by uploading to a self-publishing ‘aggregator’; Smashwords is the most famous and successful of these, though I’ve just started using a new outfit called Draft2Digital, which I’m confident will give them a run for their money in the near future. D2D are in beta right now, but looking very promising.
In terms of marketing, for almost all indie authors that’s all online. No-one on the internet cares where you live. As a writer you can blog, tweet, Facebook and promote your book from anywhere, and the only difficulty you might have is maintaining a conversation with a reader who’s twelve timezones away from you. Which is not a bad problem to have!
There is one massively boring element which I have to mention, in case any aspiring writers are reading. If you aren’t US-based, you’ll need to fill in a tax form to tell the retailers you publish with how much tax they should withhold from your royalties. It’s super-dull, but vital if you don’t want Amazon keeping 30% of your money for no reason. I won’t go into detail, but said authors should read this: http://catherineryanhoward.com/2012/02/24/non-us-self-publisher-tax-issues-dont-need-to-be-taxing/.
I do appreciate your mentioning it, boring though it might seem. It’s actually quite fascinating to peek into the details of what goes on behind the scenes. In keeping with that theme, we had a few quick discussions leading up to this interview where editing was brought up. Most of the scenes and literary devices that had impressed me in Ascension Point ended up being the result of working with your editor and applying some real elbow grease. How did you manage to find such a fantastic and helpful editor, and what advice would you give to anyone looking to have their own manuscript edited?
I’ll start with the second question, if you don’t mind, and eventually come back to the first, I promise!
Assuming that our hypothetical writer has put a little effort into learning how to write—i.e. develop a plot, build strong and interesting characters that readers might engage with, etc—the first thing (randomly chosen pronoun) she’ll want to do is develop her self-editing skills. There’s a treasure trove of advice on the internet which could help, so I’ll just toss in a few links from the blog of writers-friend David Gaughran: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/self-editing-back-to-basics-part-i-guest-post-by-karin-cox/ and http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/self-editing-back-to-basics-part-ii-guest-post-from-karin-cox-editor/.
So. Our writer has banged out her first draft, freely and enthusiastically, with a wonderful carefree attitude. Or painstakingly crafted it over many years. Either way, the next step is self-editing. She needs to apply the skills she’s picked up from such articles as I linked above, and knock out a second draft, third, fourth—however many it takes until she’s happy that the story is worth reading.
The next step is beta readers. It’s vital to find a small group of enthusiastic, knowledgeable readers who can look at an early draft of a novel and tell our writer what’s good and what’s bad. I have my wife, one of my best friends, a friend and SF enthusiast from work, and a ‘blog buddy’ who’s also a talented writer and editor. Find people who read in the genre in which you write, or read anything—who can give critical feedback, with detailed reasons, not just ‘it sucks’ or ‘it was great’. Take their feedback. Apply it to that fifth or sixth draft. Turn the heap of molten crap which will inevitably be your first draft into something more resembling a novel which someone might actually want to read.
Next step (and answering your first question at last) send your MS to a good editor. Pay the money, if you can; it’s worth it in the long run.
How do we find those editors? Well, I frequent a wonderful writers’ forum online called the Kindleboards Writers’ Cafe. Join, ask around, or check out their Yellow Pages which lists reputable editors (http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,123703.msg1837134.html#msg1837134).
My editor is Misti Wolanski at Red Adept Editing (http://redadeptpublishing.com/editing-services/). I found Red Adept through a random Writers’ Cafe forum thread which had nothing but great feedback, and got in touch. Misti is their primary SF editor—each editor in their ‘stable’ specialises in one or more genres, which gives the writer some great genre-specific feedback.
Finally, and most, most, utterly importantly, grow a thick skin. If I might speak directly to our hypothetical writer for a moment: Your first draft is not good. It is not publishable. It needs work. Some parts are good; much of the rest needs hacking to pieces and putting back together again. THIS IS NORMAL. Even Stephen King has an editor, and he’s written four thousand novels and sold ten million times more.
Alternatively, ignore everything I said and just read Chuck Wendig’s blog. He’s smarter and funnier than I am, but I like to think marginally less attractive.(http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/01/08/how-chuck-wendig-edits-a-novel/).
You may have to provide photo evidence to back up that claim of Chuck being marginally less attractive, but I’ll take your word for now. I’d like to switch gears a bit at this point to start talking about Ascension Point. The defining feature, if I can be so bold to call it that, is a universe inhabited by four feuding factions of humanity, each of whom have evolved or developed in some unique way. Was there some source of inspiration behind this concept, or anything in particular that nudged you into developing these four streams of humanity?
The photo’s in the post.There were a couple of contributing factors which led me to develop the Ascension Point universe which I’ll be writing in for the next few books, the foundation of which is the far-future split-stream of human evolution.
The first was thematic, and completely unsubtle. I wanted to tell a story about people realising that they have more in common than they have differences. About how, at the end of the day, we’re all human. You don’t have to look very far these days to find a news story featuring two or more groups espousing completely opposite ideals; as an agnostic, politically-moderate person, I find the vitriol on both sides of all of the aisles in the name of religion or any kind of ideology to be alternately terrifying and hysterically funny. A kind of manic hysteria which makes me want to drink a lot.
There are a million stories to tell which explore these themes. Setting my novels 4,000 years in the future, with a factional split that’s so obvious and so extreme, is just one way of doing this. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll have the nous and the balls to tell the same kind of story, but without the far-future allegory shield to protect me. We’ll see.
The second is more purely SF. I’m fascinated by the possible ways in which humanity could evolve in future, and the Ascension Point universe features four different factions, each based upon one of the obvious—well, obvious if you’ve read a decent amount of SF!—paths which that evolutionary trend could take.
The Titans’ focus is genetic engineering. Brutal, rigorous self-perfection through selective breeding programs and gene therapy. There’s a distinct and unpleasant hint of eugenics to their modus operandii, which was very intentional. They’re the good guys, to an extent, but no-one’s that good in this universe.
The Seryn, on the other hand, have focused on unlocking the latent potential of the human mind. We read about how humans only utilise ten or twenty per cent of our mental potential, and that untapped ability is what has inspired so many stories of telekinesis, telepathy, cryokinesis, teleportation… the list goes on. Psychokinesis may or may not be real, but it’s certainly been around for a long time, and it’s certainly fun to write about. (Decent Wiki article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychokinesis.)
The Collective have gone down the human-machine augmentation path. They’ve developed advanced artificial intelligences, mastered the technology of fusing mechanical augmentations with the human body to make themselves stronger, faster, smarter—and less human. Or more. The Borg from Star Trek are an obvious parallel, but I wanted to write about a more peaceful, if insular, people, who have no desire to assimilate anyone. Less ‘resistance is futile’, more ‘leave us be and we’ll leave you be’.
Finally, and probably most subtly, we have the Commonwealth. The notion of a galaxy-spanning empire of man is probably one of the oldest concepts in SF, but that’s only because it gives the writer so much scope for storytelling. The Commonwealth are the closest to current-day pure humanity—just massively more technologically advanced. Although Ascension Point does mention a socio-psychological development which I’m sure today’s politicians would kill to have—population behaviour projection (PBP). This is a nod to one of my idols, Isaac Asimov, who created the science of ‘psychohistory’ in his Foundation novels, and the notion that the greater the number of people in a sample—such as the multi-billion or trillion person populations of a far-future civilisation—the more accurately it is possible to predict that group’s behavior in response to any given situation. It’s a concept that hasn’t been explored in any great depth (that I’m aware of) since Asimov, and I find it fascinating.
One thing I really appreciated about Ascension Point was your ability to introduce and define technology in a believable way without bogging everything down in the details. How did you approach the task of writing so much futuristic technology without sacrificing the quick pace?
Haha, I’m glad you appreciated that; depending on the reader’s personal preference, your ‘bogging everything down in the details’ could just as well be called ‘applying scientific rigour’! I wonder if any ‘hard SF’ fans have bought a copy, then tossed it away in disgust at the fact that I never explain any of the science…
I’ll answer a broader question first, if you don’t mind. This ties into one of the fundamental choices I had to make before starting: what kind of SF did I want to write? Hard SF, where all of the science in the story can be extrapolated in a direct path from our current understanding of the universe and what’s possible? Or ‘soft’ SF, which in some circles used to be called ‘science fantasy’, where the setting is far in the future, and anything the writer can ma ke up goes?
Obviously, I chose the second. I’ve got a decent scientific background, but not a great one, so I’d struggle to write scientifically rigorous fiction, for one thing. But the main reason was how much fun the softer SF is to write; in a universe where anything goes—such as ‘subspace’ travel that can carry ships between star systems in moments—the writer has infinite scope in which to tell the story. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for authors who can write hard SF which is also exciting fiction, it’s not simple to pull off. But I’ll also leave it to them, I think!
As you suggested, it’s also partly about pace. In a story where I couldn’t give a plausible explanation for the technology even if I wanted to, there’s no danger of my stopping every ten pages to write a half-page explanation of how, say, a hoverbike works, or a hardlight terminal. If I was trying to be more rigorous about the science, I’m sure I’d be tempted to toss in some dull exposition here and there, just to show my working, and that would indeed bog the story down. I like reading stories which barrel along excitingly, and I enjoy writing them too. Which is all a rambling way of saying: it’s easier and more fun to write softer SF, so I do that.
Now, to answer your actual question: it’s easy. Really it is. And it’s because English is such a wonderfully-structured, pliable language. It conditions its speakers in such a way that we’re… pre-programmed, almost, with an ability to understand new concepts and place them within or alongside the context of what we already know, solely based on the words used to describe that concept. Some examples will explain this better.
I’ve already mentioned one—hoverbike. That’s not a real thing that exists in the world today, but we look at the word and instantly, unconsciously, parse it. ‘It’s got hover at the start, and bike at the end. It must be a bike that hovers.’ Yup, nailed it.
Transpod. Again, we parse it immediately. ‘Trans—like in transport, transfer or transmission. Something that goes from one place to another.’ (The word nerds in the class might also know it’s a Latin root meaning ‘across’, but you don’t need to know that to get it.) ‘Pod. That’s a… well, pod. So it’s going to be a moving pod of some kind.’ And what do you know, it is.
Memfoam. Satgrid. Soloship. Plasteel. Luminogel. There’s a long list!
That’s the wonderful nature of English. I don’t need to actually explain what technology is, most of the time. With a carefully chosen name, I can get readers most of the way there in one word, without sacrificing pace to drop in some exposition. Then the thing’s context within the story explains the rest.
I think another aspect of the book that makes it so accessible to the average reader is the strong emphasis on characterisation. Based on our earlier discussion, I get the impression that you spent what must have seemed like an eternity honing and refining the text until the characters began to sparkle with a life of their own. What revisions in the editing process did you feel had the most impact in really driving home the believability of your characters?
The bulk of the character work happens before I type my first word, actually. In the same way that I outline the entire high-level plot of my books before I start the first draft, I also do fairly detailed biographies for each of the main characters (where main means ‘has scenes from their point of view’) and lighter weight bios for the supporting cast.
The detailed bio covers, among other things: appearance, where they grew up, relationship history, impressions of the other main characters when they first meet, how those impressions change, and—most importantly—the character’s ‘arc’ in the book. This is the key one; it basically lays out the personal path that character will take over the course of the story, how they’ll develop, their attitudes change, etc.
So I go into the first draft having already written these bios, and with a good idea of what these people are like, and how they’d react in the situations I put them in. That makes the action and dialogue in a scene easier to write, because I already know what everyone’s likely to do.
Once again, to finally answer the question you asked, there are two key elements of the editing process which are vital for characterisation. The first is the simple question ‘are they interesting?’ I get this kind of feedback from my beta readers—my wife in particular is very good at suggesting ways to beef up a character’s backstory or give them something extra to care about or overcome during the story.
The second is tougher to spot, and for Ascension Point it was my editor, Misti, who pointed it out. When writing multi-protagonist novels, where each scene is written from a different character’s POV, but often other POV characters are present in the scene, it’s really important—and quite challenging—to ensure you make and keep each character’s voice distinct. This applies to their spoken dialogue, their internal dialogue (i.e. thoughts, which I write in italics) and also to the narrative for each scene. Misti was brilliant in noticing where my narrative had become slightly homogenous across scenes, and wasn’t ‘true’ to the way that particular scene’s POV character would really view the world.
It’s a tough balance to strike; as an author you always want to craft beautiful prose, with evocative descriptive paragraphs that bring the reader into the world. But at the same time that narrative has to fit with your character’s POV, or the difference can be jarring. I’m sure I’ll play with this more in future books, and experiment with a little more ‘narrative distance’, i.e. separation between my narrative voice as the author, and the characters’ own voices. It’s something that’s tough to do well, but I’d like to give it a try.
I love the fact that you’ve just barely got your first novel under your belt, and you’re already challenging yourself to become a better writer. That speaks volumes to me as a reader, and it bodes well for the future. On that point, you seem to be pretty far along in developing the sequel to Ascension Point. Can you shed some light on what we can expect from the next book, and where you plan to go with the series?
Sure. I’ll answer the second question first, of course.
In some ways it’s not going to be a ‘true’ series. I’ve got four books planned in total, the events of which happen in chronological order, and reading them in that order will absolutely give the best reader experience. However, the second book, Venus Rising, tells a largely standalone story. It’s set in the same universe just a year later, refers to the events of Ascension Point, there’s some character crossover, and its own events tie into the ongoing larger storyline unfolding in the universe—but at the same time a reader could comfortably enjoy it without having read Ascension Point first, if they happened to pick it up.
Likewise the third book—very tentatively titled Bodies in Motion, though that’s likely to change—is another standalone tale, that doesn’t directly continue the events of either of the first two books. It’s also looking like it’s going to be a novella, which should be fun—I’ve not written one before.
The fourth and final book, which doesn’t even have a tentative title, will be the closest thing to a true sequel to Ascension Point (though it’ll reference the events of book two and three where relevant, of course). It’ll wrap up the conflicts that I set up for the Titans and the Commonwealth/Seryn at the end of the first book, and also explain what the Collective have been up to while book two and three were happening…
There are also some major shifts in scope across the books which I’ll mention. Whereas Ascension Point spans the galaxy, and is set over the course of about thirty days—I think, I’d have to check to be sure—Venus Rising happens over the course of seven days, and is largely restricted to a single world. Bodies in Motion, or whatever it ends up being called, is even more tightly focused—its events unfold over the course of a single day in one city. But then the fourth book will return to the same galactic, operatic scope of Ascension Point, and tie everything up in a grand, explosive, galaxy-shifting bow. I can’t wait.
So that’s where the series is going. In the immediate term, I finished the first draft of Venus Rising just before New Year, and it’s currently with beta readers for feedback. It goes to my editor on March 11th, and all being well it should be out at the start of April. You can read the blurb here: http://dan-harris.net/venus-rising/. And my cover designer, Stephanie Mooney, is working on the cover this week, so I should be able to reveal that soon. Exciting times!
Exciting times indeed, and I can’t wait to experience it all for myself! For right now, though, I’m afraid we’ll have to wrap things up. I want to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on The Indiscriminate Critic. I’ve had a wonderful time chatting with you, and I wish you much well-deserved success with your Ascension Point sequence.
It’s been an absolute pleasure – thanks for having me.