Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Q: Ian...what made you become a writer?

A: It all started a long time ago when I was in my first year as a student at the University of Canterbury. It was in the middle of winter, and a few of us were in a room in a woman's hostel. (No prizes for guessing why.) Anyway, the inevitable (at the time) arts versus science debate started, with the women all being arts students, and I came out with the point: all the arts students do is learn to criticize. Science students learn to do something, which, I added with a grin, is clearly superior. This caused consternation, with the eventual retort directed at me, "Well, you couldn't come up with a plot for a novel." "Of course I can," I replied with a superior look. "Well? Come on!" What I then did was to beg for a day to think on it. So the next evening, I came up with a plot. To my surprise, they seemed impressed, and insisted I write it. So, I wrote little notes, and in my summer "vacation" – working in a freezing works by day, typing by night – I wrote Gemina. Three rejections later, I decided that maybe I didn't have what it takes. However, a dozen years later I decided to have another look at the [manu]script, and decided the beginning was awful, but it got better. I rewrote it, but the publication world was going through a slump. I had been promoting a chemical venture, and...I decided to self-publish. However, when the books arrived, I got an offer on the chemical venture I could not refuse, except that I had to refuse all publicity. Selling a book when you cannot advertise or take a public position proved to be a problem, and I lost money on it. But when the chemical venture tanked for other reasons, and the 1980s slump was in full swing, I had spare time, so I decided to start writing again.

Q: What is your typical writing day like?

A: Right now, I start the day with about two hours on promoting the books I already have out there, then I do other things. Then in the afternoon, I spend about an hour on scientific theory, and an hour on the next novel.

Q: Do you outline? If so, how extensive are your outlines?

A: I have a list of characters and their relationships with others, and a statement as to why they are there. Before writing anything, I have in my mind a theme, and a sequence of scenes through the proposed novel, and I sometimes write down a plot that links these scenes, but as often as not I just follow my nose. The key scenes really fix the plot, as does the theme (or themes). For me, theme and overall purpose is critical.

Q: How many revisions will you typically do on a novel?

A: I don't count them. I typically revise the start several times while I am writing, often restarting. Some of my novels actually include more than one "start," with later starts put in front. Once I have written the whole thing, there are usually no major revisions, but there are a considerable number of editing cycles. You might call them revisions.

Q: What is your best tip for editing a manuscript?

A: Leave it alone for some time, and start the next one. When you restart editing, do the best you can, and when satisfied, use the spell check and grammar tools. If there are very few changes required, then you know you have been reasonably accurate. If there are a lot of changes required, then you have real problems. It is important early on to make sure the characters remain consistent with what they are supposed to be, and when something important happens, make sure you can explain from the text why it is happening.

Q: Which writing habits and/or tricks of the trade have made you a better writer?

A: Persistent writing (i.e., experience) and frequent reference to Fowler.

Q: Do you ever suffer through writer’s block? If so, how do you fight it?

A: I never have "block" as such, but sometimes I do wonder where a scene ought to go, or how am I going to get it where I want it to go. At moments like that, I just go away and do something else, think about it, and come back later.

Q: What drew you to write your preferred genre(s)?

A: I am a scientist, so I guess SF was an obvious choice. I have also had an interest in ancient life, and I have managed to include some Roman history into two of my novels.

Q: Do you utilize beta readers?

A: No. I don't want to sound antisocial, but where I live there don't seem to be any writers that write the sort of things I do.

Q: In your most recently published novel, what’s one scene you really enjoyed writing—and why?

A: Let me have two. The book is Miranda's Demons and one scene involves a trek in giant transporters from Hellas Planitia to an excavated cave complex in the Valles Marineris (so as to be protected from space attack). My wife did not like this scene at all; she said it was just too grim, with too much unpleasantness, but that was the whole point. The second scene was where Haruhiko looks down onto Argyre Planitia from the Bosporus Rupes. My sister thought this scene was almost poetic, and that pleased me.

Q: What makes the main character(s) of your most recent novel so special?

A: In one sense, this is the hardest of your questions because there are so many of them. My latest book, Miranda's Demons is my attempt at a War and Peace, but it covers different social problems. Gaius Claudius Scaevola comes from Roman times, was abducted by aliens, had been the equivalent of a Galileo, and was extremely capable militarily. Natasha Kothchetkova is his promised "ugliest woman in the world," he uses alien technology to heal her, but then she refuses his attempts at love, and is annoyed that she will have to surrender command of the Earth forces, when Earth is under threat from aliens Scaevola has defeated previously. (The Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy shows his history.) Harry Lansfeld, despite a stellar time at University, has turned his back on physics to become a space pilot, only to find himself critical to the Earth defense, despite a tangled love affair, and he has to grow up fast. But then he finds himself on an alien space ship, and he has to try to work out the physics behind their technologies. However, one of the characters I am proudest of here is Karl Groza. He is a very minor character, and he plays a role similar to the fools in Shakespeare. He makes cutting comments, rubs everyone up the wrong way, but the comments often carry inconvenient truths that everyone else would rather sweep under the carpet.

Q: What is your best advice for author self-promotion?

A: This is difficult too, but in a word, persist. You have to make yourself known, which means you have to do what you can to make an impact on the web to people who might be interested in your thoughts and writing. Of course, local speaking, etc. is important, but the world is a lot bigger market than anything local, no matter where you are.

Q: How do you deal with negative reviews?

A: Generally, I ignore them. I will read them, and I would take notice of anything constructive, but the review, "I don't like this sort of book" merely means that perhaps a little more effort is required on the book description.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A: The freedom to write the way I want to. My original attempts at finding an agent of a publisher for Miranda's Demons was doomed to fail because they want 70,000 – 100,000 words, and my attempts were rejected in the first line – the work is far too long for them. I can understand the reason. The costs of printing are linear with length, but the sales are likely to be independent of length, and given that most first author publications fail, they want to minimize the downside. However, the cost of eBooks is independent of length (other than the time spent writing).

Q: What is your least favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A: Trying to get the marketing done. When you don't live in the center of things, it is very hard to get your message across, and there are literally hundreds of thousands of others out there doing the same as you are. It is hard to make your impact.

Q: What is your current writing project?

A: My current work will be called (tentatively) "Ranh." The concept is that about 65 million years ago, some advanced aliens took Cretaceous life from Earth and put it on a terraformed planet (Ranh) around Epsilon Eridani, a star that is too young for life to have evolved significantly. I am having fun devising a culture for the Ranhynn.

Q: What are three of your favorite novels?

A: I don't have favorites, as they change from day to day. There are too many out there. However, three very significant ones for me are Lord of the Rings (Tolkein); War and Peace (Tolstoi) and The Kraken Awakes (John Wyndham). The last one was perhaps the more significant contribution for the direction and style of my early writing.

Q: If you could have lunch with any novelist, living or dead, who would it be? What would talk to them about?

A: One option might be Michael Crichton, another author from whom I have read a lot.  He was born about the same time I was, and it was just a few years after I had failed with Gemina that he succeeded with The Andromeda Strain. I stayed more focused on science, he stayed with writing. It would be interesting to compare how life had treated us.

Q: What is your best piece of advice for budding authors?

A: Persist, and be your most intense critic.

Q: What is your favorite inspirational quote?

A: From Carl Sagan: "We live in a world exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology." One of the objectives of my novels is, buried deep within, to illustrate the scientific way of thinking, so this quote reflects part of my approach to writing.
Another one, which I have seen attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero (obviously in a depressed mood): "Politicians are not born; they are excreted." I do not guarantee the attribution, but this fits with some of my personal experiences with some politicians, and it has inspired one or two politicians in my novels.


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