Jen Brooks, a graduate of the MFA Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University, will have her debut novel, A World Just Right, published by Simon and Schuster, BFYR, in spring 2015. She started a number of posts on her blog dealing with her writing process, and she’s asked other published novelists—Diana Dru Botsford, Rhonda Mason, and K.Ceres Wright—to form a blog train in answering the same questions. They asked me, one-time head of the writing program they so successfully participated in, to join them in this endeavor. (I then asked fellow novelists Heidi Ruby Miller and Jason Jack Miller to participate in the same way. See their bios at the end of this post.)
Here are the writers’ questions Jen asked, and that all of us have been answering:
1) What am I working on?
I intend to write a sequel to my novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, an SF mystery/adventure that was just released. But my first goal is to write a prequel. Indeed, at the end of Landscapes, I originally included the following conversation between a minor character and my protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, a space explorer and sometime poet. I edited this whole section and left just a hint of it in the final copy, but as it first stood it was meant intentionally to set up the prequel (“Clips” are dense packets of information about alien technology, which makes them quite valuable):
“Ranglen, there’s a mystery about you. I won’t say it’s not appealing. But there’s something hidden, something you carry around inside you, some big story you keep locked within.”
“I’d say I’ve just been through quite a story.”
“I mean earlier. Some mystery in your past. You’re too guarded, too inward. It comes out in your poetry too.”
Ranglen felt himself relenting. Her words reminded him of how distant from others he had let himself become. Well, what the hell, and he said, “Maybe there is.”
The investigator took over. “Does it involve Clips?”
“Yes,” he said reluctantly. It was the fourth Clip.
“Does it involve a woman?”
“Yes,” he said again, and though he said this solemnly he added no more.
“So . . . it’s a romance.”
“Actually, it’s more a tragedy.”
She nodded, and then she pursued the topic no more, as if realizing she had reached his limit. “Will you tell me that story some day?”
“Some day. Maybe.” But he wasn’t sure if he would.
And he never does. But the prequel is that story, the event in Ranglen’s life he’s never shared, and most likely never will.
And since Ranglen is a poet I also hope to publish, near the same time as the prequel since there will be connections between them, a collection of poems supposedly written by Ranglen (a folder of his works found in his papers). A few lines of his poems appear in the novels and some of the poems in the collection will refer to the events in the prequel story. (I was inspired by the “appendix” of “Yuri Zhivago’s poems” at the end of Doctor Zhivago.) Both of these texts currently exist in draft form, but they both need a lot of work.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
When asked in a publicity questionnaire what I want people to remember most from my novel, I said, “The longing!” Everything comes down to the emotions. Science fiction is known as a cerebral genre, but ultimately it’s not the science or the speculation on possibilities that we remember most, but the deep emotional sense of longing—for the wonders of the universe, for what we feel and what we become when we encounter them. I’m working on a non-fiction book about writing description in popular fiction, and I’ve looked at hundreds of examples. It’s not the sensory details that come up most often (even though “how-to write” books emphasize the five senses, or more “showing” instead of “telling”), it’s the emotional details instead, how the observer feels about what is being seen. Science fiction is not about the universe; it’s about our response to it. So the subject of my SF is not the world-building, not the future, not the science—though all those are present and very important—but this “longing” for them instead: the mystery, the fascination, the promise. Or, as I described it once long ago when pondering the subjects of my writing, “The obsessed, the pursued, and the space between.” (To see more on “emotion in science fiction,” and “the longing,” see my blog entries for Sept.20, 2013, and May 13, 2014.)
3) Why do I what I do?
Writing fiction is not conversation. But it’s not a one-way lecture either. Writing results from a need to share—not through a spoken comment, a brief text message, and certainly not a Tweet. It’s a sustained outlook on experience and thought. Even the most logical SF is still based on an experience of life, the way things are now and the way they might be in the future. Each one of us is a vessel for experience, and because we’re all different, we experience life, attitudes, and ideas in different ways. An essay can share one’s thoughts. But a novel shares how those thoughts affect our lives. A novel is sustained communication from me to you, and it’s unique because its author is always unique. “Look,” it says, “this is what I’ve experienced. This is what has touched me. This is what my life has shown me and told me. I share it with you.” Ultimately, it’s a gift, whether accepted or not. I believe a novel is the best statement on life anyone can make—because the characters, the story, the setting all take on life in the reader’s mind. That’s the magic of writing.
4) How does my individual work?
Too haphazardly, spastically, and obsessively. When I write I get totally absorbed by it. If a day is free, I write for 2-3 hours in the morning (then do other work in the afternoon), then write 3-4 hours that night. And once the bug hits me that’s all I want to do. Realizing it will absorb me, I can’t then write until I know for certain I can pursue it completely. This limits me—terribly. On my job (teaching graduate courses and running a graduate program) I find that for weeks out of the year I don’t dare absorb myself in writing for I’ll get possessed by it and will sacrifice my duties. So I’m limited to the “off” months of summer and vacations. In the meantime, the ideas percolate, stirring and connecting in my mind until I’m ready. And then, when I am ready, I fasten my seatbelt and plunge forward. Once it starts I won’t slow down even to do research (hopefully I’ve already done enough for the big ideas during the percolating process). And I bully my way through until finishing the draft—and then I fill holes, when the real writing begins. The draft is like running a marathon, or pursuing a thief, but you have to get serious once it’s finished. While the draft is written for yourself, turning that into an actual novel is then writing for someone else, writing for a reader. So you look at everything differently, and often you change everything. It’s work, but the rewriting and editing are the big rewards—and nowhere as frightening as the first draft.
And now, to keep this writing-process train going, I am honored to introduce two fellow writers, novelists, colleagues, and friends. They’ll be writing their own responses on Aug. 13 or so:
Heidi Ruby Miller uses research as an excuse to roam the globe. In between trips she teaches in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction graduate program, writes novels, and is the Director of Professional Writing Relations for the Pennsylvania Literary Festival. Her blog can be found at:
Jason Jack Miller knows it’s silly to hold onto the Bohemian ideals of literature, music, and love above all else, but he doesn't care. Hellbender, Jason's thesis novel for Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction graduate program (where he is now adjunct faculty) was a finalist for the Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year Award. His blog is located at: