As someone who’s easily distracted, I understand the need to stay focused on what’s important (and to remind myself of that truth). A companion of that need is remembering to remind myself.

Like so many others at this time of year, I’m in the throes of project planning and goal setting. The new year brings a blank slate, washed clean of last year’s smudges of failure and lost dreams.

It might seem premature to consider the possibility of obstacles. But we all know they’re there, the key is not to let them distract from what’s truly important. Following a roadmap and tracking milestones seems a sure way to reach a destination.

I’ve added Hannah More’s quote – “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” – to my daily Remember This list, along with Jack Bickham’s “Writers Write. Everyone else makes excuses.”

It’s a new year full of new days and a blank day-week-month planner waiting to be filled. I’m looking forward to the possibilities, all the lessons to be learned and the trails (wild or tame) waiting to be taken.

How about you?

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Author Interview: JA Andrews

Author JA Andrews juggles time, family life, and aphantasia to write epic fantasy stories in her Keeper Chronicles world where peace-keeping storytellers fight magic with magic. The series includes A Threat of Shadows, book one (2nd edition, 2018) and Pursuit of Shadows, book two (2018), as well as the standalone novel A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon (2016)—with more to come. You’ll find Janice on her website JAAndrews.com and on Facebook.

What sparked the initial story idea for A Threat of Shadows? Did you plan on the first book working into a series?
A Threat of Shadows was actually started in 2008 because my husband had to work out-of-town for a month, and he was bored to death. So I started writing him a scene of a story each day to give him something entertaining to read at night. The first ten-ish chapters of the final book came out of that time. Once he got home, the story was dropped and mostly ignored for the next half-dozen years. But I had developed such a fondness for the characters that I couldn’t quite forget it. After a few writing classes and discovering that indie publishing was becoming more viable and more interesting all the time, I decided to give it a try.

Wrangling those early chapters into the beginning of a novel was a lot of work, and I had a ton to learn about writing stories (I still do), but around 2014 I decided to give this writing thing a chance, and began the (incredibly slow) process of writing and learning and editing and rewriting and wailing in despair and editing again. I finally published it in 2016. As soon as I got into the book I knew I wanted a series about the Keepers.

What do you do to make your magic system logical and believable?
I have a degree in engineering, so to have the magic system be all about manipulating energy felt like a rational thing for me. It doesn’t all work perfectly—because it’s magic—but I get a bit hung up on magic systems that defy the existing laws of physics. Explaining this always makes me feel quite nerdy, and always leads people to ask why I don’t write sci-fi instead. But I think it’s the wonder of the magic that draws me to fantasy. Sci-fi feels too rational. I want a little whimsy in my magic. And some sparkle.

Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. Will those who know you recognize you in any of the characters?
My main characters are Keepers, a very small group of people (one is found about every 7-10 years) who can do magic but are mostly concerned with keeping the history and stories of the country. They’re more bookish than warrior-like. In fact they don’t usually have weapons, and they’re not that much help in a fight. Which is unfortunate as they keep being attacked by dragons. The Keepers are very dedicated to keeping peace in the country and are generally self-sacrificing and noble. In my first book, Keeper Alaric spends the book wrestling with the fact that in an effort to keep his wife from dying, he’s thrown away a lot of those ideals and went to dark places he’d never thought he could go. I do think people can probably see me in most of my characters. I think it’s hard to genuinely write characters if you can’t really sympathize with their desires and their struggles.

How did the first book in the series compare to the second as far as challenges go?
The second book in my series, Pursuit of Shadows, follows a different Keeper than the first, and I really underestimated how hard it would be to write a new character after writing Alaric from book one for almost a decade. The books do intertwine (and it’s a continuation of a larger story arc), but it was hard to learn to write with a new voice.

What does a typical writing session look like for you? Any writing rituals or must-haves to get you started or keep you going?
I have three kids (ages 7, 9, and 12), and I home-school them. So all my good writing happens early in the morning before anyone else is awake. I have a mini-Christmas tree lit up next to my desk, a cup of coffee, and brain.fm, which is music that’s magical and enhances focus. It’s the greatest thing ever.

Of the three books you’ve written, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
A Keeper’s Tale, without a doubt. It’s a short novel that is a standalone story. Unlike the other two books, which are the first two in a series and spend a lot of time focused on relationships and larger issues (like how we reconcile who we are with who we think we should be), A Keeper’s Tale is basically a romp of an adventure story. It was so much fun to write that it gave me the mistaken idea that all future books would be that easy. If you ask any of my critique partners who listened to my moaning for a year and a half of writing Pursuit of Shadows [written after A Keeper’s Tale], you’ll know that didn’t turn out to be true.

Where does A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon fit into the world of The Keepers Chronicles? Do you have plans for more Keeper’s Tales?
The Keepers are storytellers, and the story of Tomkin and the dragon is a well-loved story in their world. It was mentioned more than once in my first book, and so I thought it would be fun to write it out, seeing as how even I didn’t know what the story was about. It turned out to be a really fun tale about a bookish young man who’s finally put in a place to be as heroic as he’s always wanted to be.

I do have plans for more! I wrote a short story called The Black Horn which is another of the Keeper’s stories. It’s published at the back of the expanded second edition of A Threat of Shadows. I have at least one more story that I have vaguely outlined which will probably be novella length and will relate to book three. And I’m sure I’ll have many more. They’re really fun to write, it’s just finding the time to do it!

In an interview with Marc Secchia, you discuss the term “noblebright.” Why does your writing fit in this category? When you write, do you keep in mind that your children or grandchildren will someday read your stories?
Noblebright is a little tricky to describe, but it’s a term that stands opposite of grimdark, which is a bleaker, darker sort of fantasy. Noblebright doesn’t mean that the world is bright and cheery, or that the characters are all good and noble. To me the difference lies in the hope that characters can do something that will make a difference. For instance, if you take a series like Game of Thrones, the entire world is so dark and broken that no character, no matter how much they try, will have a significantly good impact on the world. In contrast, take Lord of the Rings, where a couple little hobbits can sacrifice a lot and manage to defeat a terrible evil. Or a shield maiden of Rohan can kill the king of the Nazgul. Not all of Middle Earth is as cheerful as the Shire, but there’s a hope there that good can prevail in a significant way. To me, that’s noblebright, and it’s definitely the feel in all my writing. I don’t want characters who don’t struggle, because I don’t see that as realistic. I want them to be urged on by the hope that even though it looks bleak, maybe they can bring something good to the world.

And I do keep in mind that my kids will read my books. They’re all excellent readers, and my twelve-year-old reads everything I write. I don’t want to write children’s books, but I want my books to be clean enough that younger readers can read them. At the same time, the books are written for adults and tackle more adult ideas like guilt and loss and loyalty.

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I keep finding my characters dealing with who they are compared with who they think they should be. I suppose I should spend some time soul-searching why I keep writing that, lol.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Descriptions of new places! I have very little visual imagination. When I imagine the story, it’s emotions and sounds and character interaction and dialogue all set in a hazy, vague setting. Unfortunately, most people want a little more setting than that, and when my characters reach a place that’s really important to the story, it takes blood, sweat, and tears (and a lot of editing) to get things right. When all else fails, I personify things. An approaching rainstorm becomes a storm giant striding across the land. Not because I am so very fancy that I thought of it right away, but because I worked on trying to actually describe it for an hour before giving up and slapping some personification on it.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently drafting the final book of the Keeper Chronicles, which I hope to publish next spring.

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3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

I wince at the memory of using each of these writing “no-no’s” in my early fiction (and critique partners still catch me in the act at times). Data dumping is fun for writers bursting to share their research or hard-wrought descriptions, but it’s a bane for readers who just want to get on with the story. Using filter words is a hard habit to break but one a writer should consider if the goal is to draw a reader closer to a point-of-view character. And head hopping? Let’s just say I’ve worked for weeks to destroy the chaos I brought to one of my first novellas.

This is another in my series of what-I-wish-I’d-known-then posts that include short lists with definitions and links for further reading.

Data Dump (also Information/Info Dump)

“There’s an important balance that has to be struck, between ‘intriguing information about this world’ and ‘overwhelming info dump about this world.’” ~ Stefanie Gaither

A data dump in fiction is an instance where a writer shares too much information (such as backstory, description, or history) all in one place. Coming upon such a weight might prompt a reader to skim a page (or more) until the action resumes. Data dumps also slow down the forward momentum of a story, often stopping it, and usually signal author intrusion. A better approach for a writer is to weave in pertinent information only when a reader needs it.

For more:
Jennie Nash: “Stop Info Dumps Before They Start”
Robert Wood, Standout Books: “How (And When) To Stop Front-Loading Your Story”

Filter Words

Routine use of filter words—saw, heard, looked, felt, etc.—in describing a point-of-view (POV) character’s experience adds a subtle barrier between the character and the reader.

With filters: Jim saw the falcon dive from the crevice and felt a wing graze his cheek as the bird swooped by.
Without filters: The falcon dove from the crevice. A wing grazed Jim’s cheek as the bird swooped by.

According to Janice Hardy, filter words not only distance readers from the POV character, they “remind them they’re reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling [versus showing] or crafting passive sentences.” Without filter words, the reader “looks through the eyes of the POV character” at the world. With such filters, a reader “looks at the POV character” as the character looks at the world. And, “Remember, your POV is already filtering for you. There’s no need to remind the reader they’re doing it.”

For more:
Janice Hardy, Fiction University: “You’ll Have to Go Through Me: Eliminating Filter Words”

Head Hopping

When a narrative jumps from one character’s POV to another within a paragraph or scene, it’s called head hopping.

Joe Bunting gives the following explanation of why head hopping is discouraged for most genres*: “[W]hen the narrator switches from one character’s thoughts to another’s too quickly, it jars the reader and breaks the intimacy with the scene’s main character. Also, it’s good to give readers ground rules—such as a consistent point of view—for how the storytelling will work, and if we break those ground rules, we can lose the reader’s trust.”

Cynthia VanRooy adds, “Every time you shift the reader from one character to another, they are jarred out of their suspension of disbelief and reminded that they’re only reading a story. Do that often enough and they’ll stop reading your story. Scene changes or new chapters are the best and least disruptive places to change POV.”

Head Hopping vs. Omniscient POV
Head hopping might sound like the same method used to tell a story through an omniscient point of view (the all-knowing, outside narrator), but D. Wallace Peach explains the difference this way: “It comes down to ‘voice.’ Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene. But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner ‘voice’ to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.”

*In the romance genre, head hopping is more acceptable because the reader wants to know how the love interests feel at a particular moment. Romance writers might use multiple POVs within a scene, but separate them by paragraphs to avoid confusion.

For more:
Jodie Renner on Kill Zone Authors: “POV 102 – How to Avoid Head-Hopping”
K.M. Weiland, Writers Helping Writers: “Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV”

As a writer, have you ever dumped data, overused filter words, or hopped from one head to another? From a reader’s perspective, have any of these writing methods pulled you out of a fictional world?

For more in the 3 Fiction Writing Terms series, check out:
Active Verbs, Author Intrusion, Backstory
Arcs, Beats, Blurbs
Foreshadow, MacGuffin, Red Herring
Clichés, Point of View, Suspension of Disbelief

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Defend Your Inner Writing Life

A writing life and a writing career are two separate things, and it’s crucial to keep the first. The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world. ~ Lan Samantha Chang

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2018 Wednesday on the Web #4

Here’s the fourth (and last) of my fifth Wednesday posts for 2018. Alas, my bottomless bag of online treasure continues to fill despite my efforts to pluck and share.

■ For Writers

Shakespeare Insult Kit
Chris Seidel presents a list of Shakespearean insults he attributes to Jerry Maguire, an English teacher at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana. Mr. Seidel has also added his own insults after the original list. To let the fun begin, combine a word from each of the three columns and preface the insult with “Thou.” Click here for a pdf.

Stephen King’s “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes”
The folks at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio reproduced this article by Stephen King that was first published in The Writer magazine (1986) and later included in The Writer’s Handbook (1988). From the introduction: “I really am going to tell you everything you need to pursue a successful and financially rewarding career writing fiction, and I really am going to do it in ten minutes, which is exactly how long it took me to learn. It will actually take you twenty minutes or so to read this essay, however, because I have to tell you a story, and then I have to write a second introduction. But these, I argue, should not count in the ten minutes.”

■ Science

It’s Made Of SCIENCE: Zombies
In this article, Nathan Scalia writes about “examples in nature that give us a template for a potential zombie infection outbreak.” He concludes the article by noting: “Zombie fiction generally gets a pass from scientific judgment, because most zombie stories aren’t about the science of zombie infection. They’re usually horror survival stories, and if that’s the type of story you intend to tell, then by all means, use magical zombies…if the mechanism of your zombie infection isn’t important, then there’s nothing stopping you from creating a…zombie story without the need for science.”

For the Living, a Donated Face. For the Dead, a Lifelike Replacement.
“NYU surgeons hope a 3-D printed reproduction will encourage people to donate the faces of dying family members for use as transplants.” In this article from January 2018, Andy Newman and Marc Santora give us a look into face transplants—how they’re currently performed and how 3-D reproduction could improve on the process.

■ For Fun

Harry Potter Snowflakes
Artist and designer Anthony Herrera says, “Since creating snowflake designs out of mainly Star Wars characters, the most requested theme I get is Harry Potter… As always I recommend using scissors, a sharp x-acto knife and patience. And just Have fun!” Once on the website, scroll down to preview the snowflakes and download your free design(s) from the list below the images. Look around, you’ll also find patterns for Guardians of the Galaxy and Frozen.

■ Yummies

Tasty Howl-o-ween Recipes
If you need some last-minute ideas for a Halloween meal or snack, check out my post on ThisNewMountain.com from several years ago.

What’s in your magical bag of online treasure?

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Compelling Book Covers: Dragons

In my research into book cover design, I’ve become more aware of symbolism and what readers expect from a particular genre. Romance covers are known for their couples lost in longing embrace, while science fiction covers depict vistas of other worlds and spacecraft locked in laser battles. Let’s not forget fantasy—dark woods, blazing torches, swords and sorcerers. And dragons.

This post gives examples of covers with dragons as the focal point. Each book represents a speculative fiction sub-genre: a portal/man out of time/fantasy story, a post-apocalyptic tale, and a short story collection of both fantasy and science fiction. That a dragon can be used to sell different types of books says a lot about the power of such a symbol to convey wonder and magic, or the fight of good against evil. This is an element of cover design I’ll have to spend more time researching.

I’m also keeping track of the whys of my own book-choosing habits. Is it an intriguing cover that makes me push the buy button? A well-penned blurb? Here are three “dragon” books I’ve already felt compelled to buy and why I committed to the purchase.

Dragonvein (Book One) by Brian D. Anderson
Cover: A dragon stands in a dark glen, watching a soldier approach. Sunlight partially illuminates the beast. Its wings are extended, tail in an arc, one arm raised—all suggest motion. Has it just landed, ready to fight? Or was it startled awake, frightened at the possibility of an enemy in its forest?

Summary: Ethan, a soldier in the 101st Airborne (France, 1944) “is ripped from his world and transported to a land of magic, swords, and dragons. And though the Nazis are now far, far away, danger is closer than ever” with Eternal Emperor Shinzan destroying mages and exiling dragons. For Ethan to survive, “he must reach the dwarf kingdom of Elyfoss before Shinzan can find him.”

My Take: A man in a modern(ish) uniform and his seemingly passive approach to a dragon are both in contrast to typical fantasy garb and violent confrontation. The cover intrigued me enough to read the summary and buy the book.

The Island (Fallen Earth Book 1) by Michael Stark
Cover: A dragon with its wings extended waits on a rock in the surf and appears to be watching something (outside the frame). A sunrise or sunset paints the water with gold and light, in contrast to the dragon’s red hues and dark perch.

Summary: Experts predict a global pandemic as a killer disease sweeps across the world. While humanity hoards food and hides behind barricades, William Hill heads for an island, with its promise of peace and fond memories, to live out what’s left of his life. “He didn’t plan on becoming humanity’s last hope for survival, or watching over an old woman and an eerie little boy.”

My Take: The cover, with its dragon and vibrant colors, caught my attention and hinted at conflict (and maybe evil), but not enough to buy the book on its own. The summary sparked my curiosity, and a chance to read the first two (out of six) episodes for free made me hit the buy button.

The Very Best of Tad Williams by Tad Williams
Cover: A baby dragon hovers before a much larger version of itself perched on a verdant pinnacle. The landscape appears almost primeval, while flying creatures (perhaps dragons) soar in the distance beneath a blue sky filled with gathering clouds.

Summary: “Within these pages you will find such delightful and curious things as a strange storytelling vampire, two woefully-overmatched angels, a dragon in cahoots with a knight and a witch, an ineptly duplicitous fish, the loyal robot butler of Werner Von Secondstage Booster, and the Greatest Wizard of All (disputed).”

My Take: Who can resist a baby dragon? A look at the summary makes it plain the short story collection is a mix of fantasy and science fiction, but the cover did its job and sucked me in to buy the book (and the author’s name helped sell it too!).

What do you think? Would these covers compel you to buy the books?

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Author Interview: Nicki Huntsman Smith

Author Nicki Huntsman Smith is a longtime book lover who became hooked on post-apocalyptic fiction as a preteen. Troop of Shadows (2016), Beauty and Dread (2016), and Moving with the Sun (2018) are her first offerings in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles, a series of post-apocalyptic dystopian thrillers that follows the survivors of a global pandemic (sans aliens and zombies) as they fight for their lives and their humanity. Visit Nicki at NickiHuntsmanSmith.com and on her Amazon author page.

What sparked the initial story idea for Troop of Shadows, the first book in the Troup of Shadows Chronicles? At what point did you realize the story was strong enough to carry a series?
I have a lifelong love of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that began with No Blade of Grass and The Omega Man, which I read as a preteen. I became intrigued with the concept of prepping in 2014 and began researching the subject. After publishing Secrets Under the Mesa, I was ready to write a second book, and a post-apocalyptic, prepper-themed premise sounded fun. I wanted my story to have a twist, though—one that didn’t include zombies or aliens. So I created a unique concept for the pandemic which precipitated the apocalypse. I soon realized that to properly tell my characters’ stories, I would either need to write a 200k-word novel or split it into two books. While writing the sequel, Beauty and Dread, I realized the fundamental story could continue in other settings and with new characters by utilizing one of the more colorful secondary characters as a common thread, connecting one book to the next. There is no limit for this series and populating it with a new cast and providing a new location each time will keep it fresh.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the books?
Getting the bleak imagery just right—life without technology and creature comforts—but not going into too much tiresome detail. For example, I allowed readers to conjure their own images of the characters doing their bathroom business under primitive circumstances rather than spelling all that out for them. It was a tricky balance.

Tell us a little about your main characters and why readers will connect with them. After three novels, did your characters still surprise you as you wrote their story?
The four main characters in the first book are Stephen, Julia, Pablo, and Logan. They each have their own third-person, limited narrative POV. Stephen is a prepper whose fierce determination to do more than merely survive in this harsh new world is someone readers can relate to. I was able to share much of my recently acquired prepping know-how through Stephen, the details of which readers will find interesting, I think. Julia is a molecular geneticist. I utilized her scientific dedication to solve the mystery of the pandemic’s origins as a vehicle to explain the pathologies of the disease. Logan is one of several antagonists in the book. He is an intellectually challenged serial killer possessing savant-level proficiency with firearms. Writing from his childlike POV was especially fun (I realize that makes me sound creepy). The more my characters developed, the more helpful they were in writing their own stories. Their personalities and natures determined their choices and actions. Yes, they often surprised me. I love when that happens.

Why did you decide to use the particular settings you chose? Do you consider the setting a character in the books?
I live in North Texas and spent my early childhood in Central Kansas, so I wanted to use at least a couple of settings familiar to me. I don’t consider the setting a character in either of the first two books, but I suppose it is in the third book (Moving with the Sun) because of Florida’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its inevitable hurricanes.

Did you discover anything interesting or surprising while doing research for the series?
I did a huge amount of research on a variety of unglamorous subjects: electrical engineering, waste management, gasoline and propane storage, firearms, greenhouses, and water wells. What I found the most interesting was food preservation and both the modern and primitive techniques used therein. In my quest for knowledge, I bought a pressure canner. I learned how to preserve meat and other low-acid foods for long-term storage. I have eaten chicken that I canned five years ago, and it tastes as fresh and delicious as if I had cooked it the same day. It’s remarkable that food can be preserved in such a way that it will last for decades with little degradation.

What was your favorite part of putting the Chronicles together?
Creating the characters that propel the story. They became my friends—even the scary ones.

Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I had known I could do it—that I could write a book beginning with “Chapter One” and finish with “The End.”

Besides your series, you’ve also published Secrets Under the Mesa (2014), a standalone sci-fi suspense novel, plus a “creepy anthology” titled Dead Leaves, Dark Corners (2017) that includes a novelette and “thirteen delightfully disturbing short stories.” Of all your book projects, which one was the most challenging and which was the most enjoyable to put together?
The first book I wrote, Secrets Under the Mesa, was the most challenging. It began as a short story which suddenly grew legs long enough to expand to novel-length. I had never written a book and, frankly, didn’t know if I could (or would) finish the thing. It took me a year to write the first draft, and I experienced doubts the entire time. I had the most fun writing Dead Leaves, Dark Corners. I came up with the short story ideas over the course of many months and saved them first on my iPhone and then in a Word document. It’s fun and gratifying to create a world and write a complete story arc in just a few days or weeks.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently writing a standalone novel, The Sublime Seven, which I expect to publish in the spring/summer of 2019. The tagline is: Time Travel with a Transcendent Twist. After I finish writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, editing, and editing, I’ll publish it and begin work on the fourth book in the Troop of Shadows Chronicles.

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Stories are…

Stories are about the deep waters of the soul. They uncover what can’t just be said with what must be shown. ~ Molly Blaisdell

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K.M. Weiland’s Writing Manifesto

While I’m working to complete a writing project this week and enjoying the last of a string of family visits, I wanted to share K.M. Weiland’s Writing Manifesto. One of these days I’ll create my own and follow her advice:

“To make the most of our lives as writers, we must understand the core principles and defining moments of being an author. We must boldly claim our goals, and we must remember, refine, and renew our commitments every day. To help us keep our sights set high, we need to declare ourselves to ourselves, as well as the rest of the world.”

Have you created your own writing manifesto? What would you add to K.M. Weiland’s excellent list?

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Author Interview: Steve Statham

Steve Statham is an editor, freelance writer, and photographer who has turned a lifelong love of speculative fiction into a second writing career. Along with short stories and two standalone novels, he has authored two sci-fi series. The first, his four-book Connor Rix SF thrillers, follows the adventures of a bio-enhanced private investigator. The second is Gods and the Starways, a series that brings readers the remnant of humanity a thousand years after they flee an alien invasion of Earth under the protection of god-like beings. Steve’s most recent release is Gods and the Stars (2018), the second of his Starways space opera books. You’ll find Steve on his website at SteveStatham.com and on Facebook. For a look at his nonfiction automotive work, visit StathamCommunications.com.

What sparked the initial story idea for Gods and the City, the first book in your Gods and the Starways series? When did you realize the story was strong enough to continue on to a second book?
I’d been working steadily on my Connor Rix series of sci-fi thrillers, and had also written a contemporary fantasy, but I was really champing at the bit to write space opera. I’ve always loved reading far-flung space adventure, and Gods and The City was going to be the first of what I hoped would be many in that genre. The spark that lit the whole thing was an image I had in my brain of an actual living, breathing god walking through a city, an immensely powerful protector created through technology to guard humanity against all external threats. As I started building a story around that idea, I wanted to create my own pantheon of gods, with their own powers and personalities, and weave them into the lives of a future human society. I always envisioned it as a two-book tale. I originally thought they would be two fast-paced novellas, but, as writers discover all the time, once you start a story it takes on a life of its own, and word-counts climb.

What was the most difficult aspect of world building for the Starways books?
The story takes place a thousand years after an alien invasion. Humanity barely escaped extermination on Earth, and the descendants of the survivors are living hidden in a domed city on a moon around a distant gas giant. They’ve been protected this whole time by powerful and mysterious gods. So there are no common frames of reference with the reader—their culture, technology, recent history, religious practices, all had to be created from the ground up. Working with a clean sheet like that is liberating, but also a lot of work because you have to think up every last detail. And then in the second book the reader is introduced to the workings of the alien Otrid culture, which I also built from the ground up. That’s part of the fun of being a writer, but it’s also difficult to pull off.

What unique challenges did book two, Gods and the Stars, pose for you?
In the first book, the alien Otrid are a mysterious foe. What’s known about them is mostly rumor, or cloudy history written in the aftermath of their invasion of Earth. That’s fine as the story begins, but it’s unsatisfying for the reader to not get the alien experience that makes space opera so fun to read. So in Gods and the Stars I wanted to have an alien point-of-view character so the reader could understand their motivations. That alien society had to be plausible and interesting, yet wholly unique and strange at the same time. Constructing that society was a challenge, but that’s part of the reason people seek out space opera—they want to be amazed by concepts they’ve never encountered before.

Tell us a little about the main characters in the Starways series. Whose point of view did you enjoy writing the most?
The story mostly revolves around Talia and Mik, and they are basically just regular people who have to step up and do extraordinary things. Talia is an acolyte in the temple of the protector god named Tower, and Mik is a Fixer who works repairing the complex underground infrastructure of The City. Some people view Mik’s job condescendingly, as it is well known that Tower, being a god, runs and maintains all the machinery that keeps the human race alive. But Mik is so good at his job he finds things that get overlooked even by the god. I really enjoyed writing Mik. But I also found I enjoyed writing Vance. He started out as a minor character, but I expanded his role as the books developed. He’s a happily married family man who nonetheless feels constricted by the limitations of living under a dome. He forms a secret society that creates elaborate challenges for like-minded people to test themselves physically and mentally, qualities that come in handy after the Otrid discover where humanity is hiding.

After writing four novels in the Connor Rix SF Thrillers series, did your protagonist still surprise you? What did you focus on in these stories to keep readers coming back for more?
Connor Rix definitely still surprises me as the series plays out. Rix is a bio-enhanced private investigator in a near-future setting. He’s got a variety of modifications that give him superhuman strength, and he’s the guy you call when you have a problem with a violent superhuman outlaw. For a series like this, each book has to tell a complete story, but I have to plan an overall character arc where his fortunes change over time. For example, from the first book to the fourth, Rix evolves from a man who uses a variety of aliases to maintain anonymity to a guy whose identity gets exposed after he cracks a high-profile case, and will have to deal with fame from then on. As for keeping readers coming back, I know fans of the series enjoy the crazy bio-engineered enhancements I come up with, and so in each book I try to top myself. This kind of future is right around the corner, and you just know that as soon as someone comes up with functional cybernetic implants and safe steroids, people will be knocking down the doors to get to them.

Who are your favorite authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
In the science-fiction field, Robert Silverberg has long been one of my favorites. He’s such a complete pro, insanely productive, makes it look easy, and each book is completely different from the last. Gene Wolf is so good it’s not even funny. Reading The Fifth Head of Cerberus just left me in awe of his skills, and The Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece. I like Peter F. Hamilton for the grand scale of his books. Dan Simmons doesn’t write much SF anymore, but when he did, I devoured them. Lots of indies are producing good work now too, and I’ve been trying a lot of new names recently. It’s a great time for discovering new voices in science-fiction.

Of all your novels, which one was the most challenging to write and which was the most enjoyable?
Fight for the Night had a difficult birth. It was supposed to be part of a shared universe series of weird post-apocalypse books, but then the publisher pulled the plug on the whole project. So I had to rewrite it to make sense as a stand-alone. It’s kind of an orphan, but I get a lot of positive feedback on that book. As for enjoyable, I really enjoyed creating the multiverse fantasy Strange Trails. I think it’s one of my best books, but it just never got traction. If you read it, you’re in an—ahem—elite group.

If the stars aligned, what past or present television or movie series would you love to write for?
Well, if we’re being granted wishes and a time machine, I’d want to go back and write the script for the third movie in the Alien franchise. I first saw Alien cold, had heard nothing about it, and it just blew me away. Aliens was a great sequel, building on the mysteries of the first movie. Then it all went to hell. As much as I love the first two movies, I hate Alien 3 in equal measure. And Alien Resurrection was just vile. The new ones aren’t much better. They just completely lost the plot, one of the great missed opportunities in science-fiction history. So magically swooping in and making a third movie that doesn’t suck would be my movie fantasy. If the time machine was down for maintenance that week, though, I wouldn’t mind being asked to collaborate on a Rick and Morty script over Happy Hour.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a new space opera series about a powerful ruler seeking to break the monopoly on interstellar travel held by one particular alien civilization. I have a short story completed that provides background on the protagonist and am well along in the first novel. I think I’ve also broken the logjam on getting the rights reverted on my out-of-print nonfiction automotive history books, so I’m looking at revising and updating them, and releasing them independently in 2019.

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All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

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