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[GUEST POST] Alison Sinclair’s 5 Lessons from Writing BREAKPOINT: NEREIS

Alison Sinclair is the author of the science fiction novels Legacies, Blueheart, and Cavalcade (nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award). She is presently living in Montreal where she is working on the next novel in the Plague Confederacy trilogy. Her latest novel Breakpoint: Nereis is avilable on Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound.

5 Lessons from Writing BREAKPOINT: NEREIS, or Old Dogs, New Tricks

by Alison Sinclair

1. Delegate the Power Struggles.

It’s embarrassing to admit to engaging in power struggles with figments of my own imagination. It suggests I haven’t quite got the grip on professionalism, not to mention reality, that I ought. I might jokingly claim my characters have minds of their own, but I know who’s in charge.

Or I did until I ran up against Creon McIntyre.

Breakpoint: Nereis is an after-the-plague novel. A century and a half before the series begins, a plague ripped through settled space, throwing planets entirely on their own resources. The Waiora is a small starship crewed by medical specialists cross-trained in diplomacy, sent out to understand the plague. On the planet Nereis, Creon’s people are slowly losing their fight to retain their hold on the lands they fled to for survival.

My early notes indicated that I thought the story belonged to the Waiorans. Then I added a very smart, driven man, put him in a desperate situation, and introduced him to people he thought could determine his peoples’ fate. The Waiorans didn’t have a chance. I didn’t have a chance. To quote one of my own emails: Right now I am contending with a character who has stolen the original plot out from under me…

I needed help. Fortunately, I had Aeron Ivesen, heiress to the lands Creon and his father conquered. (She’s the one on the cover). She wanted her lands back, and she wanted revenge. She’s every bit as smart as Creon, every bit as driven, and, as the novel begins, holds most of the advantages. What I had not done was realize her strength.

2. Let them talk.

I had written a number of scenes showing Aeron in action: giving orders, politicking, maneuvering, and plotting. I had sketched in her back-story: aristocrat, refugee, guerilla, schemer, politician, general on the verge of invasion. There was plenty to her, yet she still did not have a presence in the novel to balance Creon. I simply did not understand her well enough.

Then I sat her down with Seve Valentin, of Waiora.

Any time one of my characters tells another one a story they do so with a purpose. They’re out to shape the other person’s understanding of a situation, or to engage the other person’s sympathies; they want the other person to take action on their behalf, or not to take action on someone else’s behalf. Aeron wants is to be sure that the Waiorans will stay out of her way while she deals with Creon’s people. She sets out to argue her cause, and in the process, she tells the story of the events that have made her what she is. I did not plan this, but in the process of writing Aeron’s monologue, I learned what I needed to know to make her the other pole around which the novel spun.

After which, I cut her monologue from five thousand words to fifteen hundred. I needed to hear the five thousand, but the reader didn’t.

3. I can always use fewer words. Sometimes a lot fewer words.

The original draft of Breakpoint: Nereis was 135,000 words. They were decent words, if I say so myself, but by the time I came to submit the novel to publishers, the optimal length of a midlist SF novel had dropped substantially. Once I finished the sequel, I spent two months editing the manuscript to 101,000 words. Then I spent three more months cutting the sequel from 153,000 words to 110,000 words. Net loss, about the length of a short novel.

I shed a few scenes in their entirety, but most of the cuts were of single words, phrases or sentences: removing repeated information (pay attention; some things I will say only once), detail in my descriptions (like Emily of New Moon, I love descriptions), character interactions for the sake of character, conversational digressions . . .

I had, I thought, a lean novel. But when Hayden (my publisher and editor at Bundoran Press) sent me his editorial notes for Breakpoint, he led off with a suggestion that I cut the first chapter – the entire first chapter – with the exception of one scene. Drat the man. He was right.

4. The surprising applicability of technical writing.

At the same time I was writing the first draft of Breakpoint, I was in my first year at a job as a medical writer. It was my introduction to writing in a structured environment, my new boss having carefully established that I knew to keep my SF out of my reports.

By day I carefully filled in the template, checked the checklists, and adhered to the guidelines. By night I remained true to the Ancient and Honourable Order of Literary Pantsers (motto, “We don’t need no stinkin’ outlines!”). Nevertheless, that technical writing made me more aware of where I needed to be explicit rather than allusive. Having to use using scientific terminology accurately and consistently – to help readers stay orientated through detailed summaries – led me to be more consistent from the outset in my invented terms and imagined descriptions.

Plus, Microsoft Word holds no terrors for me. I rock styles, and brook no nonsense from autocorrect.

5. Nil desperandum.

The first draft of Breakpoint: Nereis was completed in Victoria, BC, in late January, 2003. I had already published three SF novels, including one that placed on the Arthur C. Clarke shortlist. But by the time I’d finished Breakpoint and launched into the sequel, the SF market had changed substantially, without my noticing.

Over the next four years, Breakpoint slowly gathered rejections from the shrinking pool of major publishers, despite the best efforts of my agent. In November 2007, while visiting Toronto, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to local institution Bakka Books, where I discovered that writers I had heard very little about over the past ten years were still publishing, but with specialist presses I had never heard of. I bought books, and made a list.

That winter I sold a fantasy trilogy and applied to McGill to do a Masters degree. It wasn’t until I had completed both the trilogy and the degree in 2010 that I turned my attention back to finding a place for Breakpoint: Nereis, and even then … publishing time is publishing time. (I once disconcerted a friend by my cheer at being rejected for a job – Yes, I explained, but they rejected me quickly.) The acceptance by Bundoran came in May 2013, just over ten years since that first draft.

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