- The use of names in our stories and their importance to the story’s world.
- Strategies for self-publishing.
- Why writing daily is important.
Writing isn’t “I have an idea, now I’ll just write it down,” but “I have an idea, I’ll start writing and see where it takes me.”
In this episode, I’ve asked science fiction writer Tobias Klausmann to tell us more about how he found his writing voice and his approach to writing character-driven science fiction.
A. Macabe: You mention on your website you moved to Switzerland. What’s the history behind the move? Is English your first language? Do you think speaking multiple languages has helped your writing?
Klausmann: I moved to Switzerland for work. Before June, 2010 I lived in northwestern Germany for twelve years, after moving there from the very southwest. Despite now living abroad, I am much closer to the town I grew up in. My mother tongue is German, but my father used to be an English teacher and in general – English-language media, especially music and books – were easily available to me as a kid and teenager.
As for whether it helped with writing, it has definitely influenced how I think about language. Sometimes you know the perfect idiom or turn of phrase in one language, but come up empty in another. For me, that usually means that I start trying to find as close an idiom as possible, or I just try and make one up. It’s the future, after all, and while it is not a main plot point, I mention that my characters speak Orblang, a sort of lingua franca or trade language used by those who travel between star systems. Still, the idiom has to be understandable by English speakers, so I can’t go too crazy.
A. Macabe: Slingshot is a great book. I enjoyed it. And it’s well-written. The story along with the brief explanations of the science are mixed well. How did you find this “voice?”
Klausmann: As I mentioned, my father was a teacher for all his work life. Some of the teacher mindset has definitely rubbed off on me. In my past jobs I often had mentor roles, and now that I am one of the senior engineers of the company I work for, a sizable chunk of my time is spent on teaching and mentoring. At the same time, I am also – out of necessity, we’re a small company – a tech writer.
I guess this informs my fiction writing as well. I never consciously thought about my target audience, but I probably angled for someone that is already a bit versed in SF in general, so I don’t have to explain basic physics, like kinetic energy or what an orbit is. On the other hand, I knew I didn’t want to just assume that everyone knows what a Hohmann transfer is. On top of that, I always wanted to write character-driven SF, i.e. not make all of the story subordinate to aspects of technology. I find that kind of SF a bit dry, and I personally enjoy SF that looks at the social consequences of technological change. In Slingshot and Retaliation (and the to-be-published third novel), the underlying question is: what does it mean if humans can create AI? I do not claim to have all the answers, of course, but I think the Slingshot universe is credible, from a societal point of view.
One other thing I don’t particularly like is lengthy exposition. It’s a bit too easy to write for my tastes, and as a reader I find it tiring unless it is done well. Thus I prefer to do most of the exposition through story and characters.
I guess all of this kind of turns into what you could call my style.
A. Macabe: What inspired your use of quotes at the beginning of each chapter?
This was inspired by the Academy novels by Jack McDevitt. Opening quotes for me have multiple uses. The first and most obvious one is to sneak in exposition while having a “control mechanism” for the amount: You can’t have half a chapter of opening quote. The second one is mood-setting for the chapter, a bit like “next week on Slingshot”, but I try very much to not abuse it in the way many TV shows do. The third one is establishing the cultural and societal context of the Slingshot universe, which is sort of a cross between exposition and mood setting.
The more prominently a named place or character features in my stories, the higher the likelihood that the name has extra meaning.
A. Macabe: How did you come up names in the book? Also, many science fiction books have “futuristic names,” foreign to our current use of language. Why did you use normal names, such as Kim, Mike, and Katherine?
Klausmann: The character of Kim is much, much older than the Slingshot series, though the details of her character and origins have changed a lot of times in a lot of ways. Her name, however, was always Kim, though I have no recollection of how I found it.
Most of the other names are either names that I just went with when I first thought of the character (e.g. Jake Neville), or they fell out of a random name generator after I had the vague cultural origins of the character in mind (Ketu Harpaz, for example).
Place names, especially planets that feature prominently, like Amareun or Sherwood, I choose deliberately and usually, there are layers to the meaning, but I won’t spoil the fun for the readers that want to figure them out by themselves.
The basic rule is: the more prominently a named place or character features in my stories, the higher the likelihood that the name has extra meaning, though it may only be obvious to me.
One specific exception are the names of the ships in the GETAC fleet. Classically, ships in SF stories would often be named after physicists and engineers of our past, like Einstein, or von Braun. This has always bothered me for two reasons. One, the vast majority of those names are those of men, when there were plenty of female engineers and physicists to choose from. Second, this naming scheme seems to abruptly stop in the year the novel was written in. Only very rarely are there ships named after heroes of science and engineering that have lived between the publishing date of the book and the time the story is set in.
So the GETAC fleet names its ships after female scientists and engineers that have already lived (like Elizaveta Karamihailova), some that I made up and some that still live. The latter may bite me if it turns out that any of them turn out to be frauds, but I am optimist. Plus, I can always claim “alternate universe” when in doubt.
A. Macabe: Tell me about what you had to learn to self-publish Slingshot.
Klausmann: For me personally, the biggest things were figuring out the legal and tax side of self-publishing, plus the marketing bits. The form that will haunt me to the end of my days is W8BEN, which is used to declare to the IRS that I am not an American and needn’t pay taxes in the US. Proving the absence of something is tricky. The publication of Slingshot was delayed by about nine months just because I and the IRS failed to communicate. Fortunately, you have to do this only once.
The things that I think a lot of self-publishes need to learn are:
- Find good beta testers or an editor. Whether your story makes sense, if the pacing is right and a million other things can only be examined and reported by people that are not you.
- Find a good proofreader. This is at least as important as the one above. Typos, grammar mistakes and all that are as off-putting as boring stories and one-dimensional characters.
- The interior layout of you book matters, especially if you intend on selling physical books. Either find someone who can do it for you or learn how to do it (I cheat by using LaTeX, which makes 99+% of the layout decisions for me, and makes the right ones).
- Get the best cover art you can afford. Despite the aphorism, people do judge books by their covers.
- Make sure you understand the conditions of the self-publishing platform you choose. E.g. Kindle Select means you can’t publish your book on another platform for a while.
- Learn marketing or get help with it if you actually intend to make money. I personally see writing as a hobby (and thus a money-sink as well as a time-sink), so I never bothered much with that.
A. Macabe: How did the idea for Slingshot originate? The very first chapter being the framework, when did you have the initial vision of Kim near the singularity?
Klausmann: My two failed attempts at novels that weren’t Slingshot (the planned one and the free form one) informed what ideas I wanted to convey, what motifs I wanted the story to have. But a large part of what goes on between Kim and Allie and what the society in the Slingshot universe looks and works like, I figured out while writing it. This still was/is the case for Retaliation and the third novel, though to a much smaller extent, since I now have a cast and an established universe.
Don’t overplan the story and don’t cling too tightly to motifs.
A. Macabe: You have engineering and programming background. What kind of engineering? Did your background help you write the book?
Klausmann: I worked as a sysadmin for the first fifteen years or so of my career. When I moved to Switzerland, this shifted a bit, since I became an SRE. Mostly, that means that software engineering plays a larger role, the motto being “automate yourself out of your job”. I have since changed jobs and I am now much closer to being a sysadmin again.
Regarding the books, the main influence would be that I know more about network and computer security than the average bear, with some crypto knowledge thrown in. I also have an interest in engineering in general, with some focus on aeronautics, space and weapons research. While my books are not very hard SF by any stretch, I do enjoy web sites like Atomic Rockets (aka Project Rho). I can’t recommend Winchell Chung’s work enough: it is my premier resource for finding out what a spaceship actually needs to do (and can’t do). I take bits and pieces that work for my stories, but I still prefer the techy bits serving the story, not vice versa – RocketCat would probably groan about my books quite a lot.
A. Macabe: I’m an engineer as well, and it sounds like your writing process mirrors mine. First, outlining and planning every possible detail, to the point where we hit a wall. You did this during your first attempt at writing Slingshot, then in the second attempt, you wrote with stream of consciousness and hit a wall again. How did you find the middle ground to complete the book?
Klausmann: The key insight for me was that I had to take an iterative approach, on all levels. That is: don’t overplan the story, and don’t cling too tightly to motifs. Usually, for any motif that you find doesn’t work, in the process of writing, you’ll find another half dozen, one or more of which will be a fit. Yes, this means that the story you end up with is likely different from the one you started out with, but that is expected. Writing isn’t “I have an idea, now I’ll just write it down” (or at least it isn’t for most people), but “I have an idea, I’ll start writing and see where it takes me.”
One aspect of being a sysadmin/software engineer that helped me a lot is that I know how to use version control systems like Git. This means that no matter how much I revise, I can always go back to old versions. In practice, I almost never do, but it is very liberating to be able to just commit something to Git and then “throw it away”. It is out of sight, out of mind, and therefore not a burden. And version control makes it very easy, so exploratory writing (or finding that what you wrote a week ago is likely rubbish) has a lot less emotional impact. In the course of writing Slingshot and Retaliation (and again with #3), I have on multiple times thrown away 20k, 30k or even 60k words. But it was easy since it never felt like deleting for good. And I’ve never really gotten back to those proto-novels. But knowing I could made the difference.
A. Macabe: Was it against your “internal engineer programming” to write via stream of consciousness? How did you manage this?
Klausmann: Most of the writing I had done before Slingshot I had done as small scenes and vignettes. Just ideas (people, places, situations) that occurred to me. The SoC writing was a lot like that, except more going from one scene to the next as they happened, with only a little look-ahead of where I wanted things to go. As a result, I had a bazillion threads and characters and unresolved things that had become impenetrable and tangled by the time I hit 60k or so words. There was no chance I could untangle it. I did reuse some parts, but they needed quite a bit of work to mesh with the surrounding text.
As for my engineering side, it never bothered me that my stories aren’t these intricate mechanical things that work like clockwork. None of my readers will read the stories the way I read them or wrote them, so very different things will go together or contrast, depending on what they see in the story. And I am more than fine with that.
My main advice to writers – no matter the genre or publication route – is: write every day. You don’t need to work on any of your projects. Write a scene, write a location description. Just write.
A. Macabe: How long did this book take you to write Slingshot? What about the second and third books? Are you following the same writing process as you did for Slingshot, and is it working for you?
Klausmann: Slingshot took more than a year from start to publication, but as I said earlier, the dealings with the IRS and the self-publishing websites took quite a chunk of time. Writing down the number of hours I worked on it is nigh impossible, since I basically only worked on it in my free time. I did work on it five days of a given week, usually at least one or two hours per session. That makes for quite some productivity, especially since you don’t lose momentum as easily as if you only work on it on weekends. If nothing else, my main advice to writers, no matter the genre or publication route, is: write every day. You don’t need to work on any of your projects. Write a scene, write a location description. Just write. And keep those snippets around, they are invaluable as inspiration when you hit a block.
My writing process has changed only marginally between the three books so far. It’s mostly when I interact with others over it (beta testers, proof readers, getting a cover) that things have changed. I don’t think any of that (or the actual writing) have settled, really. And the writing side never should, In my opinion.
A. Macabe: Is writing your full-time job? Do you have a family? How did you make time to write?
Klausmann: Writing is purely a hobby for me. I have a day job that sometimes uses up enough of my energy that I don’t have any left to write in the evening. While I’m single, I do have a circle of friends and various other hobbies besides writing. That said, writing is very flexible as a hobby. I.e., I can write just about anywhere, any place, it’s independent of weather and time of day and I don’t need anything besides a laptop or a writing pad. So it tends to fill all the downtime I have, as long as it’s at least half an hour or so (I need that to get “up to speed”, as it were). As a result I write just about every day. One caveat though: I don’t always work on my current project, or any project at all. Sometimes, just write small scenes, location descriptions and the like. I feel it keeps my writing skills sharp and I sometimes go back to these fragments for inspiration.
A. Macabe: Science fiction writers probably have a different “feel” or “vision” of the future. Things like what the ships and space stations look like. What clothes we wear and what the bars and pubs might be. What is your vision of the future inspired by? How do you get these descriptions on paper? Like the colors of ships? The look of a meeting room in a space station?
Klausmann: I think it’s various things, mostly from other SF works and concept art. Ralph McQuarrie, Syd Mead, Chris Foss to name a few. There also is a ton of SF concept art on places like ArtStation that I use as inspiration, especially for cities and interiors of ships and stations. I use these only for the feel of the places, though. Careful readers may have noticed that I never actually say what the spaceships or stations in my books look like, not even their color or physical size. I feel it’s best to let the reader fill that in, according to how they think the place feels and thus “obviously” looks like.
I feel that to write a good 60k word novel, you probably have to write 120k words or more and then pick the ones that are good.
A. Macabe: Tell me about the cover art for Slingshot and Retaliation. Did you design it? Where did the idea come from?
Kausmann: I got both covers via 99designs, where you write a brief about what you need the cover for, what you want/don’t want and what other covers might inspire you. Just after I had started writing Slingshot in earnest, I came across a beautiful image that I thought would capture Allie’s looks and personality perfectly. I spent quite some time trying to track it down, only to find it had already been used for a hip-hop album of all things. So I just mentioned it as an inspiration on the design brief and out came what is Slingshot’s cover. I was positively amazed at the end result. Besides my proof reader, the cover is where I spent most of the money.
The cover for Retaliation was again a 99designs competition I ran. Unfortunately, the designer of Slingshot’s cover was not available, but I think the cover I got is still in the same spirit and as good as the first book’s, though it is a different style.
A. Macabe: How do you keep track of your ideas? A notebook? Evernote?
Klausmann: All over the place. I have a git repository called fragments where most stuff goes. If I don’t have access to a laptop, I use Google Keep on my phone or a tablet. And if all else fails, just scraps of paper. I tend to quickly get everything into the git repo, though, lest it gets lost.
A. Macabe: Many writers I’ve talk with have trouble with extended focus, perhaps an hour is the maximum, then they need to take a break. On your site, you talk about a 3 – 4 hour window for focused writing. How do you stay focused? Were you always able to focus for this long, or did you have to work your way up to this?
Klausmann: I have found I can not write at home, since it’s too quiet. If I get stuck when writing there, there’s nothing to inspire me without also distracting me. So I write in public places, like cafés or at my favorite pub. I usually put on headphones to not be distracted by conversation and listen to music without lyrics. When I get stuck, a quick look up to see what’s going on around me or outside the pub is enough to let me focus again. As I said above, these 3-4h writing spells are rarely focused on only one project, or even all that productive. But I feel that by writing every day and as much as I can, I keep the skills sharp. I took this inspiration from (semi-) professional photographers: to get those five or ten amazing pictures from a particular shoot, you have to take possibly hundreds of pictures. I feel that to write a good 60k word novel, you probably have to write 120k words or more and then pick the ones that are good.
Finally, if you think something you’ve written is very, very clever, it’s unlikely that anyone else thinks so. Most will either miss it or think it’s a gimmick. Only write what serves your story.
A. Macabe: Do you have any editing advice for other writers?
Klausmann: My first guideline is: if it doesn’t advance the plot or serve character building, throw it out. Note that locations can be characters, too, so describing what’s going on on a decrepit space station or in a high-tech part of the city is perfectly alright. Just don’t go overboard.
The second thing is changing viewpoints. If you do it too often, this can be very disorienting to the reader. I feel I’ve overdone it a bit in Slingshot, but got better in Retaliation. My current rule is to have one viewpoint per chapter (one chapter being 2k-3k words), though if needed, I can switch viewpoint once inside a chapter.
As for the editing itself: have beta testers, both for in-progress stuff and your first/second/… draft. It’s great to have an experienced editor, of course, but I for one do not have a book contract. I could spend the same amount of money on an editor as I do on a proof reader, but the cost is a bit steep. I feel like I got the editing side covered with my beta testers (and my proof reader provides light editing advice).
Don’t be afraid to cut stuff out. If you are using versioning (and you absolutely should), nothing should be lost. As long as you’re getting the vibe and message across, the shorter book is the better book.
Finally, if you think something you’ve written is very, very clever, it’s unlikely that anyone else thinks so. Most will either miss it or think it’s a gimmick. Only write what serves your story.
A. Macabe: The dialogue in Slingshot is great. I feel like I’m listening to a real conversation. Did you have to practice writing dialogue, or does it come naturally to you? Was any of this impacted by writing at the pub and hearing conversation around you?
Klausmann: I spend a lot of time making sure dialogue is believable. Usually I start out with something very rough and then tune one side’s lines and responses to make sure they are coherent, that I can see someone actually talking and responding that way. Then I do a pass on the other side. Sometimes, this means I have to start over a third of the way in since the conversation is going in an entirely different direction. At that point, I may reconsider the whole thing. Dialogue is easily the largest chunk of time of my spent editing. It does help that I usually have a good internal model of who my characters are and what they want in a given moment.
A. Macabe: Without giving too much away in the book, the alien ships are slower than humans. Is this an intentional vulnerability? Giving the aliens a potential weakness the heroes can exploit?
Klausmann: Having adversaries and antagonists is always a balancing act: on the one hand, the threat has to be credible, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. One of the reasons why I’m not a fan of superhero comics is that both the protagonists and antagonists tend to enter into a bit of an arms race at times. For the antagonists in the Slingshot series, weaknesses are deliberate, in the sense that for their origin, they make sense. I highly value internal consistency of my stories and thus would not be comfortable with arbitrary weaknesses.
A. Macabe: Tobias, thank you so much for sharing your writing wisdom with us. I’m fascinated by what you shared, and hopefully others will be as well. Be sure to read Slingshot and Retaliation. They are great science fiction stories and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. We’ll check in again with Tobias when the third book of the series is released.
Next week in Episode #5, I chat with fantasy writer Christopher Ryan and how he found his writing voice.