Adam Christopher: Five Things I Learned Writing The Burning Dark
Back in the day, Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland had led the Fleet into battle against an implacable machine intelligence capable of devouring entire worlds. But after saving a planet, and getting a bum robot knee in the process, he finds himself relegated to one of the most remote backwaters in Fleetspace to oversee the decommissioning of a semi-deserted space station well past its use-by date.
But all is not well aboard the U-Star Coast City. The station’s reclusive Commandant is nowhere to be seen, leaving Cleveland to deal with a hostile crew on his own. Persistent malfunctions plague the station’s systems while interference from a toxic purple star makes even ordinary communications problematic. Alien shadows and whispers seem to haunt the lonely corridors and airlocks, fraying the nerves of everyone aboard.
Isolated and friendless, Cleveland reaches out to the universe via an old-fashioned subspace radio, only to tune into a strange, enigmatic signal: a woman’s voice that seems to echo across a thousand light-years of space. But is the transmission just a random bit of static from the past—or a warning of an undying menace beyond mortal comprehension?
1. WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE.
While I consider myself to be a science fiction writer, The Burning Dark is my first published foray into space opera. I grew up with a love of spaceships and aliens and interplanetary adventure, so it’s perhaps a little odd that it’s only with my fifth novel that I finally explored this kind of story.
Then again, looking back at my first four novels, are they really science fiction? Empire State and The Age Atomic are – they are at least based on a sci-fi idea, even if that idea is the stuff of pulp fiction, complete with a pulp detective as the lead character. Seven Wonders is a superhero novel, all spandex and muscles and people shooting laser beams out of their eyes. Is that science fiction? Partly, but superheroes occupy a weird grey area all of their own. And Hang Wire is urban fantasy, fair and square.
So… science fiction writer? Hmm, sometimes. But sometimes not!
I’m often asked why – and how – I write across different genres. My answer to this is pretty simple: I write what I love. I love science fiction. I also love superheroes, urban fantasy, space opera, crime, and noir. When I write – and I’m sure most writers will recognize this – it’s less a case of deciding to sit down and write, for example, a space opera. You sit down and write the story that is burning in your mind, write the characters that are so alive in your imagination that your brain will melt out of your ears if you don’t let them tell their story.
With practice and experience, you can tame your imagination – and you have to, if you need to write a contracted book with a deadline attached. But you’re still writing what you love, because that’s why the book was contracted in the first place.
Some writers love epic fantasy, and they write epic fantasy. Some love military SF, and they write military SF. And that’s brilliant, because when you know your genre inside-out and upside-down, you’re in the perfect place to make your mark on it.
Some writers shift around. Writers like me. I write because I love writing, and I write the stories I love. To me, it’s irrelevant if it’s science fiction, or urban fantasy, or crime. The genre is the last thing I consciously think about. Okay, if I start a new project and it’s full of spaceships, it’s obvious that’s science fiction, but with The Burning Dark, I never said “I’m going to write a space opera”. What I did say was “I’m going to write this story about a forgotten war hero sent to a derelict and haunted space station.”
From there, I build the world, and characters came to life. It just happened to be a mix of space opera and ghost story. And I absolutely loved it.
2. THE EDITOR IS ALWAYS RIGHT.
You have no idea how serious I am about this point. The editor is always right. Always. Right. It’s their job: you write the book, they edit it, and together – together – you make it the best book you possibly can.
As a writer, you live with a story for months, years even. By the time you’ve done a zillion drafts and a zillion-squared edits, you’ve read and re-read the damn thing so much that it becomes less a book, more a collection of words that seem to form some kind of sequence, if only you could see what it was.
You are way, way too close to it.
The original version of The Burning Dark had a very different ending. It was pretty vague, and I knew it, but I wasn’t really sure what else to do. I’d tried to reassure myself that it was the journey that mattered, not the ending, but it bugged me.
Then my editor sent back his notes. They were great, because not only were they a full line-edit of the manuscript, as I suspected, but he has a habit of asking questions and posing theories in the comments. A lot of these don’t require any specific actions, they just show how he is processing the story as he reads it.
But sometimes they lead in some very interesting directions.
Some story background: A thousand years in the future, humanity is united into a single military entity, the Fleet, to battle a swarming machine intelligence, the Spiders. The Spiders are a gestalt mind, the individual components of which are linked together by a psychic communications network, which humans call the SpiderWeb. To combat this, the Fleet developed a division of psi-marines, psychic front-line troops who can tap into the SpiderWeb with their minds, disrupting the network while the regular marines go in for the kill.
In The Burning Dark, there’s just one psi-marine left on the space station with the crew. We learn about her job, about how the psi-marines work, how she could attack the Spider network with her mind and… that was it.
My editor put a comment against this, which said:
“Cool. Too bad we don’t see this happen.”
With that simple comment, he’d not only identified what was missing from the story, but had pointed towards what should really happen at the end.
On the basis of that single comment, I completely rewrote the final third of the book. The end result was orders of magnitude stronger than the original version.
So remember, kids: the editor is always right.
3. CHOOSE YOUR SEASONING. SPRINKLE LIBERALLY.
Repeat after me: The Burning Dark is not a horror novel. Sure, it’s dark and creepy, and scary too – one editor at Tor said the book freaked her out so much she couldn’t finish it! But it’s not horror. It’s space opera, or if you really want to push me, I’ll say it’s a science fiction ghost story. That’s where the idea came from, anyway – what if you had a traditional ghost story, but instead of a haunted house, you had a haunted space station?
That seemed like a pretty good hook, and led me in all kinds of interesting directions as I kept as many of the tropes of a clanking-chains ghost story in the book as possible. Strange moving shadows show up on surveillance feeds. Doors open and close by themselves. The station is plagued by cold spots, and eventually a bunch of foolhardy marines even hold a séance in the mess.
But, at its heart, The Burning Dark is a science fiction novel. It just happens to be a creepy one.
In my mind, horror is not even really a genre – it’s a flavour, something that can be applied to any kind of story at all. Noir is another good example – noir is complex and misunderstood, but a noir novel doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about crime, or features detectives (private or otherwise).
Horror and noir (and I’d add steampunk to that list) are nebulous, more about tone and theme than plot. In contrast, a police procedural is a police procedural. Epic fantasy is epic fantasy. Some genres have strict rules and tropes which readers expect. Others are looser. Others, like horror, are so loose than can fit over nearly anything.
The Burning Dark is scary, for sure, but that’s not the aim of the book. The aim of the book was to tell this story about some people trapped in a bad, bad situation, one beyond their understanding at the edge of space. That it happened to be creepy was just part of it.
4. FOLLOW THE STORY QUESTIONS.
As I said over at The Big Idea , The Burning Dark sprang from two different “what if?” questions: What if you had a traditional ghost story, but instead of a haunted house, you had a haunted space station? And what if that old legend of the lost cosmonauts – Soviet spacefarers sent into orbit before Yuri Gagarin but doomed never to return, their failures erased from all official record – was real?
Those were the hooks – the central concepts, around which I built the story. One thing I’ve spoken about before was how sometimes a writer can confuse an idea with a story, when really they’re two separate things. Sit down to write an idea, and you’ll be out of things to say within a few pages. Start writing a story, and the sky is the limit.
From those two ideas, all I had to do to build the book was follow the logical trail of questions. If a space station is haunted, what is it haunted by? Is it a ghost in the traditional sense? What if there was something else going on? What if somebody in authority knew the truth? If that truth was kept secret, how much do the crew know? How do they react to the weird situation – and how do they react when they figure out the secret? What would happen if someone arrived in the middle of it all, unaware that some serious shit was going down? What if that person had been sent there deliberately? What if they didn’t know that?
And so on. One question leads to another, leads to another. Each answer provides another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, creating a complex narrative with a whole boatload of mystery – which is exactly what a story like this needed.
5. IF YOU DIG IT, YOUR READERS WILL DIG IT TOO.
Writers go through a lot of phases during the writing of a book, ranging from “this is the best idea in the history of literature” to “I hate myself and this book, I’m just not sure which I hate more.” Most of the time, if you’re lucky, you exist somewhere in between, squeezing words out like squeezing blood from a stone, then being pleasantly surprised later to find that the last few pages you wrote don’t suck as much as you thought they did.
This is normal. In fact, if it didn’t happen this way, I’d suspect something was going very, very wrong.
But there is a point, somewhere along the line, where you like what you’ve done. It might be a fleeting sensation to break the monotony of self-doubt, and it’s often surprising, but eventually you’ll understand that you might just have something worth a damn.
I can still remember when this happened with The Burning Dark. I was doing a final re-read before sending the manuscript to my agent. It was late at night, and the house was quiet. On the space station, a marine was chasing shadows before confronting something that nearly breaks his mind.
And you know what? It was as creepy as hell. I had to stop, go downstairs for a cup of tea, and put something mindless on TV for a while.
As a writer, when that happens, grab the moment. Remember it. This is why you write in the first place. You create something new out of nothing, and when the stars align, it can take on a life of its own. Even in the mind of the writer.
And as the saying goes, if you enjoy what you write, then your readers will enjoy it too.
Just so long as they don’t mind going to bed with the lights on…
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Adam Christopher is a novelist, the author of Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire, and the forthcoming The Burning Dark. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honour. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Great Britain since 2006.