Jacey Bedford: Five Things I Learned Writing Empire Of Dust
Is there anywhere in the galaxy that’s safe for a Telepath who knows too much?
Implanted with psi-tech technology, Cara Carlinni is on the run from Alphacorp, a megacorporation more powerful than any one planetary government. She knows her ex-boss can find her any time, mind-to-mind. Even though it’s driving her crazy she’s powered down and has been surviving on willpower and tranqs, tucked away on a backwater space station. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.
But her past is about to catch up with her, and her only choice is run or die. She gets out just in time thanks to Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest corporate rival, however it’s not over yet. Cara and Ben find themselves battling corruption of the highest magnitude. If they make a mistake an entire colony planet could pay the ultimate price.
1) Bad choices make for good stories
Let me be specific–it’s your characters’ bad choices that make your stories more interesting. No one loves a smart-arse. If your characters make the right decision every time they are faced with a dilemma, the whole thing is going to bore the pants off your readers. Have them be fallible, make the wrong decision and then have to scramble to retrieve the situation. Maybe the bad decision has happened before your story starts and your whole book is about them trying to get out of a dilemma that’s largely self-created. Maybe it happens during the course of the story. You can see them running towards Bad-Choice-Land. It’s grey and grungy and littered with stumbling blocks. You’re tempted to save them from themselves, but don’t. Let them fall in the kaka and then have to get themselves out again. Bad choices have a cost and your characters have to live with the results (or die from them).
2) The story is more important than the science
If you are writing a fantasy with magic the magic system must be internally consistent and your characters have to stick to the rules and live with the consequences of their actions. Ditto with science fiction. If you are writing far future speculative SF which is more about adventure and characterisation than about the extrapolation of scientific ideas, then the science system may not be unlike a magic system in a fantasy book. Space is big, really big, and if you are going to have a bunch of characters gallivanting about between star-systems then Einstein, the Theory of Relativity and time dilation are not your friends. Faster than light travel, wormholes, jump gates and folded space are going to be your stock-in-trade. So figure out how your universe works and make a bunch of notes so you can retain internal consistency. You may have gathered that the science in my science fiction comes with a small ‘s’, but I try and make it sound, if not exactly plausible, at least not completely bonkers.
3) Trust Yourself and Trust Your Editor
When I set out to write Empire of Dust I figured it would be a relatively short standalone that would act as a prequel for a couple of linked novels already written. I was aiming for around 100,000 words. It quickly became clear that it wasn’t going to be the novel I first envisaged. My characters took over. They had more problems than I ever expected. It grew and grew. And then it grew some more. At one point it expanded to 240,000 words, way too long for most publishers to take a chance on, especially for a first-time novelist. So I cut it back to 190,000 words and emailed my (then) agent who said in no uncertain terms to cut it again. “Make it 119,000 words,” she said, “and then send it to me.” At first I thought that was impossible, but then I thought I should give it a try, even if I just treated it as a writing exercise. Over the course of one very intense long weekend I did a surgical strike on the manuscript. (Luckily without getting rid of the original version.) For various reasons I parted company from that agent before she’d shopped the manuscript around and, conscious of the fact that I’d probably thrown out the baby with the bathwater, I added back a few thousand words of character motivation and ended up with a novel of 123,00 words. For the next three years it languished on the desk of an editor at a major publishing house who’d asked to see it and had said, “The first couple of chapters look interesting…” but despite occasional polite reminders I don’t think she ever read it and eventually I politely withdrew it. During that time I wrote (amongst other things) Winterwood, the novel that Sheila Gilbert acquired for DAW in 2013. When Sheila asked what else I’d got and heard about Empire of Dust she said to send it, and not only bought it, but ordered a second book in the series. We got down to editorial discussions and Sheila said she’d like more worldbuilding and character depth and, in fact, a lot of those things that I’d cut out of the original long book. I went back to the old version, still on file, and resurrected scenes that I’d been sorry to lose. Of course, some of them needed reworking, but a lot of what Sheila asked for was already there in one form or another. The end result came in at 171,000 words. Five hundred and thirty two pages.
4) Story arcs are not just for main characters
Every character, whether you explore him/her fully in the text or not, should have needs and wants. Secondary characters are not two dimensional beings existing merely to fulfil a role in your main character’s journey. They’re not just good or evil. Even the best of them may have a momentary lapse, and the worst of them probably loves his Mom or donates to a cancer charity. Give them something to make them individual. Make them pop off the page. They are all the heroes of their own story. Of course, you might have to slap them down a bit if they try and take over. Some of them get a bit cocky when you take notice of them. They start to think they have a right to push to the front, so you may need to sit them down and give them a good talking to. Tell them that if they behave themselves they might get their own book somewhere down the line. Yeah, that’s it. Promise them anything as long as they toe the line now.
5) A character shouldn’t always get what they want, but they should get what they need
There’s a big difference between wants and needs. My main character, Cara, wants to escape from a difficult and dangerous situation and put as much distance between herself and her former lover (and boss) after discovering massive corruption. She wants to start over. What she needs, however, is to confront what has happened to her so that she can learn to trust again. Ben wants to discover and bring to justice whoever orchestrated the raid on Hera-3, killing thousands of settlers and three-quarters of his own psi-tech team. What he needs is to shed the (self-imposed) responsibility for the deaths. Know what your characters want, work out what they need, and deliver, or, if you’re writing a series, set out the problem and even if you obscure the goals (for now) don’t make it totally impossible for them to find a resolution. Maybe they get there one painful step at a time, but let them get there eventually.
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Jacey Bedford is an English writer who lives and works behind a desk in Pennine Yorkshire. She’s had stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and in November 2014 her first novel, Empire of Dust – A Psi-Tech Novel, is published by DAW in the USA as part of a three book deal.
She is co-organiser of the UK Milford Writers’ Conference, a peer-to-peer workshopping week for published SF writers, and she organises Northwrite SF, a critique group based in Yorkshire.
She’s been a librarian, a postmistress and member of internationally touring a cappella trio, Artisan (and still occasionally is for reunion gigs). When not writing she arranges UK gigs for folk artists from all over the world.