Robyn Bennis: Five Things I Learned Writing The Guns Above
They say it’s not the fall that kills you.
For Josette Dupre, the Corps’ first female airship captain, it might just be a bullet in the back.
On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat, a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. Bernat’s own secret assignment is to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision.
So when the enemy makes an unprecedented move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself?
* * *
Math, It’s Not Just for Science Anymore
I’m a scientist, so I already get to use math for all kinds of cool stuff. From multivariate dynamic regression models to a simple count of how many intelligence-boosted rats escaped from the lab this week, math is an essential part of my research.
Until I started The Guns Above, however, I didn’t realize how useful math could be for my writing. With the power of math, I was able to estimate my airship’s carrying capacity, her top speed, the rate of buoyancy lost from various types of battle damage, and the distance to the horizon at any given altitude. Trigonometry even allowed me to draw carefully scaled sketches of airships, people, and other potential targets, so I could stand in my apartment and see them as Mistral‘s crew would, at any arbitrary distance.
Math! Who knew?
Love Is Hell
I love to write. A lot of you love to write, I bet. But, as with any love, there are days you hate it. Some days, writing feels like endless toil. There are days when writing acts distant for no apparent reason, because writing can be a passive-aggressive jerk. Writing is the sort of lover who breaks up with you, then slinks in naked while you’re taking a shower, like nothing happened. You’ll stay up all night with writing and regret it when you have to go to work in the morning. There’ll even be times when you’re trying to focus on something else, but writing won’t stop talking to you no matter how politely you ask.
Simply put, writing is an asshole. Writing steals your money and spends it on stupid things, like another gimmicky book on how to write better, and then it acts like it bought that book for both of you. Writing will take you to heaven and back all day long, but the next morning it’ll be gone without even leaving a note.
Because writing is love, and love is hell.
The Secret to Reader Immersion
In the course of writing The Guns Above, I discovered the secret to keeping readers immersed in a complex, unfamiliar fantasy world. It requires two steps:
1. Research or invent every single possible detail of every single aspect of the world you can think of.
2. Put the absolute minimum of that detail into the book.
For example, I didn’t just research steam engines when I was working out the mechanics of Mistral‘s powerplant. I also considered the history of steam power itself, and what economic and technological forces might have resulted in earlier development of an efficient, powerful steam turbine. I eventually settled on a history in which spitjacks—an obscure, 500-year-old kitchen gadget used to turn meat on a spit—were adapted to power a whole host of convenience and industrial items, such as ventilation fans and powered spinning jennies. The drive to improve power output led to a better understanding of the aerodynamics of fan blades—sadly absent in our world, where we were still mucking about with the piston engine at this point. This understanding hurried the invention of Mistral‘s powerful “steamjack.”
Almost none of that can be found in the final novel, because, while I’m sure it’s absolutely fascinating to the rest of your nerds, you don’t want a page of it interrupting your action scene.
Writing the Damn Thing is Just the Beginning
I started writing The Guns Above in 2013 and finished in 2014. It took until 2017 to see it heading to bookstores. I put more time, work, and effort into the book after I finished it than I did while writing. I suspect this would have been true even if I was one of those freaks of nature who can write a perfect first draft, because there was still the question of publishing, production, and promotion. I knew these would be a big part of the job going in, but I had no idea how big.
This Is What I Want To Do Forever
For the past year and a half, I’ve been sorta-kinda living the life of a pro writer, and there’s a lot to hate about that life.
I know that’s a weird way to follow such a heartwarming heading, but stick with me here. As I write this article, I have no idea how well my book will do. It may be a humiliating failure. This year may prove to be a stain on my resume, forcing me to explain why I neglected my career to chase after a silly childhood fantasy. Or my book may be a success, the opening chapter of a prolific new career as an author. My entire future stands poised over the abyss, ready to fall or fly. Worse still, I may not know whether it’s falling or flying for years, because it can take that long for a debut author to build an audience large enough to pay the rent.
Indeed, with the industry as it stands, many authors are destined to live at the quivering edge of financial viability forever. If I end up in the lost souls room with them, every launch and every reprint will leave me wondering whether I get to continue as an author or be forced, hat in hand, back to a day job. Between sweating sales of the current book, preparing for the launch of the next, trying to get a deal on the one after that, and writing the one after the one after that, I’ll be lucky if I have two days a year that aren’t spent in terror, waiting to see if I still have a career in the morning.
But, then again, wouldn’t it be worth it? Because it would mean I’m a writer in love with writing, and there are few things as wonderful as that.
Robyn Bennis is an author and scientist living in Mountain View, California, where she consults in biotech but dreams of airships. She has done research and development involving cancer diagnostics, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. Her apartment lies within blocks of Moffett Airfield’s historic Hanger One, which once sheltered America’s largest flying machines. The sight of it rising above its surroundings served as daily inspiration while she wrote her debut novel, The Guns Above.
Robyn Bennis: Website