K.R. Richardson: Five Things I Learned Writing Blood Orbit
A mass murder in an ethnic ghetto sparks racial and political tensions that could lead to genocide or civil war on the corporate-controlled planet Gattis. Eric Matheson, an idealistic rookie cop trying to break from his powerful family, is plunged into the investigation in his first weeks on the job in the planetary capital, Angra Dastrelas. A newcomer to the planet, Matheson is unaware of the danger he’s courting when he’s promoted in the field to assist the controversial Chief Investigating Forensic Officer, Inspector J. P. Dillal, the planet’s first cybernetically enhanced investigator. Coming from a despised ethnic underclass, the brilliant and secretive Dillal seems determined to unravel the crime regardless of the consequences. The deeper they dig, the more dangerous the investigation becomes. But in a system where the cops enforce corporate will, instead of the law, the solution could expose Gattis’s most shocking secrets and cost thousands of lives—including Matheson’s and Dillal’s.
Suspense is killing me.
Although it is, at heart, a police procedural, the usual “slow burn” school of suspense is a little too slow for many cross-genre readers. Pacing and world-building can work against each other, since both mystery and science fiction stories require information be shared with the reader in order to “play fair,” keep the reader informed of the essential facts, and build the plot/character tension that propels the story. Information insertion, background “color,” and world context also have to be present, but can really slow things down if they’re lying about in bloody great chunks. It’s a hell of a juggling act; editors have a desire for everything to be clear, but over clarifying undermines suspense and speed, and damned if I didn’t realize how much of that I’d gotten into the habit of doing.
Initially I found it easier to throw all the info into the first draft and then slash mercilessly in the second draft. And the third draft. And the editorial revision. And the copyedit. But I’m finding a more minimal approach better with the next book in the series, writing smaller and adding only where I have to. Whittle each sentence and paragraph as small and tight as possible. Cut every word that doesn’t lift a ton of concept or descriptive work. Eliminate every bridge, set-up, and explanation that can be inferred, suggested, or taken for granted, so you can get to the good parts faster. It’s also more fun to torture the characters, as well as the readers, with minimum information and a lot of uncertainty, which adds to the suspense.
The better your world building, the less it looks like world building.
I got an early review that was critical of the “minimal” world building in Blood Orbit. That was a gleeful moment. The world building is intended to sneak up on the reader and encourage them to see reflections of the real world, so I’m fucking chuffed. But it’s still a beast of a thing to build a whole world and it’s so tempting to put it all on display. Don’t. You don’t even have to know everything about the world you’re writing at the beginning, so long as you understand its essential questions: what’s valuable; who controls it, how, and where does it come from; what about sewage and unpleasant tasks; how does the society deal with all this; what are the wacky things about the world and its history; what is the dominant society’s working premise of the basic nature of humanity (or whatever lifeform it is). Like character, the world you start well will reveal itself over time as you write; yet most of it is the body of an iceberg—90% of it hidden and just waiting for a chance to rip open the Titanic and kill everybody on board (too bad about the artist-fella.) Vary the revelation of your world by breaking it up and scattering it around. Give the obvious out in lots of tiny pieces, like the clear, cold night at sea with the terrible unseen beneath the surface: as character context, implication, demonstration, voice, social hierarchy, food… And only occasional Titanic-sinking.
Politics makes strange (fictional) bedfellows.
Politics and social commentary. Yup. Went there. People who fall in… whatever won’t always have the same ideas about the world, but they can still fuck each other over, no matter how good they are in bed. I took a certain glee in making characters who started out with one set of ideas about other each other and ended up with a different one. It changed the story track I’d originally imagined, and the first redraft was a bugger as a result, but it was worth it. The actual sex scene ended up in the editing bin, even though how they did the horizontal tango was as important as the fact that they did. But I didn’t have to show it to get to the gist—sometimes tell is better than show—especially when you can let the hedging and embarrassing silences do the talking. Putting the political in place of the personal surprised the hell out of me and made the story much more interesting, but it was a tricky bit of revising to hit the sweet spot (hah!) between character motion and mechanical porn.
Changing genres is hard (or not)
A lot of my previous work was fantasy, but the story and the subtext of Blood Orbit were better served with a technological world and the reference base of current reality and human history. So change had to be made. There’s a lot of weight in an established career and byline: you have a reader base, they know and like (and buy) what you write, you have a reputation with reviewers and your part of the publishing world. On the other hand: your reader base has certain expectations, reviewers and other readers have preconceived notions about what you write, and you’re never going to make everyone happy anyhow (get used to it.)
In my case, I chose SF and a pseudonym. I think of it as testing a new product-line. It is a little risky, because I may not reach the additional, new audience I want, and I may lose some of my established reader base. But a clear differentiation between the current work and my previous work has to be made, so the book can find its own audience, and be measured on its own merits. This won’t always be the case for every writer, and it may cease to be the case for me, but right now, it’s the best choice for this book. It wasn’t an easy decision. My agent and I went round it for a long time, weighed the advantages and disadvantages and how “secret” the pseudonym should be and settled on “not too much”—I’m not J. K. Rowling, after all. Readers who already follow my earlier work shouldn’t have difficulty finding the new one if they are interested, and readers who find the book without knowing its connection can like or dislike it for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t.
It’s easy to take success for granted.
I had assumed that a decent degree of success and a long-running series assured my new project would also meet with approval and success. Initially it didn’t. But not because the new book is bad—it’s fucking brilliant if you ask me. My measure of “success” was faulty. I thought of it in terms of money and numbers of units sold, and the amount of those that met my needs. I assumed that and my skill were sufficient and would allow my success to continue because… well. Because.
So, for a while, I looked on the effort as a failure until the book finally found a publisher at its eleventh hour. But success is not in the publication, or the potential sales, or the viability of a long-term series. Success is that I love the end result of the work: this difficult, complex, troublesome, wicked-cool book. It’s not perfect—but it’s pretty damned good and better than anything I’ve done before. I’m not going to lie and say I wouldn’t like to have a pile of money, fans, and the award-night adulation of my peers, but they aren’t necessarily the only way to measure “success.”
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K. R. Richardson is the pseudonym of a bestselling Washington-based writer and editor of Science Fiction, Crime, Mystery, and Fantasy. A former journalist with publications on topics from technology, software, and security, to history, health, and precious metals, Richardson is also a lifelong fan of crime and mystery fiction, and films noir. When not writing or researching, the author may be found loafing about with dogs, riding motorcycles, shooting, or dabbling with paper automata. Learn more at: www.gattisfiles.com
K.R. Richardson: Website