T.J. Berry: Five Things I Learned Writing Space Unicorn Blues

A crew of outcasts race across the galaxy in order to prevent the genocide of magical creatures. Part-unicorn Gary Cobalt is sick of captivity at the hands of human beings. On the day of his release from prison, he attempts to win back his faster-than-light stoneship in a game of skill. But Gary’s longtime nemesis, Jenny Perata, rigs the game and steals the ship out from under him to make an urgent delivery.

With a mysterious time-locked cargo in their hold and the authoritarian Reason regime on their tail, Gary and Jenny are forced to cooperate despite the fact that she once held him hostage and he was imprisoned for the murder of her best friend. What could possibly go right?

Take care of yourself

No matter what you’re creating, caring for yourself should always come first. Don’t believe people who say that artists should suffer to make good art, or that being comfortable will somehow diminish the final product. Folks, I wrote a 2,300-word butt joke while sitting in bed, eating a cupcake, and watching Marvel’s Avengers on repeat. Live your best life and the words will be there.

The last nineteen months have been unrelenting. Terrible things unfold before our eyes every day. Our hearts pound when another fundamental right is stripped away, but there’s nothing to run from and no one to fight; no zombies to hit with shovels or alien ships to infect with viruses. Instead, our apocalypse is moving in slow motion, drawn out over torturous weeks and months. Between the daily horror show, we still have to slap on a smile and pull a shot of espresso for a customer, or give yet another PowerPoint presentation on sales figures. We’re living in a terrible juxtaposition of the horrific and the mundane and it takes a toll on creativity.

It’s okay… nay, it’s vital, to find little pockets full of wonderful things and marinate yourself in them. There’s a distinct possibility we may be in some kind of nuclear winter by this time next year, so aim to absorb as much joy as possible before we’re roasting squirrels over a campfire made from back issues of Asimov’s.

I’ve joked to friends that it’s a steak and Legos kind of year, but I’m really kidding on the square. We all need to find something that gives us a moment of respite from the onslaught. Find your own steak and Legos. Read romance novels from the library with a cup of your favorite tea. Take a quiet hike in the woods and photograph native fungi. Make a Wendigo and share it on Twitter with other sandwich aficionados. Collect fountain pens and inks. Find your thing and steep yourself in it, let it infuse you with power, then come back to your work with a reinvigorated mind. Be healthy and happy and write lots of butt jokes.

Find Your Tribe

Your tribe is your ride-or-die posse and your supportive cheerleading team. They know when to push you to work harder and when to offer comfort and a listening ear. You have to find your own tribe. No one can tell you where to find yours and no, you can’t have someone else’s.

Four years ago, I was poking around writer twitter as a total newbie, asking everyone I followed how to find my tribe. All of the best writers had a critique group or beta readers who helped them craft their stories into sellable gems. The closest I had in my little town was a man who spent the last forty years working on his novel about a dog on a road trip. Listen, there’s nothing wrong with a dog road trip, but if you’ve been working on the same book for forty years, you’re not writing a book, you have a typing hobby.

I found my tribe when I attended Clarion West–a six-week workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy also known (to me, at least) as Sci-Fi Summer Camp. We bonded over board games and a shared love of storytelling. We laughed every day and thankfully cried only intermittently. They’re the people I turn to when I need to untangle a story or commiserate over never-ending edits.

And I’ve found other tribes since then. There’s the group that gathers on a message board to practice epic feats of rejectomancy. We can tell what an editor has eaten for breakfast by the punctuation in her personal rejections. And another group that likes to meet in person for a few hours of writing followed by a board game chaser. And a group that likes to have intricate and pedantic discussions of craft that are excruciating… until you’re the one with the plot problem.

If you’re a newbie, it can feel like you’re an outsider to all of these established tribes. But you need to find your own people. And you will.

Find your motivation

Three years ago, I taped a picture of a Tesla Model X near my writing desk, thinking that the dream of owning an electric car would motivate me to write. I’m sad to report that not one extra word was written out of the desire to sell enough books to buy an $80,000 car. (Also, Elon has turned out to be a lot less cool than he seemed at the time.)

By contrast, Space Unicorn Blues was written in an epic twenty-day writing sprint motivated solely by spite. I remember the day clearly. I was tearfully complaining about my eighteenth rejection for a bizarre short story about a woman who has a portal between her grandmother’s attic and her uterus. My husband tried to console me by gently and kindly suggesting that I try writing more “normal” stories.

I was so angry at his suggestion (basically, this is the default state of our 21-year marriage) that I opened my laptop and started writing the most bizarre story I could put to paper. There are temperate rainforest starships carved into the bellies of asteroids and faster-than-light engines powered by unicorn horns. Magic and technology collide in grating and painful ways in order to sow conflict between characters. Turns out, when properly motivated, the words will flow like water.

You don’t know what you don’t know

I populated my book with humans from, you know, actual places around the globe besides America. They are people who come from different backgrounds and who have experiences that don’t mirror my own. This meant a lot of research went into making their lives as accurate as possible. Half-unicorn Gary Cobalt is descended from aerospace engineers from Bangalore. Captain Jenny Perata is a Māori woman who uses a wheelchair. Game hostess Ricky Tang is an Chinese-Australian transgender woman.

Some of the best memories of making this book were sitting down with people who are not like me and having discussions about how to portray these characters as realistically as possible. I got it wrong… many times. For example, my friends from Bangalore asked, “Why is your main character speaking Hindi? I always speak Kannada at home.” I had been treating India as a monolith. Just like every other place on the planet, India is populated by diverse people who have distinct cultures and languages. If I hadn’t spoken to an actual Bangalorean, I would have missed that detail entirely.

It’s also critical to pay your experts. Sensitivity reading is difficult work; wading through incorrect and sometimes harmful language, then taking the time to explain how the writer has erred. Pay readers the going rate or agree on a mutually beneficial arrangement like critique trades or a barter. Just make sure you’re compensating people fairly for their time and labor.

Finish your stuff

I’m going to tell you a never-before-revealed secret about Space Unicorn Blues in the hope that I can spare you the agony that I inflicted upon myself. (I am also fervently hoping that my publisher does not read down this far.) When I submitted the manuscript for consideration, the book wasn’t finished. Oh there definitely were a hundred thousand words in the file, but only the first few chapters had gone through the four drafts needed to be ready for public view. The rest was a terrible mess of scenes that didn’t really add up to a novel. I figured that if Angry Robot was interested, it would take them weeks to request the full manuscript. Plenty of time to spruce up the ending!

Readers, they wrote back in four days. You have never in your life experienced a more conflicted career moment than having a publisher request your full manuscript… and it isn’t ready. I spent the next week scrambling to rewrite twelve thousand words a day. Please, do not do what I did. Finish your work and don’t send it out until it’s ready. LET ME BE YOUR CAUTIONARY TALE.

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TJ Berry grew up between Repulse Bay, Hong Kong and the Jersey shore. She has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries. TJ co-hosts the Warp Drives Podcast with her husband, in which they explore science fiction, fantasy, and horror via pop culture and literary lenses. It’s smart, snarky, and just a little bit saucy… just like TJ.

TJ Berry: Website / Twitter

Space Unicorn Blues: Indiebound / Amazon / B&N