Arwen Elys Dayton: Five Things I Learned Writing Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful

THE FUTURE IS CURIOUS.

This novel in six parts is a look at the unlimited possibilities of biotech advances and the ethical quandaries they will provoke. Dayton shows us a near and distant future in which we will eradicate disease, extend our lifespans, and reshape the human body. The results can be heavenly—saving the life of your dying child; and horrific—the ability to modify convicts into robot slaves. Deeply thoughtful, poignant, horrifying, and action-packed, this novel is groundbreaking in both form and substance. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful examines how far we will go to remake ourselves into the perfect human specimen, and what it means to be human at all.

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Writing a novel in six parts may be easier than writing a novel in one huge part

The six sections of this book are interconnected so that I consider it one complete story. Each piece can, to some degree, stand on its own, but not fully. The six parts are necessary complements that tell, in the end, one united narrative.

And yet…

Because there were six sections, there was freedom to tackle each separately, as I would with a series of short stories. I wrote them out of order, however the whim took me, which happened to mean that I wrote the last section first and the first section last. This unintended sequence was serendipitous because A) it’s always helpful to know your ending when you write and B) and it’s much easier to write a good beginning when you already know how the rest of your story will unfold.

But it was more than writing out of order that made this book easier. There’s the mechanical factor that editing something short involves dealing with fewer “ripple effects” than editing something longer. This meant I could work on discrete chunks and not worry about the whole story for long stretches of time. This novel fits together like an extravagant domino pattern with enclaves that wouldn’t be knocked over by a general domino-pocalypse. Those enclaves were places I could work without all the other sections of the book peering over my shoulder, as it were.

I don’t know if this lesson is useful, because unless I’m planning to slice up all future stories into many distinct parts, editing this book was a surprise vacation that may never happen again.

Sometimes science fact is so amazing that you have to remind yourself why you’re writing science fiction

Writing about human genetic modification and medical advances that will allow us to rebuild ourselves and vastly extend lifespan…well it’s frankly such an enticing topic in real life that I found myself repeatedly up against the dilemma of what to include in the story. I’ve read hundreds of articles on CRISPR, growing human or human-compatible organs in livestock, advanced prosthetics, life extension, you name it. I’ve also interviewed researchers on the forefront of the science—people who are figuring out how to edit and reprogram our immune systems, for example, in order to combat or even cure diseases like HIV. Not in the distant future, but within the next few years. I mean, holy shit!

There were a days when I wanted to go back to school and study biology. And there were other days when I was absolutely certain that I needed to include some tidbit of medical reality in the book because it was so incredible.

I had to reel in my excitement about the reality and channel it into the imagined future. The medicine, the gene editing, the drastically extended lifetimes…they simply aren’t important in fiction, unless they are the context for an intensely personal story that allows you to follow a human being (or a version of a human being) that you care about. This was harder than it sounds and there are so many great ideas lying on my metaphorical cutting room floor. But they were abandoned in service of the six main characters and what mattered to them. Essentially I had to remember whose story this was—not mine but theirs.

A character will only do so much, unless…

And speaking of characters, I got to re-learn a lesson I’m taught in every book: a character will only do what she is meant to do intrinsically. If that doesn’t happen to include what you believe that character should be doing, then there are two possibilities: 1) the thing you’re asking the character to do doesn’t make a lick of sense and you should get your shit together and change things around or 2) you don’t know that character as well as you think you do.

For me, it’s 2 a surprising number of times. Trouble writing the story I see in my head frequently boils down to not having a true feel for who a character is, what made her the way she is, the formative experiences and relationships of her life, and what, if she ever took the time to think about it, would be her personal philosophy. A legal pad and nice pen and six or ten pages of backstory usually do the trick.

Sometimes it’s okay if the tail wags the dog

When I’m coming up with new ideas, I usually see the characters before I see the world they’re in. But in this book, I understood the world first. I knew I wanted to write stories that involved the genetic and medical future of humans as a race and the experience of growing up and discovering who you are when the very essence of ‘you’ is changing.

That idea wasn’t originally connected to any specific protagonists who would carry the story on their shoulders. Yet it turns out that these snippets of context were enough, and in a short time the characters began to show up to live in the house I was building. I guess the take-away here is that there are many potentially workable ways of staring at a blank page.

Write something meaningful to you, regardless of imagined commercial implications

This one is hard. As I began putting this book together, with its unusual structure and its potential for being categorized incorrectly as an anthology, I couldn’t help wondering: Who will buy this? Could a publisher get behind it or will it be too odd? Is this what I “should” be writing? Will this be a waste of a year?

I stopped asking. Or at least I tried to. Because the thing is, there aren’t valid answers to those questions until you’ve written the book. Unless your name is so huge that your publisher is going to buy whatever you pitch them, no matter how vague the idea, isn’t it better (I asked myself) to simply write the story you want to write? Then you can show people a completed novel. And it will speak for itself.

So that’s what I did. Because the simplicity is this: every publisher in every country of the world, and every reader who has ever existed, wants the same thing: a good book. That’s all. I don’t think I can write a good book if I’m writing to chase an idea of what people might want. And besides that, who wants to spend time on something that doesn’t make you want to jump out of the bed in the morning so you can get to work?

Happy writing to all of you!

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ARWEN ELYS DAYTON is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker Series, set in Scotland and Hong Kong. She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong and its islands, the Baltic Sea. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. You can visit her and learn more about her books at arwendayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Instagram and Facebook.

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