Kali Wallace: Five Things I Learned Writing Salvation Day

A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller.

They thought the ship would be their salvation.

Zahra knew every detail of the plan. House of Wisdom, a massive exploration vessel, had been abandoned by the government of Earth a decade earlier, when a deadly virus broke out and killed everyone on board in a matter of hours. But now it could belong to her people if they were bold enough to take it. All they needed to do was kidnap Jaswinder Bhattacharya—the sole survivor of the tragedy, and the last person whose genetic signature would allow entry to the spaceship.

But what Zahra and her crew could not know was what waited for them on the ship—a terrifying secret buried by the government. A threat to all of humanity that lay sleeping alongside the orbiting dead.

And then they woke it up.

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Trial and error is part of writing

I suppose this is a lesson I’ve learned with every book, but I feel like I learned it extra double well this time around. Maybe it will stick this time! (Probably not.) But even if it once again slips from my mind like morning mist chased away by the first rays of the dawn, it is important enough to keep learning again and again.

This is the lesson: I have to spend a long time thinking about a novel before I can write a novel.

It is a necessary part of my writing process. Sometimes that thinking involves writing thousands of words toward a dead end, words I inevitably delete, on a version of the story that looks nothing like the final book.

I wrote tens of thousands of words on a wrong version of this book before I admitted it was wrong and started over–and that’s not all that unusual for me. I do that a lot. It feels terribly inefficient, but I’ve learned time and again that this is part of what I have to do. No matter what I think I know ahead of time, no matter how certain I am this time will be different, I don’t truly know what I want to write until I’m writing it. I don’t know what my story is until I’m telling it to myself.

Fast pacing and strong atmosphere are not in opposition

Before I wrote Salvation Day, nobody had ever accused me of writing fast-paced stories. The pacing of my previous novels tend toward measured and leisurely. Mostly by choice, to be clear, because I write stories that I would want to read, and when I read I want to sink into a book thoroughly, to luxuriate in the depth of its world and characters, to revel in the strangeness of taking a wander through an unfamiliar world–whether that world is fantastical kingdom ruled by magic, a sentient spaceship a million years in the future, or a misty English village beset by murders. I love to create atmosphere when I write; I want readers to feel the story wrap around and draw them in with every one of their senses.

But I kept running into a tiny little problem while writing Salvation Day: there is no time. There is no time for luxuriating in the setting, for wallowing in the senses, for exploring the world. There is no time for anything. I very cleverly handed myself a plot that takes place in an extremely limited environment (a single spaceship) and an extremely limited time frame (a single day), and on top of that I decided to put my characters in a new kind of mortal peril on every page.

It took me a while to figure out that didn’t mean I had to abandon my love of richly atmospheric stories. I just had be more smarter about it, which is a skill that I’m glad to have finally acquired, even though it did take four novels and some dozen-plus stories. But, in all fairness, I did also cheat a little bit, because a story set on an abandoned literal spaceship full of literal corpses rather provides its own moody, intense atmosphere. I just had to describe the corpses.

Which I did. With great frequency, in great detail.

Gravity: still my favorite fundamental force

I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who hates writing action scenes because I’m not very good at them. Then (ref. clever decisions, cited above) I decided to write a book that is basically nothing but action scenes. Oh, and those actions scenes all take place in the microgravity of a very distant orbit around Earth. Mostly involving people who have never been in space before.

Now, I have a fairly strong science background. I have a PhD in geophysics. I know enough to know where and how I need to research. But, man, did I run into some unexpected problems while writing action scene after action scene in microgravity. Time after time I caught myself having characters stand up, or set something down, or even bleed or cry the way people normally bleed or cry, and none of that works the same without gravity. It was an epic and ever-evolving learning curve for me to remember, on every single page, that the rules of movement were different.

(But maybe I didn’t learn my lesson after all, because I’m currently working on a novel that takes place on a small, irregular asteroid, where gravity gets even more complicated! I love you, gravity.)

That old man in that one scene in The Avengers was right

You know that scene in Marvel’s The Avengers when Loki shows up in Stuttgart and tells everybody to kneel and one of man stands up and, deeply unimpressed, dismissing the bratty trickster by saying, “There are always men like you”?

You know that scene? That scene is correct. There are always men like that.

Men who want people to kneel before them. Men who rant and rage and splutter and demand obedience and loyalty and admiration. Men who get those things, and declare it’s not enough, and demand more. Men who claim to have the answer to all of humanity’s problems, an answer nobody else could provide, an answer they alone are capable of delivering. There are always men like that.

I did a lot of research into cults as I was writing this book, and the one thing I learned that surprised me–although perhaps, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have–is how very ordinary the infamous, terrifying cult leaders of history seem once you learn about them in any depth. They are pretty much all cruel, petty, narcissists with delusions of grandeur who want people to cower before them. They rant and rage and splutter. They might gather a handful of followers, or hundreds, or they might be elected president, but that doesn’t make them extraordinary. There is nothing more ordinary, more mundane, more common, than a cruel, petty man who rants and rages and splutters and wants to rule the world.

Trust your gut when it comes to both your stories and your career

I was about halfway through the first draft of Salvation Day when I had to make a pretty huge decision about it. The publisher I was with at the time wasn’t interested in it; they wanted another book from me, one I had pitched but hadn’t started writing beyond a few sample pages. I had to make the choice between the sure thing of staying with the publisher who’d handled my first three novels, or turning down their offer and taking the chance that somebody else would want my grim little sci fi nightmare about a spaceship full o’ corpses.

It was the sort of decision I had always assumed must be hard for authors to make. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. I knew what I wanted to do as soon as the choice was before me. I knew I had a good thing going with this book. I knew I would regret setting it aside to work on something else, something I wasn’t fully invested in yet. I made myself pause and breathe and look at the more practical consideration–and talk to my agent–about the risks and challenges of changing publishers, changing genres and age groups, turning down certain money now for uncertain money in the future. But in the end in came down to the fact that I felt good about this book and what it could become. My gut instinct was that I wanted to write it, because it was worth the risk.

Writing stories is the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it is basically a never-ending series of jumps into the unknown. I don’t know if I’ll be in the same position or have the reasons to make the same choice again in the future, but I’m glad I learned that I could take that jump when I needed to.

* * *

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Salvation Day is her first novel for adults. She is also the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees, the middle grade fantasy City of Islands, and short stories that have appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

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