In Essa Hansen’s space opera debut NOPHEK GLOSS, Caiden’s planet is destroyed and his family is killed. He is taken in by a mismatched crew of aliens and a mysterious ship that has a soul and a universe of its own. Together they show Caiden that the multiverse is much bigger than he ever imagined, but Caiden has vowed to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his family, or die trying. Alastair Reynolds said NOPHEK GLOSS is “a delicious and delirious head-trip into an intricate, vivid and psychedelic cosmos of nested universes, exotic tech and gorgeously strange characters … wrapped around a killer story with real heart and soul.” Library Journal gave the book a starred review and said “Hansen’s marvelous debut is a fast-paced, action-filled ride through the multiverse, introducing a complex found family of gender- and neurodiverse characters.”
My way of thinking is stranger than I realized.
When my book entered the hands of readers and early feedback trickled in, I quickly realized that they were all saying the same things: my ideas and word choices are so unusual, my world so sensory and immersive, how did I craft this?
At first, I was surprised, because these aspects of my writing feel unremarkable to me. I’m neurodivergent and have synesthesia to boot, so the fact that I can bring an unusual angle to my storytelling shouldn’t have come as a surprise! In a good way, it made me think more about how I process my senses and how I translate abstract things into cool concepts on the page.
I also realized that I have the opposite sort of challenge than readers assumed. Rather than working hard to seek out and craft these surreal ideas and evocative words, I have too many of both and must actively work to clarify my meaning. The challenge feels steep—at worst, my readers will be overwhelmed and confused—but at best, my neurotype and sensory reality are a strength that could bring fresh experiences to the genre.
Re-articulating my own ideas is challenging.
While feedback to my writing taught me how my thinking is unique, trying to navigate interviews has taught me why I find it so difficult to articulate my own ideas to others.
This may be a shared truth that I’m slow to catch on to, but I find that my brain works unusually well with abstract concepts. I can store a huge amount of research or worldbuilding in abstraction, then discard the concrete language of it. I can then deploy these ideas automatically as I write. But! When I’m asked questions about things like my world, themes, or process, I’m prone to freeze up because I must re-congeal my answers from the abstract and re-find the language to express them. How frustrating to know the science of a thing but not recall the correct terms to talk about it!
As with anything we learn about ourselves, this has been an opportunity to find new ways to make my challenges easier, and to capitalize on strengths I might not have recognized.
Sometimes you find the science after the fact.
While I adore quantum mechanics and astrophysics, I didn’t try to research accurate science when I created my bubble multiverse. I drew from years of existing studies on all kinds of topics, and focused on evoking a sense of wonder and imagination in my fiction rather than accurate science.
Toward the end of edits on this book, I binged a bunch of World Science Festival lectures and discovered ideas that sounded very similar to my own multiverse structure. Astrophysicist Andrei Linde’s inflationary multiverse theory posits—instead of a single spherically symmetric balloon universe—a multiverse that is “a collection of many different exponentially large balloons with different laws of physics operating in each.”
A separate talk by physicist Raphael Bousso explained how more information is stored on surface area than in volume, making me rethink the nature of the “rind” membranes that separate universes in my world. Might the rind itself contain all the information to project the interior contents in holographic spacetime? My mind also looped around the 11-dimension arena posited by string theorist Michio Kaku, a space inhabited by many bubble universes where the content is on the skin of the expanding bubble rather than inside it. These bubbles can split, pop, or combine.
As I jumped through theories that were new to me, I kept finding more and more bits that made my multiverse sound more plausible than I ever thought it could be.
There is no end to the work.
I’ve always felt that my imagination and the stories and messages I wish to explore are boundless and would easily consume years of steady work. But pursuing this passion at a leisurely pace is much different than viewing boundless work while on a tight deadline.
As a newer author, I have so much to keep improving at. As a newer author with a series, I realized that Book One is not the end, and I can and should be working on the sequels when I have time—leveling-up my craft all the while. This isn’t bad in itself, but add in deadlines and you have a cocktail that any workaholic type will find challenging. I can let myself keep analyzing and sculpting the novel until “pencils down,” and still doubt if I’ve learned enough or had time to do my best. Rather than perfectionism, it’s an intersection between imposter syndrome and recognition of how (wonderfully) far there is still to grow, how much potential the story still has.
I find writing and worldbuilding genuinely energizing, and will happily spend hours at. But in finalizing this novel I’ve learned for myself where that seemingly boundless energy can and will burn out!
We can be more mindful when comparing books.
The stage of a “debut” author sounds like a level playing field, an entry point, but as I make new friends and share journeys, I’ve learned how multifarious this stage truly is.
Everything varies, from the number of manuscripts the author has produced leading up to their deal, the scope of their revisions and length of their deadlines, to the support or burdens they field at home. The knowledge that we cannot compare ourselves to other authors may not diminish doubt or imposter syndrome, but it will make me personally far more mindful of how I assess novels from here on.
This is not a level playing field, but we can make it a compassionate one—toward ourselves as much as others.
Essa Hansen is an author, swordswoman, and falconer. She is a sound designer for science fiction and fantasy films at Skywalker Sound, with credits in movies such as Dr. Strange and Avengers: Endgame.