Science fiction takes readers to infinity and beyond. The best writers make creating new worlds, species, and cultures look effortless, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes into crafting a sci-fi novel. Author Becky Chambers and Drew Williams know this all too well. Here, Chambers (Record of a Spaceborn Few) and Williams (The Stars Now Unclaimed) open up about their writing habits, crafting fight scenes, and imagining humanity’s future.
Drew Williams: I get asked quite often why I write science fiction. Nobody ever seems satisfied with the answer “because I think it’s cool”, so I think it’d be fun to turn that on its head. If you weren’t working in sci-fi, what other genres would you be working in?
Becky Chambers: What I would genuinely like to do one day is some nonfiction science writing. That’s what I read most in my free time. I’d love to hang out in a lab with a scientist for a while, or maybe with a bunch of different research teams, and then translate the amazingness of their work into a book. I have no idea how to make that happen, or what the topic would be, but real science is more beautiful than anything I could make up.
I also want to say high fantasy, but I know that’s a trap. I love high fantasy. Love it, love it, love it. Every so often, I do get that itch and it’s a powerful itch, let me tell you. But then I take a breath, and reflect, and I ask myself, “Do you actually have a high fantasy story that’s yours and yours alone? Or are you just madly in love with your current D&D campaign?” And that’s why I haven’t written anything along those lines yet. I don’t have anything new or creative to contribute to the genre; I just want to write 150,000 words of backstory for my mysterious elven scout or my disgraced noble knight.
DW: I mean, I would totally read 150,000 words about knights.
BC: God, I love knights more than just about anything. See, there’s that itch again.
You have a robot preacher in your book, which I thought freaking ruled. Religion in space is a thing I barely touch on in my existing stuff, but I always find it super interesting in other people’s work. What inspired you to bake some spiritual elements into your story?
DW: Part of that is just biographical: I grew up (and still live) in Alabama, which I believe has the highest population, per capita, of evangelical Christians of any state in the nation. Even though I was raised in a not-particularly-religious household, I was constantly exposed to people for whom faith (and not just Christianity, though that was definitely the majority) was central to their lives. It shaped how they interacted with their families, their friends, with strangers—it was the absolute core of their culture, in ways both positive and negative. So growing up with an outsider’s view into that sort of society—I was always made to feel welcome, but I personally felt no pull to it—definitely makes me consider faith very carefully when I’m creating a new society in fiction.
Plus, “robot preacher” is just a fun concept.
BC: I believe it is safe to say that both you and I have an affinity for artificial intelligences. How do you go about getting yourself into the headspace of a machine?
DW: One of the first things I ever ask myself when worldbuilding for any science fiction project is “What’s the state of AI in this universe?” I’m not saying I’m a believer in singularity theory, but I think the development of artificial intelligence is one of those things that has the potential to have a major impact on human existence. When I’m writing AI, I start by asking myself: Why were these machines created? How do they view humans? How did their genesis impact the cultures that created them? Stars was especially fun to approach that way because I had multiple “species” of AI, who were created with very different goals in mind and had very different views of the organic beings they shared the universe with.
In terms of actually putting myself in the headspace of the machine, though, I find it easiest to forget that they’re AI at all. I ask myself what they have in common with the reader—what do they want, how do they feel, what gives them pleasure—so that I can try and forge that empathetic link between the audience and the character, and only after I feel like I’ve achieved that do I filter my initial response by asking if the AI makes sense for something as fundamentally alien to us as a sentient machine?
What do you find harder (or more fun!) to create for the reader: empathy or excitement?
BC: On the fun side, I’m all about that empathy. I don’t think there’s anything I like to write better than coaxing the reader to step into a pair of alien shoes. Excitement is harder for me, and I’ll freely admit that my books use that ingredient in subtler doses. I’m working on a project right now that has me writing fight scenes for the first time (in a professional context), and those bits have been really challenging.
DW: Working on fight scenes, and seeing how other writers approach them is always an interesting part of any project, to me. Good fight writers can make it seem effortless in a way that I definitely struggle with.
BC: How do you go about writing fight scenes? What’s your process for mapping that all out?
DW: If I’m lucky, I’ll go into a fight scene knowing how it starts: what the stakes are, what the characters’ emotional investment in the fight is, and knowing how it ends. The ending is honestly what usually defines a fight for me, because how a character overcomes (or fails to overcome) whatever challenge they’ve come up against is usually a pretty defining moment. That’s if I’m lucky, though. More often than not, I’ll wind up having trapped my characters in a corner, and then I’ll have to pace and drink innumerable cups of coffee and talk out loud to myself (and to my dog) until I figure out how to get them out of it!
In terms of the actually nitty-gritty of writing a fight scene itself, though—in terms both of choreography, and in trying to get across a character’s headspace, how frightened or angry or tense or thrilled they are with the violence they’re caught up in—there’s a lot of consideration of Chekhov’s gun, and a lot of consideration of how cleanly I can present that fight to the reader. The choreography may make sense in my head, but if I can’t get it across in just a few spare sentences, then… I’m in trouble.
The choreography itself usually plays out a lot like dialog—once I know the character, I know how they’ll fight in the same way I know how they’ll speak, and it’s just a matter of putting them in a situation and letting those reactions play out. The interesting bits, to me—in dialog and in combat—tend to be scenes where either the character isn’t going to respond like the reader would expect them to or they’re up against some sort of challenge we haven’t seen them surmount before. Either way I get to expose some new facet of their personality or their history to the reader, and that’s where things get fun!
BC: I thought it would be easy, coming off of an entire life of gaming, but seeing a rad zero-g dogfight in your head and making it pop on paper are completely different beasts. It has made me appreciate good fight writers on a whole new level.
DW: What about with aliens? Where do you start?
BC: I almost always start with biology. I’m constantly obsessed with one type of adaptation or another, and I’m always devouring science books and nature shows. So let’s say my flavor of the month is chromatophores—the cells that let cuttlefish and octopuses change the color of their skin. I take that trait, and I say, let’s assume that a sapient, civilization-level species has this as well. How has that shaped their society? If they communicate through color, how does that affect their art? Their clothing? Their architecture? Their user interfaces? What kinds of miscommunications do they have with species that don’t use color that way? Do they speak? If not, do they still have music? And from there, boom, you have an alien culture.
DW: So, my cover designer totally borrowed design cues from your cover designer for The Stars Now Unclaimed.
BC: Hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
DW: If you had to pick a design for Wayfarers from a different era of science fiction novel, which would you choose: 50s-60s lurid pulp, 70s minimalist psychedelia, or 80s-90s craziness that looks like it should be airbrushed onto the side of a van?
BC: I’m torn with this question. I want to say the luridest, pulpiest cover you can muster, because that style of art is pure joy. But I don’t think it would actually fit with Wayfarers very well. Seventies minimalism is a much better match thematically. Except now I’m imagining a pulpy cover of Sissix dipping Rosemary against a ridiculous spaceport backdrop, and it’s all I want in life. I want a giant canvas painting of that.
DW: Serious writerly question time: At what point during the writing process do you most enjoy the work: when you’ve first started and there’s a whole universe of possibilities open to the story? When you’re in the middle, you’ve got the characters firmly in your head, and pieces are starting to fall into place? When you’re closing in on the end, and you can look back and say “everything led up to this”? Or… in editing? (If you answer “in editing,” that’s going to beg a very long conversation that’s basically just me asking “hoooooooow” over and over again.)
BC: I swear to you I am being honest here: editing.
BC: Dead serious. Worldbuilding is an extremely close second, but I like worldbuilding so much I tend to get lost in the weeds with it. I would worldbuild unendingly if I didn’t have deadlines. The middle is misery, and I hate it. With editing… well, I should specify: My favorite part of the process is the editing and rewrites I do before I submit a manuscript to my publisher. The trick here is that I don’t write sequentially. I write a mess of scenes and conversations and disparate bits, and for the grand majority of the process, I have no idea what I’m doing with any of it. I don’t really outline. I assemble a critical mass of material, I look at all of it, I drink a lot of tea, and I say, aha, I see how this fits together now. From there, I start rearranging stuff and smoothing out edges and rewriting so that it flows into one thing. That’s the point at which I finally understand the story and feel like I’ve got it under control. It’s seriously a delight. It’s the only part of the process I don’t have to kick my own ass all the way through. I’ll edit from breakfast until after dark, happily.
DW: I always find it fascinating to compare the processes of different authors, because I’m the exact opposite. I write sequentially, so the middle bit, where I know roughly what I’m doing but there’s still an endless stretch of possibilities for where it could go, is definitely my favorite. By the time I get to the edits, I’m usually bummed out that I couldn’t fit all those possibilities into the novel. Even though I know that from a practical standpoint, fitting in absolutely everything would have made the end result terribly overstuffed and kind of a slog to anyone but me, I still feel like I failed somehow.
BC: Where on the spectrum of pen fussiness do you fall? Let’s call it a scale of one to ten, with one being “I don’t care—I will write with a golf pencil that someone else has chewed on” and ten being “I have extremely strong opinions about which brand of Japanese fountain pen is best suited for writing dialogue.”
DW: Definitely a flat one on that scale. I have to confess, I’m a pen-chewer myself—though now that I’m doing signings and whatnot and I’m trying to sort of deliver a professional experience for whomever was nice enough to ask me to sign their book. Part of that is also that I don’t compose longhand. Speed is important to me when I’m working on a rough draft because I’m trying to catch the story as it unspools itself in my head, and I type far faster than I write. I still usually don’t type fast enough that I feel like I’m not missing things as they spill from that loom in my head: “What was that perfect line of dialog I came up with two paragraphs ago for how this conversation was going to end? I had a glimmer of a snappy retort for this sort of back-and-forth, but I was focused on setting up the back-and-forth, and now that glimmer’s gone… damn you, slow fingers!”
BC: I’m about a four on that scale; I buy uni-ball Visions by the case. I don’t draft longhand either. Most of my day is spent copy-pasting away in Scrivener. But I do all my worldbuilding, blocking scenes, and brainstorming by hand, and I also find it useful to sit and scribble through any problems I’m having or questions the story needs to answer. I don’t know why my brain likes keyboards better for some tasks and pens better for others, but there it is.
What’s something you understand better about writing after finishing your first book? What’s something you want to keep improving at?
DW: Pacing is something I’m always struggling a little bit with, partially because that’s an outgrowth of my writing process. It sometimes takes me a while to work my way into the world, and so I wind up with early chapters that focus a little too heavily on worldbuilding at the expense of moving the actual narrative forward.
In general, I think the thing I actively try to improve the most is… I don’t know what to call it, exactly, maybe “felicity of style?” I work on a rough draft sequentially, and I’m usually focused on trying to lay out the story and the characters, which means the actual structure and phrasing of the sentences themselves is… not an afterthought, exactly, but it’s not exactly at the forefront of my mind, either. Most of what I do in my first editing pass is adjusting the flow of the words and trying to make sure what made sense in my head actually reads clearly to an audience, and hopefully is at least occasionally pretty as well. I still feel like, on the rare occasions it happens at all, I stumble into that pretty part by accident far more often than I actually manage it on purpose. I’d definitely like to be able to harness that a bit more, to do it on command, so to speak, rather than going back over a manuscript and finding it.
Also, I feel like that really rambling, chaotic response is a perfect illustration of why I need to work on felicity of style in terms of how I actually write!
BC: Bonus linguistic question: Do you have a favorite word? Mine is “myriad.”
DW: Noooooo, don’t make me pick just one! “Liminal,” “crepuscular,” and “incandescent,” are all definitely up there (and all are related to qualities of light to a greater or lesser extent, which maybe says something about me that I probably shouldn’t poke at.) In conversation, I feel like I use (and probably overuse) “inherently” a lot, and I also curse like a sailor, so there are a couple of terms I really, really like that I still probably shouldn’t drop into what’s otherwise been an all-ages interview.
In terms of writing, I definitely have a fondness for incredibly specific words that I will actively hunt for any excuse to drop into a sentence: “apotropaic”, “perdition,” and “eschatological” are some of my favorites. Also, getting to use “vagary” or “vagaries” makes me stupidly happy, for no apparent reason. And also… wait, where are you going, come back! I have more! I always have more!
Becky Chambers is the author of the science fiction novels The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, among others. She also writes essays and short stories, which can be found here and there around the internet. In addition to writing, Becky has a background in performing arts, and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. She spends her free time playing video and tabletop games, keeping bees, and stomping around the woods. Having lived in Scotland and Iceland, she is currently back in her home state of California.
Drew Williams has been a bookseller in Birmingham, Alabama since he was sixteen years old, when he got the job because he came in looking for work on a day when someone else had just quit. Outside of arguing with his coworkers about whether Moby Dick is brilliant (nope) or terrible (that one), his favorite part of the job is discovering new authors and sharing them with his customers. Drew is the author of The Universe After series, including The Stars Now Unclaimed.