Ep 127 How to write better dialogue, what writers really earn, and meet author Jay Kristoff.

podcast-artworkIn Episode 127 of So you want to be a writer: Discover why John Green might not write another book and get some tips on how to write better dialogue. Do you know what writers really earn? Also: how do you know when your writing is “good enough”? Meet author Jay Kristoff. Plus: a serialised publishing website, and much more!

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Review of the Week
From KirstyLee87 from Australia:

I’m so glad to have come across this podcast series. For a long time I have been working on my debut novel and feeling like it’s never going to get anywhere. Consequently, after I finished the first draft I put it away for far too long and lost all motivation to pick it back up. That was until I started listening to So You Want To Be A Writer. I love the casual approach in structure; just two writer friends chatting about what they’ve been up to. The author interviews have set me on to a range of new authors that I now follow on social media and I’m often found looking up the articles and links referenced in each episode. The podcasts are always full of practical advice, but most of all hearing all the success stories and having weekly access to the topic of writing always motivates me to sit down and write.

Thanks KirstyLee87!

Show Notes
John Green talks about failure

4 Ways To Write Better Dialogue

Show Me The Money 2015/16 Infographic – the results are in!

Industry insider: how to tell when your writing is ‘good enough’

Writer in Residence

Jay Kristoff
jay-kristoff-authorJay Kristoff is a New York Times and international bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy.
Jay’s new fantasy series, THE NEVERNIGHT CHRONICLE, commences with book 1, NEVERNIGHT, from St Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books and Harper Voyager in 2016.

Follow Jay on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

How to Interview a Writer (and How to Be Interviewed)

Competition

WIN a ‘Figgy’ book pack (FIVE to be won)

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Jay Kristoff modestly describes himself as a literary giant. Given that he is 6’7″ and a literary type, it fits. The New York Times and internationally bestselling author of sci-fi and fantasy is writing a wave that has taken him from his first published novel, StormDancer, the first novel in The Lotus War trilogy in 2012 through the publication of the smash hit, Illuminae, coauthored with Amie Kaufman, to the recent release of the first book in his new fantasy series Nevernight Chronicles.  

So welcome, Jay, and thank you so much for fitting us into what must be a very busy schedule.

Jay

You’re welcome. Thanks so much for having me.

Allison

Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Now I read on your website, where I do all of my best research, that you escaped Perth and you found yourself working in advertising. So, how did your first novel actually come to be published and where did it fit in with your day job?

Jay

Advertising is a really strange industry. It’s one where a young person can have a lot of fun and make a lot of money, but the hours are very demanding. And strangely enough if you look around in advertising you don’t see very many people over 40, it’s not the kind of industry that you can work in until you retire. So most people who are working in advertising they hit mid-30s and they start looking for an escape hatch.

I had always written for fun and even though the odds were long and the probability of succeeding in a writing career is remote, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

So, I was writing on my lunch break. I had an idea, a scene in my head. I wrote that scene down and that started to become a novel. And it wasn’t like I went into it with any real design. It was something that I was trying in the off chance that it might come to fruition. But, I didn’t even know if I was going to finish that first book, to tell you the truth. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it. I didn’t even tell my wife I was writing it until it was three-quarters done.

But, I really enjoyed the process. And, in the process of writing that first novel, which was a terrible book by the way, most people’s first books are terrible…

Allison

Yes.

Jay

… and will never see the light of day, but I got used to the ritual of sitting down and writing every day. I really liked having a place I could go to, a headspace that I could escape into.

So, I decided with my next book to try and do it properly, to research how one gets a literary agent and understand the flow of the market and how trends are working and what was likely to get up and what was selling, what wasn’t. An approach with a little more of a professional attitude to it, I guess.

That was the novel that eventually became StormDancer.

Allison

Let’s talk about the one in a drawer that we will never see, was it also fantasy? Have you always written in this sci-fi fantasy kind of area? Or did you, when you decided to be professional about this, think, “That’s an area that I could actually maybe sell into.”?

Jay

I mean fantasy is something that I’ve always loved, but, no, that first novel was a vampire novel. It was a contemporary kind of horror novel about vampires, which I decided to write right in the middle of the Twilight hysteria, which wasn’t the best use of my time, given that everyone else during the Twilight hysteria was writing a vampire novel. But, I kind of grew up with Salem’s Lot and Fright Night and The Lost Boys. Vampires, to me, were scary, they were villains and I thought Twilight was doing it wrong, damn it. I was going to write the books that set everything straight, in my arrogance.

But, yeah, fantasy, I’ve always read fantasy, ever since I was a kid. The Hobbit was probably the first book that I ever remember falling in love with. You know, that was the book that opened my eyes to the idea that there were books out there for kids like me. And since then I’ve become an avid fantasy reader.

So, when I sat down to do it properly, quote/unquote, fantasy seemed like the logical thing to do. However, it was a really hard sell. It’s been a hard sell since, you know, the mid-80s when Stephen King was king, pardon the pun.

So, yeah, fantasy it’s an easier sell in today’s market.

Allison

Just going back to something you said earlier, you said you have always written for fun and then you decided that you were going to get sort of a bit more serious about it. What did you do differently? Was it just a process of, “I’m going to do this… I’m going to actually finish a novel,” or was it, “I’m going to sit down every day and do this.”? What did you do to sort of make that break between, “I do this for a bit of fun,” and, “I’m actually looking at this seriously.”?

Jay

Well, first… like I said, I was doing a bit of research in the publishing industry, and understanding what… the probability is always long, like I said. The odds in this game are remote, but you can do things to shorten your odds. So, writing to current market trends, that’s difficult, because you know by the time the book you’re writing now gets published it’s going to be two or three years’ time so the trend that you’re writing to might be dead by then.

Allison

Like those vampires.

Jay

Yeah, exactly. But, in terms of understanding broader trends, you know, so fantasy is a safe sell, for example, whereas writing a horror novel, for example, isn’t.

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

So, understanding those broad kind of trends in the market, understanding the mechanisms that are in place to have books published. If you want to get published in America you probably need a literary agent, so you need to understand how literary agents work, how one acquires the services of a literary agent. So, getting that ground in the actual publishing industry and the mechanics thereof was kind of the first step.

And then, yeah, it was a matter of sitting down every single day, no matter what, and making the time, no matter how busy I was. No matter what else was going on in my life and also no matter how silly it seemed, because, you know, when you’re writing a book, particularly that first book, you’ll often find yourself sitting there alone in your house. It’s one o’clock in the morning and you’ve got to get up at six to go to work the next day.

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

And you’re sitting writing a book about, you know, a girl who speaks telepathically to griffins, or whatever. And, there will be moments where it strikes you as so absurd that it’s almost impossible to go on. You’ll look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I crazy for doing this?” Because it is kind of nuts. The odds are very long, but it’s a matter of getting past that and going back to the keyboard and writing.

So, yeah, I would spend an hour a day at my job. I would book out a meeting room on my lunch break and take my keyboard in there or my laptop in there and just write for an hour. When I got home from work I would do stuff, like spend time with my wife and stay married, that kind of thing.

Allison

Staying married is good.

Jay

Yeah, it is a good plan, life plan.

But, after she went to bed I would spend another hour kind of working on this impossible little thing that I was building. And, yeah, it was just a matter of getting to that ritual and routine and deciding that I actually wanted to try this properly.

Allison

And when you sold your first novel, StormDancer, did you then give up your day job entirely and concentrate on writing novels, or did you just sit down write the next one?

Jay

Yeah, no I didn’t quit my day job until we sold Illuminae. I mean it was a wonderful feeling, selling that first book, and the high of it kind of pushed me through. And, so I was able to work a day job and write. But, for a while there I was essentially working two day jobs, you know, I would get home at night and write three, four, five hours a night and stay up until 2:00 AM. I did that for kind of five years, got by on five or six hours sleep every night.

You would be very lucky to receive an advance large enough to quit your day job on your first novel. So, unless you want to take a real financial gamble, which we weren’t prepared to do, it was a matter of just finding those extra hours.

My friends kind of forgot what I looked like and I gave up playing video games and going out to movies and whatever, and just kind of knuckled down and did this as hard as I possibly could.

Allison

And here you are. And you are now an experienced writer of series fiction. So, let’s talk about that. Did you like that segue there?

So, let’s talk about planning a series, because your new novel is the first in a series, and of course your Lotus Wars is a trilogy, you have a second book in the Illuminae Files coming out next month, Gemina. Do you have a process for planning a series? Like, are you sitting down with a spreadsheet and plotting out the entire narrative arc before you begin

Jay

No, I’m very much a fly by the seat of my pants kind of writer. I’ve heard it called join the dot, in which I really like the turn of phrase. I understand where the major narrative beats are going to lie in the story, I understand what the big twist is going to be usually before I sit down and start writing, but I have no idea how those dots are going to be connected. And the series planning is very similar, like in the first novel I will lay down the seeds of the meta plot and I will have a basic understanding of how that meta plot is got to resolve in book two and three.

Usually when you’re selling in a series you’ll be required to submit a synopsis of at least book two and three to demonstrate that you have some understanding of where the series is going to go. Those requirements become a little more lax when you’ve published your first series because your publishers have an understanding that you can actually finish what you start, which is always nice.

Allison

Yeah, always.

Jay

So, yeah. I’ll have a broad understanding of what that meta plot is going to be, but, no, I tend to let the book surprise me as I write it.

Allison

And do you know how many books you’re writing from the start?

Jay

Generally, yeah. You’re generally selling with a plan. So we sold in the Nevernight Chronicle as a trilogy, we sold in Illuminae as a trilogy

Allison

Right

Jay

But, that will usually be negotiated before your publisher agrees to buy it.

Allison

OK, so given that you’re writing sci-fi and fantasy, both things which require some intensive world-building, like you need to… you’ve got to sort of establish those rules and regulations and people need to know where they are right from the start and all of those sorts of things. Do you know that stuff before you begin? Do you create the world in your head before you start? Or do you just constantly update the handbook as you go?

Jay

I’ll have reasonably detailed brushstrokes in place before I start writing, but one of the things I really enjoy about writing novels is having the text or the characters of the world surprise you. I try not to go in with a really rigid idea of how things are going to work, either in terms of the story or in terms of the world-building. It can… a really good example for that was Nevernight when I was finishing Nevernight last year. I had a concrete idea how the third act was going to work. I knew definitely everything that was going to happen before it began. But, I found that in the middle of act two I couldn’t… I hit a wall where I couldn’t make the story go where I wanted it to go. I knew the destination, but I couldn’t push the story in that direction. And, I was hating the book and hating myself and thought I had made a terrible mistake selling this thing, because I just couldn’t make it work.

And, I threw out that ending, my idea of where I thought the book should go. And as soon as I did that I finished the entire novel in two weeks.

Allison

Wow.

Jay

It was just like flicking a switch. So, as soon as I did away with the preconceived notion of how this thing should end and let the story have its head, it took me to a really cool place that I didn’t anticipate.

So, yeah, I love those moments. I like it when the book surprises you, or when the characters and the narrative become so real they take on a life of their own in your head. So, yeah, I try to avoid being too rigid. But, that said, in terms of world-building it’s very important to establish your rules before you begin, because otherwise you end up being inconsistent and breaking your own paradigms. So, yeah, I’ll have reasonably detailed ideas of the basic world structures before I start, and hopefully some ideas will fall out of that as I’m writing. But, I am constantly updating as I go, that’s just the way that I write. I am a fly by the seat of your pants kind of author.

Allison

Do you do a lot of editing then, because I guess you know a lot of the authors I talk to, and myself included, will write the first draft like that and be just like belting through it to get the end to find out what’s going to happen, but then potentially the edit, the second draft, is quite an intensive edit in the sense of layering details in, putting in sort of some of those world-building aspects and things as you go. Like, are you doing that? Are you going back and layering all of those details in? Or are you putting them in, in as much detail as you can as you go?

Jay

Yeah, I kind of do it as I go, which a lot of people tell you, “You shouldn’t do that. You should just write the first draft and get it done.” But, what I’ll do, now that I’m a full time author in particular, I usually write about 3,000 or 4,000 words a day and I’ll start each new day’s writing session by going back and editing what I had done the day before. So, I’m constantly updating.

So, my first drafts tend to be pretty polished, I’ll have read them 30 or 40 times by the time that first draft is finished. So, the second edit isn’t as intensive. The first draft, as a result, usually takes a lot longer to get it done.

Allison

OK, yep.

Jay

But, yeah, I’m kind of constantly editing as I go, which again some people will tell you is a bad idea. The most important thing, particularly for newer writers is probably to get the end of that first draft, to get the damn thing finished.

Allison

But, I guess it happens you basically have to work the way you work, right?

Jay

Yeah, I mean there are no golden rules when it comes to making art, whether it’s writing or music or directing film, whatever. Anyone who tells you there’s an absolute rule is either a liar or selling you something, probably a book on how to write.

So, yeah, whatever works, whatever gets the words down on the page, whatever gets you to finish a book is the right technique for you. And that’s a matter of trial and error. It’s a matter of experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

But, yeah, there are no…

Allison

So, there’s no rules, basically?

Jay

No golden rules. Except maybe follow the submission guidelines, that’s a pretty good one. If you want to land yourself a literary agent follow the submission guidelines, people.

Allison

So you said you write 3,000 to 4,000 words a day. Is that every single day? Or is that only when you’re working on something in particular? Or do you write every day?  

Jay

I do, except for Sundays. I take Sundays off. And Saturday will normally be a lighter writing day. I usually devote the lion’s share of Saturday to administration, that horrible, boring stuff. But, at least I can do it in front of the TV or whatever.

But, yeah, every day. It’s my job now. It’s how I pay my mortgage, it’s how I keep the lights turned on, so I have to approach it with the same kind of discipline that you would if you are working in an office 9:00-5:00. You get up and you don’t feel like going to work one day, I mean I guess you can chuck a sickie, but most days you have to get up and do it anyway, it doesn’t matter how you feel.

Allison

Right.

Jay

So, yeah, I try and approach it with that same level of discipline, “This is my job, this is what I do.”

So, yeah, 3,000 to 4,000 words a day is the minimum. Some days I’ll have a better day, but yeah, I don’t go to bed until I’ve got 3,000 in the can, as a general rule. So sometimes that means I’m up, like last night, until three o’clock in the morning. But…

Allison

Wow.

Jay

… I’m working on three series at the moment, so…

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

Unless I get the words on the page it’s not going to happen, and I’m kind of conscious of that and I’m not letting anyone down, so…

Allison

And how much time do you need to set aside, because as you say you’ve got three series on the go, one of them is extremely successful. Are you having to put aside a lot of your time or more of your time for sort of promotional/marketing kind of stuff as well?

Jay

You tend to do that in the lead up to launch.

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

You have to set aside blocks of time, yeah. I mean there’s the day-to-day promo stuff, which is basically social media and that can chew up a lot of time, if you let it, particularly places like Twitter. I try and reply to everyone who replies to me, which is getting harder and harder as you accrue more followers. So, I’m finding that’s getting more difficult nowadays. But, you know, so there’s the basic day-to-day promo just being out there and being visible and having a website and having a social media presence, which is work and it does take up time.

But, yeah, there’s also promotional cycles. So, we’re in the lead up to the launch of Gemina now, that comes out at the end of October. So, we’re doing a bunch of interviews and a bunch of written Q&As and blog posts and all of that, which again it all chews up writing time.

Allison

My ulterior motive as I just confessed to you before we began this interview, for organizing this interview was simply to talk about Illuminae, because I read it recently. I bought it for my son and then I thought, “Well, being a reasonable parent I should probably have a quick look at it.” And I opened — well, it was one of those situations because I’m not generally a sci-fi reader, but I opened it and I thought, “I’ll just have a quick look at the first chapter or so,” and two days later, well, not even that long, but I had to fit it in around other things, you know, I sort of emerged from the wormhole that it is. It’s fantastic, it’s just —

Jay

Thank you.

Allison

— done in the form of a dossier which is why I thought maybe I wouldn’t like it that much. But, I just loved it.

Jay

Oh, thank you.

Allison

The format is so interesting and the story is — yeah, look, I just think it’s a massive, massively successful thing that you’ve written there. And I just wanted to talk to you about how it was done, because it is a co-authoring project. It’s very graphic, given the dossier format of it, and it’s a lot of sort of graphic elements to it. Did you submit it like that? Like, how did it come to be and how did you convince someone to publish it in that format?

Jay

It came to be — Amie had a dream. Amie and I were buddies. We were both kind of newbie authors living in Melbourne and we would get together for brunch every month, just to talk shop, because we didn’t really know any other Australian authors at the time. So, we would get together, have a chat, talk about, you know, our edits or something our editor said that we didn’t understand, but were too embarrassed to ask about, so on and so forth. And one day she walked in and said she had a dream that we wrote a book together, and it was an email book. She couldn’t remember what the book was about, but she remembered it was written in email format.

And we kind of got to talking and that didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And that was kind of the premise where Illuminae started. But, we very quickly evolved from the email format and decided we would try a bunch of alternative format documents.

And once we stumbled across the idea of AIDAN — AIDAN, for those who haven’t read the book, it’s an artificial intelligence on one of the ships in the series and it is a narrator, it’s an unreliable narrator, but it’s been damaged early on in the book, and the damage means that the way it perceives events dictates the way those events are transcribed on the page. So, for example, when there’s a dogfight in space that it’s watching the typography moves across the page the same way those spaceships are moving when they’re dogfighting each other.

So, once we arrived at that idea that AIDAN could be a narrator that kind of opened the door for any crazy document style that we could think of. And it also led us very quickly to the conclusion that this book was just too insane and no publisher was ever going to buy it, it would just be too expensive and problematic to produce. And so we just wrote it for fun. It was something that we were working on in our spare time. We were really excited about it, very quickly we fell in love with the story and the characters and we decided to write it anyway, even though the odds were next to impossible that anyone would buy this thing, because it was just too crazy and too expensive and too different.

But, yeah, one of the things we did when — we showed it to our agents and they got really excited. One of the things we did very early on, we only wrote 130-page sample, we didn’t write the entire book because we thought it was just going to be too nuts. So, writing a 600-page book with no chance of getting published is probably not the best use of your time.

But, what we did with that 130 pages was mock it up the way we saw it looking. I used to be a graphic designer, that’s what I did.

Allison

Right. Yep.

Jay

I was an art director when I worked in advertising, which means you’re the person responsible for the visual elements of the ad. So, I know, you know, Photoshop and InDesign, I know how to do typography. So, one of the things we did was mock up those 130-pages so an editor who was reading the manuscript wouldn’t have to read a paragraph of description of what the page looked like before they actually got to read the page. It was simpler to shortcut that and show rather than tell — one of those golden rules that I said don’t exist

But, yeah, so we mocked that up and had 130-page PDF and we used that for our submission document. And it was one of those things, you know, it was either going to be just too crazy for anyone to buy it or just crazy enough that people would mistake it for genius. And we were lucky enough that we found an editor that mistook it for genius. We had — we were on sub for about a week and we had four offers from four of the big five in the States. So, people got really excited really quickly

Allison

And were you just kind of gob smacked by that?

Jay

Oh yeah. Yeah. We had some very surreal 3:00 AM phone conversations, because of the time difference in the States, you know, you have to ring and talk to your editors or your potential editors when they’re awake, which means getting up really early for us.

Allison

Yes.

Jay

Yeah, Amie and I were having some very odd conversations with editors at three o’clock in the morning and not quite wrapping our heads around the idea that this was real, because the excitement was pretty intense. The advances being offered were — it was kind of life-changing, quit your day job money. So… it was… yeah, it was a pretty amazing week for both of us.

Allison

How did you manage the co-authoring process? Because two authors involved in anything is always going to be, you know, interesting. Did you do all of the plotting together and then divide the writing up? Or how did you actually do that? 

Jay

Yeah, we plot together. And this is the process that we do even today, we get together physically, like at a pub usually…

Allison

Yeah, good.

Jay

… I will drink and Amie watches me drink. And about drink number five is when the magic starts to happen.

We’ll plot — we generally plot about 100 pages in advance, because through experience we find if we do more than that the story will evolve and the telling of the story we’ll think of cooler ideas as we go. So, any more than 100 pages of plotting tends to be wasted time. We’ll start to trip over our own feet.

And then we divide up those 100-pages into scenes, POVs, and we divide the writing duties based on those POVs.

So, Amie writes the female protagonist, I write the male protagonist, and then we’ll divide up the secondary characters between ourselves and we go —

Allison

And who writes AIDAN?

Jay

I write AIDAN.

Allison

AIDAN is a fascinating element in the narrative, like if there was a point of genius it was probably AIDAN, I would say. So, well done on that.

Jay

Thanks, it’s a lot of fun to write. It’s very different to anything that I’ve written before, but strangely enough there’s a lot of me in AIDAN and a lot of my kind of nihilistic worldview. So, yeah, it’s fun to write, but also the way it frees you up visually to do things that a normal book just can’t do, that was one of the things that we decided to try and do, to break the idea of what a book could do to kind of change that paradigm.

I mean there’s been a few writers that have done it before, Mark Danielewski did with House of Leaves, which is experimental in its format and there’s Night Film by Marisha Pessl which is also kind of playing with the idea of online communications.

But, yeah, we were trying to break the idea of what a book could be.

Allison

It was very almost instant success of that first book, did that take you by surprise? Like, as far as the — like it seemed to publish and then it was just everywhere and everyone was talking about it and it was on bestseller lists and it was all happening in about five minutes flat.

Jay

I mean the lead up to it was two and a half years long. So, it’s weird about overnight successes. It’s not really overnight.

I mean we hoped it would do well, simply because Random House had poured so much of themselves into it. Like, this wasn’t a regular book to produce. It took a huge team of designers and internal crew, production, guys in sales and marketing. They’d never done a book like this before and so they had to invent new systems in order to deal with it. Even like the formatting of the documents for the printers, I think Random House has eight standard templates when they’re sending their book off for pre-prod and Illuminae was something like 40 and they had to invent those themselves. So, it took a lot of people thinking out of the box to make this happen.

So, we were really conscious of the effort that they had put into it. And, so we were hoping that it was going to do well, you know, the amount of time and effort and money they’d spent on it — Jesus, it would have been a very sad story if it didn’t do well for us anyway.

But, yeah, I mean we had hoped that the book was different enough that it would get attention. I mean the movie deal news couldn’t have been timed better. That came out about a week after publication. And you can look — Random House has a great author portal that tracks your sales week-by-week and you can see this massive spike in sales as soon as the news about the movie deal broke.

Allison

Wow.

Jay

So we were pretty fortunate in the timing of that.

But, yeah, I mean overnight success, not so much. It was a lot of hard work by a lot of amazing people and we were just lucky to end up with a team that were so devoted and passionate about it. You can tell when you’re working with people who are just painting by numbers and when you’re working with people who truly are excited about what they do. The crew at Random House, and our other publishers as well, Rock the Boat in the UK and Allen & Unwin in Australia, they were all firing on all cylinders. So, we were lucky to be working with a really great group of people.

Allison

And now book 2, Gemina, is on the horizon, being published in all of the places in October 2016. So, what can we expect? Are we back down the wormhole again? Should I just prepare to set aside two more days?

Jay

Hopefully, yeah. A lot of the early readers have said they like it better than Illuminae, which is great to hear.

Allison

That’s fantastic.

Jay

That’s what you want to hear from a sequel. I mean Illuminae is a pretty big and strange book, so follow in its footsteps was always going to be hard, but about three-quarters of the way through writing Gemina we realised that it actually was its own thing. It wasn’t a book that was going to live in Illuminae‘s shadow, it was going to be a book that could stand side-by-side with it.

Allison

Wow.

Jay

So, it’s a continuation of meta plot. It’s a sequel as well as a companion novel. So, it kicks off about five minutes after Illuminae ends. But, initially the action is centred in a different part of that solar system. So, all through Illuminae the Hypatia and the Alexander, which are two ships, they’re trying to make it to a wormhole to jump out of the system. And the wormhole is controlled by Jump Gate, a space station, basically. And the entire novel they’re sending distress calls to this space station and they never get an answer.

In book two we find out why. What’s been happening up at the space station. Why those distress calls never got through, why help never arrived.

And eventually the two plot lines of the book intersect. Anyone who survived Illuminae, and not everyone does survive Illuminae, I’m not going into spoilers, but anyone who survived that first book is in the second in the sense that eventually that Hypatia will arrive at the space station, the space station is called Heimdall. Eventually the Hypatia arrives at Heimdall and those two plots intersect. But, initially the book is concerned with two new protagonists. So, our female protagonist is Hannah Donnelly. She is the daughter of the station commander. And Nik Malacot is the male protagonist, he’s a member of — they’re kind of interstellar mafia, they’re like a crime syndicate that operate out of the station.

Allison

Oh cool.

Jay

Yeah, BeiTech, who are the big bad evil company, they want to stop the Hypatia escaping the system and so they send a team of specialists to — they’re like a paramilitary unit, to stop the ship getting through.

So, we sell the book in as Die Hard meets Alien.

Allison

Excellent, I love it. I will be looking forward to it.

Jay

So, it’s a little more high-octane in this one, the plot is probably simpler and it’s more high-stakes, high-action, kind of action movie styling. So, yeah, people seem to really dig it so far, which is great to hear.

Allison

Alright, so let’s switch channels slightly and let’s talk about your new series, The Nevernight Chronicles, which is very firmly in the fantasy genre, again, I believe — is that correct?

Jay

Correct, yep.

Allison

And is it YA or is it adult?

Jay

No, it’s adult. I mean I would describe it as crossover. So the protagonist is a teenager, she’s 16 years old. And no one has really given me a good definition of what YA is.

Allison

No.

Jay

I feel like putting a bounty on this thing, offering $1000 to someone who can actually explain to me properly what Young Adult literature is, because for the life of me I write it and I have no idea what it is. Like, it’s like… I can’t remember his name. There was a judge, Potter Stephens [Jay says ‘Stephens’ but the actual judge’s name was ‘Steward‘] I think his name was. He was a Supreme Court Judge in the United States in this case about pornography and he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

Young adult literature is kind of the same for me. Like, I can’t give you a definition of what it is. But, yeah, it’s — Nevernight is published by an adult imprint of McMillian. So, it will sit in the adult section of the science-fiction/fantasy area of your bookstore. But the protagonist is a teenager, so there’s definite crossover appeal. And I knew that there would be a lot of readers that would come across from Illuminae and read Nevernight just because it’s a 16-year-old girl. But, it is heavier. It’s quite violent and there’s some explicit sexual content in there. It’s a grown-up book, it’s not for 13-year-olds I wouldn’t say.

Allison

OK.

Jay

I was reading Stephen King when I was ten, so who am I to tell them what they’re going to read.

Allison

So, if you were going to sum up — like, given that you’re currently working on three different series and so you’ve got one sci-fi, one fantasy — what’s the third one?

Jay

The third one is — it’s also sci-fi, but that’s not out yet.

Allison

Oh? That’s coming.

Jay

Yeah, that first book on that doesn’t come out until 2018. I mean I’ve written the first book and I’ll be working on the second book at the start of next year, but that’s called Lifelike and that’s getting published by Random House again the States. And, yeah, that kicks off in autumn of 2018 here in Australia.

Allison

So if you were going to sum up the differences between fantasy and sci-fi is it just that it’s cloaks versus space? Or are there other telling key elements?  

Jay

I mean at the heart of it any story is about character, whether it be cloaks or space or vampires or whatever. The thing that your reader is going to fall in love with is the characters that you create. So, in that sense they’re very similar. You want to create a compelling character with an intriguing story and go from there.

I mean in terms of the devices you use you’re probably a little freer with fantasy than you are with science-fiction. One of the things that we’re really careful of when we write our sci-fi stuff, whether it be Illuminae or with Lifelike is the science and the physics actually has some grounding in reality. We don’t write Star Wars, there’s no space– there’s no lightsabers. You know? There’s gravity, there’s momentum, there’s mass, there’s particle physics. And we have an astrophysicist and a bunch of other specialists who kind of come in and advise on the books to make sure we get all of that right.

Allison

Wow.

Jay

So in that sense we have to be a lot more careful in constructing the worlds than you do with fantasy. Fantasy you can say, “It’s magic,” and, “They have a spell that does this thing,” or, “They have a sword that does this thing,” or, “There’s this monster…” that we just pull out of thin air to do the job that it needs to do, whereas science-fiction, at least the way we approach science-fiction, we’re a lot more rigid in terms of obeying the laws of physics, the law of conservation of energy, that kind of thing.

So, yeah, there’s that consideration to make. But, also, I mean I think readers in general are far more grounded in fantasy troupes than they are in sci-fi troupes. So, sci-fi is a bit of a black dog. One of the first things that readers say to us when they come up to us at signings or whatever is exactly what you said, like, “I don’t normally read science-fiction…” Illuminae is kind of the first sci-fi book that people read.

Interestingly enough I always ask them, “Have you read the Hunger Games?” Or, “Have you read Divergent?” And those are two big YA properties. And they’ll inevitably say, “Yes.” And those are science-fiction properties. Science-fiction doesn’t necessarily mean space and laser beams.

Allison

Right.

Jay

Divergent is set in a dystopian future. Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future.

Allison

Yep.

Jay

They’re sci-fi novels. But, yet, people are generally more familiar with fantasy troupes than science-fiction ones, you know? Everyone knows what a knight is. Everyone knows what a dragon is. Everyone knows how armour works, you know?

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

Jay

So you can be a little easier going in terms of your world-building and explaining your concepts, whereas science-fiction, if you’re bringing something new to the table, which hopefully you are, you normally have to be at great pains to explain how it works. So, the world-building in science fiction tends to be a little more granular, a little more deep.

That’s one thing anyway.

Allison

Do you find when you’re — because you are writing across three different series, are you just focusing on one book at a time so you can keep your worlds straight? Or, how do you manage that aspect of things? Because if you’re switching between projects it would be difficult.

Jay

It would be. I set aside blocks of time to write. It may be the editing on one project overlaps the writing on another. So, for example, at the moment I’m writing Nevernight II, and I’m going to be working on that until the end of the year. And once, hopefully, I finish this book at the end of the year, the start of next year we’re going to be working on Amie and my new series, which sold in earlier this year, and also I’ll be writing Lifelike II.

Allison

Goodness.

Jay

So I partition blocks of time to be working on the one project, because flipping back and forth between two, headspace-wise, would be difficult. I mean I can do it editing, because editing is a very different process to creating. And normally, even if you are undertaking major changes in the document you’re doing so with direction from your editor, they’re kind of giving you a hand in giving you direction in terms of how it could be achieved, so it’s not as — it’s not taxing the same part of your brain. You’re not creating something out of nothing.

But, I’ve found that can actually be quite helpful, when I’m editing one piece and writing another. You know, if I get stuck in the writing I can switch to editing mode. I’m a great believer in the brain’s ability to solve problems even while you’re not consciously thinking of them.

Allison
Yep.

Jay

I had a math teacher in Year 10, I was terrible at math, and exams used to stress me out to no end. He told me, “If you ever reach a question that you don’t know the answer to don’t just sit there and stare at it, move onto the next question and your brain will think about the problem even though you’re not consciously doing so.” I find writing is the same way.

Allison

Yeah.

Jay

So, if I’m stuck at an impasse on the drafting stage I can switch into editing mode, and hopefully the brain is percolating in the background. That works for me.

Allison

Me too.

Alright, so let’s finish up with our last question that we ask every author, and I forgot to warn you about this, so sorry. But, our — I know — sorry, bad Allison.

Jay

We can edit that out.

Allison

Your top three tips for aspiring authors.

Jay

I mean there are a lot of — a lot of authors give the same answers to these questions and that’s because the answers are very true. You know the first thing that I would encourage people to do is read outside their genre that they’re writing.

Read as widely as possible. You need to understand the rules of your genre and know when the break them. But, if all you’re reading is the kind of book that you’re writing then you’re going to sound like everybody else. You’re going to fall into the same troupes, you’re going to fall into the same patterns. If you want to distinguish yourself, then read as widely as you can.

If you’re writing fantasy you should be reading, you know, biographies, you should be reading thrillers, you should be reading horror novels. If you’re writing young adult fiction you should be reading adult fiction, otherwise you sound like everybody else.

Allison

Yep.

Jay

So, that would be number one.

Number two is finish. Finishing is really hard. There’s a million first chapters out there in the world. There’s a million people that sit down and say, “I’m going to write a book,” and start. The start point is easy. Writing the end at the end of the manuscript is really, really hard. And often you’ll find real life gets in the way or a new idea that’s shinier and more exciting gets in the way. But, learning how to finish what you start is actually one of the real disciplines of the job.

That’s why I like the concept of NaNoWriMo so much, which is coming up in November. Even though the idea of sitting down and writing 50,000 words of jank, you know, it seems counterproductive, but the one great thing that NaNoWriMo teaches you is how to finish what you start.

It doesn’t matter if what you’re writing is garbage, you can go back and fix that in edits, but the important thing is to reach the end and have like a complete document. You can go back and polish that as hard as you want, but you can’t polish something that doesn’t exist.

So, yeah, that would be number two. Finish what you start.

Number three is kind of cheesy, but it’s believe in yourself. Believe in your own ability and believe that this is something you’re supposed to be doing.

Like I said at the start of the interview, the probability of getting published, let alone succeeding, like paying your bills, paying your mortgage with money you make by creating art, any kind of art, is really long.

And, all along the way, all along the journey you’re going to meet people that tell you that you’re crazy for doing this. That you’re wasting your time. That the odds are so remote it’s near impossible. And they’ll give you all of the reasons why you can’t and why you shouldn’t and why it’s silly for you to even try. Those people are poison. They’re the enemy of creativity and they exist only to make you doubt yourself, they are obstacles in your way.

You need to push them aside and believe in yourself because it is a hard journey and it is really remote, that the odds of succeeding, but, you know, if you’re spending two to three hours a day creating a story, building characters, building worlds, even if it comes to nothing, even if at the end of it all you have is 90,000 in a Word file on your computer that’s still probably a better use of your time than sitting on your butt in front of the television or in front of Farmville on Facebook, you know? At least you have created a world, at least you have told a story.

That’s an amazing way to spend your time. So, don’t let anyone who tells you that you can’t and that you won’t and you shouldn’t even try get in your way, because what you’re doing is an amazing thing.

Allison

Fantastic. Well, on that note, I will say thank you very much for your time today, Mr. Kristoff. It has been very, very excellent speaking to you. And, best of luck with all of the things that you have coming up.

Jay

Thanks very much. Thanks so much for having me.

Allison

OK, bye.

Jay

Bye-bye.


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