Vision: A Resource for Writers
the Company of Julie Czerneda
author Julie Czerneda (CHUR-nay-duh) is more than a new rising star in the SF
world. She has burst into the genre with the power of a nova, bringing back the
wonder and excitement of genre stories that meld both science and adventure. Her
first book publication in 1997 began the Trade Pact Trilogy with A Thousand
Words for Stranger, making her a finalist for the John Campbell Best New
Writer Award; the trilogy now also includes Ties of Power and To Trade
the Stars. Her popular Web Shifters Trilogy (Beholder's Eye, Changing
Vision, and Hidden in Sight [April, 2003]) has garnered equal notice
and praise, along with several award nominations. Her standalone, In the Company
of Others, has won an Aurora Award, RT Reviewerís Choice Award, and a Finalist
for the Philip K. Dick Award, and is on the Nebula preliminary ballot.
books are filled with unusual humans and exotic aliens coexisting in a universe
brimming with danger and surprises. With the publication of six (soon to be
seven) novels and a handful of short stories, she has won a legion of fans eager
for every snippet she posts in her newsgroup, and haunting bookstores as release
Czerneda is also one of the most approachable writers in the SF community. Her
very popular Sff.net newsgroup gets several hundred posts a day, and she attends
many conventions during the year. You can find her website at http://www.czerneda.com.
She kindly took time out of what is obviously a very busy writer's life to answer a few questions for Vision.
Vision: You are from Canada and live in Toronto, which I believe has a very large SF community. Do you feel that being Canadian has influenced your themes in any way?
I actually live 2 hours due north of Toronto, but you are quite right about the
wonderful and active SF community there. When we get together at conventions
(Toronto has several), thereís often talk about what being Canadian brings to
our work. In my case, I believe itís influenced me to create characters who
seek compromise rather than victory, who find it vital to accommodate
distinctiveness, even if that isnít always comfortable or safe. And, of
course, thereís hockey in one of my novels and beer in pretty well all of
them. I canít help that.
Vision: Tell us about the Aurora Awards, and the books you've written that have won this award.
Prix Aurora Awards are Canadaís version of the Hugo Awards, in which works are
nominated in a variety of categories, then those attending or supporting the
Canvention are able to cast a vote. To win, your work has to be noticed,
enjoyed, and remembered by those who nominate, then your work has to
successfully compete among the nominated works. Itís a great honour. Iíve
won two thus far: Best Long-Form English in 2002 for In the Company of Others,
DAW Books, and Best Short-Form English in 2002 for ďLeft Foot on a Blind
ManĒ an sf story that appeared in Silicon Dreams, ed. by Martin H.
Greenberg and Larry Segriff, DAW Books. Both Beholderís Eye and Changing
Vision made the final Aurora Ballot in their respective years. You can find
information about the Aurora Award at http://www.sentex.net/~dmullin/aurora/
Vision: You attribute your love of writing to your mother giving you a typewriter when you didn't like the ending of a book, and telling you to write your own. This started you writing -- but has it also affected the way you end your own stories?
Interesting question. I hadnít thought of it, but Iím sure it must have. I
want to be satisfied at the end of a book. That doesnít mean the ending has to
be happy, although I tend that way in my novels, but it does mean I want a
strong feeling of closure, that enough has been finalized to fulfill the promise
of the story. So yes, I try to provide that. Hopefully with success. No oneís
told me -- yet -- that they feel I should have changed an ending.
Are there any specific writers who have influenced you?
I think youíre always influenced by those authors whose work seems to speak
particularly to you, whose books you reread and continue to enjoy. As I was
growing up, I loved an eclectic bunch, and still do. Andre Norton. Mary Stewart.
Isaac Asimov. Gordon R. Dickson. Keith Laumer. Rex Stout. Edgar R. Burroughs.
John Creasey. J.R.R.Tolkien. John Wyndham. Alastair McLean. Ray Bradbury. Many
more, believe me. Iím something of a reading glutton. When I consider those I
truly treasure, though, they are the suspenseful storytellers whose characters
were far more than plot holders. That set my taste, Iím sure. Of course, there
are writers today of whom I am in complete awe, such as Patricia McKillip, C.J.
Cherryh, and Terry Pratchett. Is awe an influence?
Vision: Your science background includes research in animal communications. What has that brought to your stories?
the problems Esen ever faces in the Web Shifter books! ::chuckle:: Seriously,
that background, and my continuing interest, provides me with both the
fundamental plot of my stories and informs the world-building. For example, the
Trade Pact series is an exploration of one idea: how far would an intelligent
species go to promote an inheritable advantage in its population, given that the
final cost could be their own extinction? Within that series are an assortment
of aliens, and their homes which are quite definitely based on what I know of
life here. The Web Shifters? Reeks of biology. Quite literally. My science is my
playground as well as passion.
Vision: What suggestions do you have for new writers who would like to write material that has a science background when they don't have an education in science?
Thereís two parts to this. First, if you want to write a science fiction
story, then there must be a scientific speculation at its heart. A Ďwhat if
...í the author cares to investigate. For example, What if cell phones could
be implanted in peopleís heads? What if people were born who could only see in
the dark? Youíll need to learn enough of that science to speculate plausibly.
That doesnít mean obtaining a degree in neurology, but you might want to read
about what we are capable of implanting today, the risks and problems. Or you
might want to walk around your neighbourhood to see if it is ever really dark,
and research how much light the human eye requires for normal image formation.
Golden rule: know the science that matters to your story.
brings us to my second part. World-building. Whatever you do, donít let your
world violate what your readers know already. Science fiction readers Ė and
editors Ė are interested in science and its consequences. You can use that to
your advantage, because they will follow your speculation. But nothing
discourages such readers faster than distrust, so your science must be
consistent within the story. If your story must take place on the Moon, find out
what being on the Moon would be like before you write it.
will accept what you make clear is your speculation in science. They wonít
accept a setting that disobeys natural laws. (Unless thatís part of the
being long-winded. Sorry! I encourage every writer to try science fiction.
Itís wonderful, meaningful stuff and you shouldnít be dissuaded by being a
non-scientist at all. You can find out what you need to know. You can ask
someone with a science background to check your facts. The point is to tell a
story in which a science concept matters, in which you show your reader the
consequences, the issues, and perhaps a bit of the wonder. We need all such
stories we can get.
Vision: You have written books from the first person point of view of an alien. How do you get inside the alien mind?
Very carefully and with smidge of lubricating jelly.
Zette. Of course I can only make my best guess at what it would be like, but we
do that, as writers, every time we write about a person other than ourselves. In
my case, with aliens, itís also a different biology. I use that as my starting
point. How would things appear to alien senses? How would that appearance affect
ďmeĒ the character? For example, would a loud sound be startling or
pleasant? The more differences from human, the more the reader Ė and I Ė
will believe the character isnít human.
matters, too. When I write from Esenís viewpoint, I have quite a bit thatís
not-human right from the start. Part of her essential nature is a very different
sense of time. The other aspect I particularly enjoy is her combination of
knowledge and inexperience. It allows me to provide credible information about a
situation, while having a character who can make mistakes.
also being able to ďseeĒ a human character as alien. It reinforces the sense
that the POV character isnít human, for one thing, while letting me explore
what it means to be human. I really enjoy this. Iíll use the alien POV to
point out what is silly about being human Ė and what is wonderful, too.
Vision: You have created intricate worlds filled with fascinating characters, both human and alien. Any worldbuilding hints on how to create such complexity? Where do you start? Characters? Plot? World?
Thank you. Hints, huh? Well, I start with the problem I want to explore in the
plot. Thinking about that seems to give me a strong sense of the overall tone of
the story. Then, I think about the sort of character who would logically be
affected by that problem. Until I have that framework in my head, I donít do
any worldbuilding beyond my usual stuffing of folders with cool information.
does the complexity come from? Layering, I suppose. I write from start to end,
and do much of my world-building as I go, but Iíll add more details as I
reread. I like to make the settings part of the plot, as much as possible --
Drapskii, from the latter two Trade Pact books, being the ultimate example.
Sometimes that part is to help establish a mood, but always itís to tell the
reader more about the species or culture involved.
the real reason? Iím very curious. Very. I get sidetracked by that all the
time. I made Ret 7 a planet suited to an amphibious species for no particular
reason except I wanted a slimy character. Having done that, I immediately wanted
to see what such a species might be like. Where would they live? How? What would
please or disgust them? And I love trivialities. I really do. Downspouts that
funnel rainwater into their homes, not out. Mobile fungi instead of rats to
scurry away from garbage. An aesthetic that prefers flooring and walls curved
like waves. See what happens to me? Itís really a problem sometimes.
end result, however, becomes a richer palate to use as the book grows. Humanoids
donít like the irregular floors Ė or moving fungi, for that matter. It adds
to the uneasiness of such characters when dealing with Retians, while adding
credibility to their different moral approach. Complexities suddenly abound.
Vision: You are also involved in editing anthologies. Do you have any suggestions that might help new writers based on things you have seen in stories sent to you?
How about a list?
couple of thoughts on reacting to rejection. (If youíve been accepted, you
donít need any, yes?)
One of your projects is No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using
Science Fiction, a resource for teachers to use SF in the classroom. I
believe that Orbiter is the latest in this series. Can you tell us a bit
about this project?
While my first novel was swimming in the slush pile, I was doing workshops with
teachers and students on various aspects of science. (Iíve an extensive
background in educational publishing.) Science fiction was a tool I loved to use
for many reasons, from its ability to excite students as a genre to the issues
it deals with, societal as well as scientific. The schools I visited had limited
resources, with their sf collections being either immense classic works unsuited
to the timeframe of a teacherís program, or shorter works that didnít
feature the type of science or issues relevant to the curriculum. (And yes,
there were many fun reads that were sf only in having a space ship on the
cover.) I approached my non-fiction publisher with the notion of commissioning
short stories that would be based on science topics being taught in schools, by
authors who could write imaginatively and interestingly for younger readers. Packing
Fraction and Other Tales of Science & Imagination was the first,
containing five stories, poetry, and illustrations all tied to high school
science. No Limits is the teacherís guide I did to show how to use the
stories. It was great fun and has been exceptionally well received.
fact, educators liked it so much, we decided to move into elementary grades
next, with the Tales from the Wonder Zone series. These have a more deliberate
language arts aspect as well, with the books varying in reading level and the
stories within each book ranging in difficulty as well. For example, the Stardust
authors chose from grade 4 science topics, and those stories are for beginning
independent readers. Explorer slots into grades 5/6, with more challenge
in the reading. The Orbiter and Odyssey (in production) authors
could play with any grade 7/8 science topic and those books contain stories an
adult sf reader would definitely enjoy.
Griessman and I co-authored teacherís materials for the first three Wonder
Zone anthologies, focusing on science more than language arts. Because of the
(rabid) interest shown by language arts teachers, weíre redoing those to
include more activities allowing the books to be used in both classes. Science
fiction literally seems to have no limits on what can be accomplished with it.
Vision: You are also involved in the Webs of Wonder project. Can you tell us about that as well?
This was an initiative of David Brin (who financed the contest), Analog, and
several others (including the fine people involved in Developing Young Readers
and Readers for the Future) concerned about declining literacy among young
people. The idea was to offer a $1000 prize for web-based teaching materials
that used science fiction stories, then build a wonderful online resource for
educators from the winners. Unfortunately, despite our considerable efforts, the
number of entries was so dismal the contest has now ended. Iíve been talking
to David about a different format, because the underlying concept is an
Vision: You have attended many conventions in the last few years, and I see that you have several more planned. Do you think conventions are important assets for writers? What do they offer to you?
In our genre? Very important for writers. Before I was published, I met people
at conventions who were in publishing, from agents to publishers. I met authors.
I attended panels and workshops. In sum, conventions provided me with
invaluable, credible information as well as business contacts.
I meet friends and colleagues, interact with my readers, and continue to learn
from other writers. And, interestingly, I still do my face-to-face business with
my own publisher at conventions, having not yet made it to the DAW office in New
admit, I get a huge creative boost from every convention. Itís a tremendous
thing, to be among people who share oneís love of wonder, and to see how they
express it. I attend as many as I can afford, in terms of time and loot. Itís
always been worthwhile.
Vision: Your news group at SFF.Net (sff.people.julie-czerneda) is extremely busy, and filled with snippets of stories (both yours and other writers), contests, and discussions. You seem to really enjoy the contact with others, both fellow writers and fans. Does this help your writing? Or is it just fun?
::chuckle:: Thereís fun, of course. But the newsgroup has become
immensely important to my writing on several levels. The obvious is being able
to suck the brains of all these bright and talented people. What, you thought I
was selfless here? They are a marvelous resource and Iím grateful for all the
help Iíve been given. And plan to ask more questions. Itís also been helpful
to learn which aspects of my writing readers enjoy most. I pay attention.
Thatís fun too.
obvious? Writing can be solitary. My newsgroup is a gathering of like minds I
can reach with a click of my mouse. More than a gathering. There is a real sense
of community here. We share each otherís joy and success. We support each
other through failure and loss. Iíve made and expanded friendships here I know
will last a lifetime (if they can put up with me that long). I know, beyond
doubt, the enthusiasm I encounter in my newsgroup makes it easier to get to
writing every day.
I first ventured into the newsgroup world, it was because I consider it to be my
responsibility as a writer to be accessible to my readers and this seemed a more
interactive means than individual emails. Certainly itís been far more
successful than Iíd ever imagined, something I attribute to the generous
nature of the people whoíve adopted it. From snippets to kindnesses beyond
words, theyíve proved that you donít have to meet face-to-face to enjoy one
anotherís company. This being said, thereís now a delightful trend at
conventions for newsgroup folks to gather in order to meet one another. I admit
to loving that part, especially when I can be there too.
Vision: DAW has purchased two new science fiction novels to be published hardbound in 2004/5 along with two prequels to The Trade Pact Universe, entitled The Stratification: Books I & 2. I also see that you recently sold a short story. You appear to be a very busy writer. How long does it take you to write a novel? How do you arrange your time?
Writing is my full-time job, so my time Ė on those days under my control Ė
is organized thus: I get up at dawn, breakfast and check mail, then exercise. In
the summer, I run, do weights, and garden; in the winter I have an exercise
machine in the basement. Iím usually back at my desk and writing by 9 am. My
husband works at home too, so we meet for coffee breaks and lunch. We both tend
to drift back to work for an hour or so after supper as well, in winter. In
summer? More gardening then reading on the deck! YUM!
I probably get three, maybe four days out of seven that go as planned. There are
visits from family, for one thing. The need to make a mail/shopping/Tim
Hortonís run to town. Those amazing days when one has to go biking, canoeing
or fly ... You get the drift. Roger and I donít take weekends or holidays as
such. We take our opportunities for fun when they arise, then work the rest of
the time to make up for it.
you, everything changes when I get to about the halfway point of a novel. From
then until the finish Iím hard to pull away from my desk, tend to miss meals,
and pretty well ignore everything around me. Thank goodness Rogerís here to
make sure the house doesnít burn down. I still exercise before Iíll sit at
my desk, though. Iíve learned the hard way that it lets me write longer and
better. (And still stand up when done!)
long does it take me to write a novel? Hmmm. Under six months. Short stories?
Probably three weeks to do a short story from scratch, less if I work solely on
it Ė which I rarely do. Until Iím devoted to the next book, Iím prone to
having a few things underway at once. Okay, even after Iím devoted to the next
book, I canít help dabbling. The more I write, the more writing demands to be
done. It seems inevitable.
be remiss if I didnít mention something else here. I earn my living as a
writer. The more I write, the more my family benefits Ė both financially and,
hopefully, as I become a better writer through practice. Simple as that. So
being this busy isnít all about the desire to create. It has its very
practical side as well.
Vision: Would you like to tell us a bit about your upcoming projects, like those you've sold to DAW?
Twist my arm. ::smile:: What I have under contract from DAW will keep me happily
busy for a couple of years. I take it as a milestone in my career, and DAWís
confidence in my work, that these next books will come out in hardcover editions
first. ::bounce:: Species Imperative, Books 1& 2, will be two halves of a
whole, as will Stratification 1 & 2. The former will be another big stretch
for me. I enjoy those. Really. The latter will add an immense amount of
backstory to the Trade Pact series. I have several other books planned for the
future as well. You should, all things being equal, see Esen again in the
Iíve expanded my young adult anthology editing into a new series. Tentatively
called ďRealms of Wonder,Ē these will be fantasy stories, written around a
theme such as the quest. The first book is well underway and Iím looking
forward to readersí reactions.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I do have a couple of anthologies coming from DAW Books. The first, Space
Inc., comes out July 2003 The authors explored what it would be like to have
a regular job, but in space. I think readers will enjoy the result. The second,
with Isaac Szpindel, is ReVisions, in which the authors have been asked
to speculate on what might have changed had a particular scientific discovery or
event happened in a different time, or in a different culture. The first stories
in are fabulous, so Iím looking forward to the rest.
else would I like to add? Only my sincere thanks to those whoíve taken the
time to try my stories. I have a wonderful time writing them, and I hope you
have an equally wonderful time reading. Merci!
out more information about Julie Czerneda