Author Becky Chambers Shares Her Sci-Fi Writing Secrets
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on ThePortalist.com, and is reposted here with permission.
For months after I finished Becky Chambers’ debut novel, I pushed it into the hands of friends, eager to share the story with others. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a thoughtful, funny, vivid book that’s often likened to beloved sci-fi like Firefly or Mass Effect, although neither of those comparisons really capture the book’s thoughtfulness — Chambers writes gripping sci-fi that creates tension through character development, rather than interplanetary conflicts.
The Long Way follows Rosemary, a young woman who becomes a clerk to escape her life on Mars, and joins The Wayfarer, a tunneling ship tasked with punching wormholes in space. As Rosemary becomes accustomed to the nomadic tunneling lifestyle, she also bonds with The Wayfarer‘s crew, a diverse, multi-species group of extremely lovable characters.
Given my affection for the cast of The Long Way, I was initially disappointed that A Closed and Common Orbit, the recently released second book in the Wayfarers series, for the most part doesn’t continue their story. Instead, Common Orbit focuses on two relatively minor characters from the first book: Sidra, a sentient AI who recently gained a physical form, and her companion Pepper, an engineer and former child slave who was raised by an AI. My disappointment didn’t last long—Chambers’ second novel is just as delightful and thoughtful as her first.
Speaking over email, The Portalist talked to Chambers about her decision to write a standalone sequel; the research and worldbuilding that goes into the Wayfarers books; and her advice for creating inclusive sci-fi.
When did you know that A Closed and Common Orbit would not feature the Wayfarer crew? Did you miss those characters at all while writing Pepper and Sidra’s story?
I knew the second my editor asked me if I had any interest in doing a sequel. I love the Wayfarer crew a whole bunch, but because of that, I don’t want to force a story with them just for the sake of having, say, The Long Way 2. For now, I’ve told the story about them that I want to tell. So, no, I didn’t really miss them when I wrote Common Orbit, because I knew they were good where they were at.
How long after you completed Long Way did you begin Common Orbit? Did you always know what you wanted the next chapter in the Wayfarers world to be?
I finished The Long Way in 2013, and I started Closed and Common in 2015. I had no concrete plans to continue in that universe. I had no idea what I was doing at all, really! After I finished the first book, I went through a big move and got a new job and had lots of boring existential dread. I had barely started thinking about writing fiction again when my publisher approached me about The Long Way. When the question of a second book came up, though, I knew that Pepper and Lovelace were the direction I wanted to head in. I really wanted to see where they ended up.
How much research goes into writing the Wayfarers books (and into the science of tunneling, in particular)?
Quite a bit, actually. My books aren’t hard science fiction, but I’m a big believer in understanding the core concepts I’m messing with before, well, messing with them. I also like to keep things within the broad realm of possibility. Do we know how to build wormholes? No. Is it likely that we ever will? No. But could we? Sure! I try to hit a sweet spot between making sure science geeks won’t call bullshit and keeping things accessible for people who come into these books without a science background. The scene where Kizzy explains tunneling to Rosemary is a perfect example of this. I went to the library. I spent an afternoon researching wormholes. I took a bunch of technical notes. Then I had one character explain the concept to another in bare-bones language, with the help of a bowl of porridge.
As for double-checking my work, my primary science consultant is my mom. She’s an astrobiology educator, and she’s the one I call when I want to know if something I’ve written works. She gets a lot of panicked emails from me when I’m in a first draft.
What does worldbuilding look like for you? Do you keep notes or other records as you go?
More than I know what to do with. I like to do notes by hand, which by this point means I’m drowning in notebooks and file folders. I’m in the process of transferring all my notes into a locally-hosted wiki so that I can keep it all straight. I’ve got so much stuff I’ll probably never use—alien evolutionary history, what different foods are made out of, that kind of thing. Figuring out what readers need to know and what I can skip is often a challenge for me. But I need that stuff, even if it doesn’t end up in the final draft. Knowing all the nitty gritty helps me be able to live in that space for a while.
I’m a big advocate for real-life space exploration, and so long as that’s something that we as a society keep supporting, I know we’re going to continue making incredible discoveries. Human spaceflight has challenges, sure—radiation, fuel, mental and physical health, food, all that good stuff—but look at what we’ve achieved in less than a century. We’ve walked on the Moon! We’ve found planets around other stars! There are people living in space right now! If we can do those things, we can solve the radiation problem. We can solve the fuel problem. We can go to Mars, and beyond. We just have to keep the fires burning. I do have short-term concerns specifically about NASA as far as funding goes, but long-term, I’m very optimistic. If the U.S. drops the ball on this, other countries will pick it up. If a government space program doesn’t do it, a private company will. One way or another, our species is going to space. I genuinely believe that.
As for whether I’d go, I’m going to say yes, with the caveat that it depends on what kind of spacecraft we’re talking about. I’d be a terrible astronaut with current technology. I’m claustrophobic, I get motion sick, and I really, really like hot showers. But I don’t need to be super cushy, either. I’d be down with something like the Icarus II in Sunshine or the Endurance in Interstellar—utilitarian, but relatively roomy and with some good creature comforts. Give me slightly nicer digs and promise me I’ll never have to get in a Soyuz, and I’ll boldly go.
Angry Planet’s path to publication was pretty interesting — you funded it initially via Kickstarter, self published, and then signed the book with Hodder & Stoughton. Going into writing Common Orbit, had you already signed Long Way to Hodder & Stoughton? Did it change the way you approached the book to know its future was a little more certain than Long Way’s might have been?
The process of writing the first book versus writing the second could not have been more different. I signed a contract for Common Orbit before I started writing it, and I had a year to get it done (as opposed to the almost-decade I spread The Long Way over). Some pressures were relieved, others took their place. I wasn’t worried anymore about whether people wanted to read this stuff or whether I’d be able to buy groceries, but I was very worried about being able to pull off a decent second book at all, let alone doing so in such a comparatively short amount of time. I’ve heard a lot of authors say that the second novel is the hardest, and that was absolutely true for me.
When you wrote The Long Way, you were working as a freelance writer (you were actually a weekend editor at The Mary Sue when I had just started there as an associate editor). I’ve also read that while writing Common Orbit you held a day job. How did you find the necessary energy for the creative and business side of writing, on top of holding down other full-time jobs? Do you have any advice for creators trying to manage a similar balancing act?
I won’t sugarcoat it: it’s hard. Ultimately, it comes down to making the time. For The Long Way, I did book work in the morning and freelance stuff in the afternoon until it was done. For Common Orbit, I did an hour and a half in the evenings after my nine-to-five, then added on full Saturdays in the three months before my deadline. You’ve got to be disciplined about it, but you also have to take good care of yourself. That’s equally important. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s a strong tendency in creative fields to romanticize burning out, and that’s such a dangerous mindset. Burning out is the opposite of productivity. It’s not healthy, and it’s not fun. If you make time for work, you’ve also got to make time for rest. Let your brain do something else. Take naps. Eat well. Spend time with your family. That’s the fuel you’ll need to keep going.
I know we can expect other Wayfarer stories in the future. Are there any other storytelling mediums that you’re interested in creating in?
Writing a lore book for a tabletop RPG is on my bucket list. I think that’d be a blast. Beyond that, I’m game for anything that gives me room to spread out. I have endless respect for people who write short stories regularly. I find them so difficult. Any medium that’s happy with me getting wordy, I’m down to try.
What are some sci-fi (or fantasy) books that you love?
Ursula K. Le Guin is my favorite sci-fi author, hands down. She’s the whole reason why I got interested in writing this stuff. I also really love Octavia Butler. Her Xenogenesis trilogy and the Parables books are masterful. On the flip side of the genre fence, I re-read The Hobbit every few years. My mom first read it to me as a bedtime story, and I’ve never gotten tired of it. You can blame a lot of my love for writing about food and travel on that one.
The Wayfarers series depicts diverse sexualities and genders in a sci-fi set setting in a way that normalizes diversity, rather than subtly presenting anyone who’s not straight/male/cis/white as ‘other.’ Is there any advice you would give to genre authors who want to create inclusive universes, but worry about writing outside their own experiences?
This is a ginormous topic to unpack, so if you want a real practical resource on this, I highly recommend the book Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. The title rather says it all.
In general, if you’re writing about life experiences you haven’t had, talk to someone who has. Ideally, have that someone read over your draft before you turn it loose. Otherwise, you’re just basing your work in assumption, and even with the best of intentions, that gets messy fast.
Most importantly, though, don’t be afraid! I know that’s so much easier said than done. Nobody wants to screw it up. But personally, I think telling stories that more honestly reflect humanity as a whole is worth risking some humble pie. The latter sucks, but not as much as the alternative.
(featured image: HarperCollins)
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