For this interview we go (back) down under to talk with space opera writer Timothy Ellis.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
Timothy Ellis. I live on the Gold Coast, in Queensland, Australia. I write Space Opera, with a spiritual underscore, a love of cats, and dabbling mix of other genres.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
My current project is the A.I. Destiny series, which is a spin off from The Hunter Legacy series. Book 3 was Snark’s Quest, co-authored with Elspeth Anders. Snark is a centaur like Cat, in my Gaia galaxy, introduced in the previous book Queen Jane. While the series is called AI Destiny, Snark takes on a journey through a galaxy coming to grips with humans suddenly appearing, and being the strongest species around. Book 4 is Destiny Stone, continuing the quest. Book 5, Talisman of Tomorrow is currently in editing as I write this. All 3 are co-authored.
The series is a reversal for most Space Opera where humans are the underdog, and must save the universe. Here, humans, unknowingly led by AI’s have what everyone else wants, and Snark’s Quest begins a 3 book arc about the consequences of being top dog, instead of underdog. Especially on a cat world.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
Space Opera is my first love. I didn’t actually choose what to write. It had been haunting my mind for twenty years before I first sat down and attempted to extract it. The first few books wrote themselves.
Spirituality, (without religion) has become my way of life, and so I decided to mix Space Opera with a spiritual main character. This introduces an aspect missing from many space military stories, where mine has a main character struggling to cope with a death toll he can’t avoid, and doesn’t want to be part of.
I also added in cats in space, since I love cats. Some of my funniest moments are cats doing in space what cats do naturally.
The last aspect of my writing is the Artificial Intelligence, and what happens when one is side kick to an eccentric human, and a group who accept who she without any need to justify anything. I took this is another level in the spin off series, where the AI goes from side kick to Queen.
In your mind, what sets space opera apart from other science fiction that’s set in space? Later on you mention a “spectrum” of space opera – what is that?
To my way of thinking, Space Opera is about people. It’s character driven, and is about them being put into situations, somewhere in space. Military science fiction on the other hand tends to be event driven story, populated by people doing things. Characters who get thrust into events, verses events where people have to deal with them. You can still have military based Space Opera, but the characters come first. In Military Sci-Fi, the events come first. For example, in Space Opera you meet Joe Bloggs having an ordinary day on his ship, and things go pear shaped. In Military Sci-Fi, your star system is invaded, and Joe Bloggs is the nearest who/whatever to deal with it. It may sound like the same thing, but remember, you’re in my mind here, a most dangerous place to be I assure you, and just about everyone has a different perspective on the distinction.
On one end of the Space Opera spectrum is pure life in space. There are no galaxy wide problems, no save the universe as we know it situations, and definitely no hero to the rescue. It’s about living in space, and the day to day events which make up real life. The best of this end can still be compelling reading, even if nothing actually blows up.
On the other end is the more traditional expectation of Space Opera. The system/political entity/galaxy/universe has been invaded or is about to end, and some hero type has to save everyone. The stakes are big, the problems seem insurmountable, and there is a great deal of handwavium, and pulling rabbits out of orifices at the last second. The movies get made at this end of the spectrum because of all the high stakes jeopardy for the characters, and everything going boom.
In the middle are series like my own, where life in space is the core, but there is a steady building, ebb and flow, and rebuilding towards the end of humanity situation. I have gone with the hero theme, but my hero has a daily life, and it’s not always about saving anything or anyone. He goes shopping, eats dinner in restaurants, throws up in the bathroom, gets drunk, showers, and goes naked in the spa. Sometimes alone, sometimes not. Most of my books cover somewhere between one and three weeks in time, and you live those weeks with the main character. The Christmas story for example, is one day in space, where the main character is losing his grip on the day, while everyone else thinks it’s all his doing. It could be anywhere, but it’s on a ship, and things happen which can only happen on a ship. This is Space Opera at its best for me. Life in Space. It’s not about where they’re going. It’s about what happens on the journey.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
I’m a ‘pantser’, so I start with an idea, usually knowing where the end is, and simply begin. The characters talk to me as we go, and I write about what they want to say, where they want to go, and what they want to do.
In some books I’ve need to meticulously plot time against multiple actions, so everything happens in the right order.
I edit what I write the day before first, and continue on writing.
Once complete, aiming for 85k words, I do a reading pass on the computer looking for anything wrong, and tidying things up. I usually add more than I delete.
Once the story is there, I throw it to my Kindle app, and start reading it as if it was someone else’s book, editing as I go. Rinse and repeat until I can’t find any errors.
Blurbs tend to write themselves during the editing process, and the cover is defined, commissioned, and completed by the time the editing process is complete.
I release as soon as I consider the book is polished well enough.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
Jane is my first AI character. She starts out as a ship computer AI, gains a robot body, uses tech to appear human, and learns how to be so human, no-one can tell she’s not. She’s a fiercely protective side-kick, but has a sense of humour which produces some very funny dialog. She’s done disco dancing, fleet control, bait for a serial killer, killed the bad guy when the main character decided not to, and eventually becomes a Queen of her own Kingdom.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
Dismembering a corpse, within a combat suit, in the vacuum of a space hulk, using something resembling a Japanese Katana sword.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
As distasteful as getting editors to cover your first novel in red is, it’s really necessary. I’ve seen too many authors release their first book with so much ego involved, having not had a good editor, or even a proof-reader look at it. They crash and burn, and that first book haunts them ever after.
All first time authors have blinkers on as far as their writing is concerned. Successful authors fall into 2 groups. Those who had their first books edited and learned how to do it themselves to a higher level, and those who still get their books edited by professionals. No matter how good you are, your first book needs a professional editor, and multiple proofreading passes, in order to polish it to a good enough standard to be acceptable to readers.
The process is hard to go through, since an editor will most likely gut what you think is your ‘voice’. But that is what they’re supposed to do. The first book is a learning journey on a steep slope. But it is necessary.
The other part of this is letting go of ego. Too many first time authors think they are the second coming, and their work is perfect as it is. They fail to listen to experienced authors trying to help them improve the book, blurb, and cover before they launch it, and crash and burn spectacularly. Help is out there on author forums and groups, and the authors who utilize the experience of successful authors who help new ones, do a lot better out of the gate.
The first launch is a matter of parking your ego, getting the best advise you can, using professional services to polish your story as much as you can, and producing the best possible story, presented in the best possible way, before you present it to readers. What happens then depends on how well people like the story, not on what was wrong with the presentation.
You mention the need for a professional editor for a first book, which implies you’ve moved past using one. What did you learn from initially using an editor that you’re able to use now and avoid going that route?
The first thing everyone learns is to hate the red which comes back. It’s a good motivator for learning how to edit yourself. What I did was looked hard at what the red was about, and I set down on paper all the common corrections. When my editor wasn’t available for book 3, I methodically used the find function in word, to check a long list of things I usually had wrong. These included two words where a contracted word is better, a list of words I over used badly and could easily be replaced by a better one with just a little thought, and typical spelling mistakes I make all the time, which the spell checker won’t pick up because they are real words.
There are two parts to editing. Looking at the story itself, and proofreading the words used. I tend to write fairly clean first drafts, so I don’t rewrite very much on the first editing pass. If anything, I add in new ideas, and clarification. While writing, I keep notes on what needs to be covered later on, so I rarely miss anything important, and pick these up on the first full read pass.
Proofreading is where most authors fail, as far as the final product is concerned. But learning to proofread is first a matter of learning about yourself. What do you always do wrong? Where are your blind spots? These are where editors and proofreaders will show you what you need to concentrate on when self-editing.
One of the tricks to proofreading is putting it on your reading device, and reading it like it’s someone else’s book. So much becomes obvious this way, which you never saw on the PC, no matter how many times you read there. I do most of my editing from my device, reading like a reader, and changing on the PC version as I go.
It’s a skill. You will either learn it or not. Editing and proofreading are separate skills, but they can be combined with writing. You just need to change hats a lot.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
Not much. 1 Mill isn’t all that much these days in the scheme of things. It won’t buy me a decent sized apartment on the beach, which is where I’d like to be living.
It would allow me to travel without needing to worry about those months where you don’t release, and so your income drops like a stone. I’d do the American Comic-con circuit for a while.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
The two authors I wait impatiently for the next book are Nathan Lowell and Glynn Stewart. Both have series on the go where the end of each book is always way too soon. Both write Space Opera, but on opposite ends of the spectrum.
I can’t say I’ve discovered a new author in recent times. One of the disadvantages of being in editing mode so often, is reading other people’s books is difficult, because you also edit them as you read. Hence, I only go looking for something really new, between releasing a book, and beginning writing the next one. Sometimes there is no gap, so I don’t even look.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
I have 4 on the go at the moment.
Editing the next A.I.Destiny/Snark based book is the primary focus right now. The fifth is in editing for release in the second week of October. The series finale is in planning.
I’m also developing a sequel to my original series, setting it up to be a core for more books in the original galaxy.
I’ve already begun something completely new as well. Crossing genres much more than I already have. For now, I’m not sure if it’s a standalone book, or the first of a new trilogy.
As well, with a co-author on the current project, I’m working towards co-authoring in my universe with other authors. I’ll soon have a universe with 2 galaxies, and separate characters and species, sharing technology with Humans and AI’s at the center of them. A second co-author is currently working on a backstory to one of my characters.
How do you keep track of your many ongoing projects? Do you try and prioritize one at a time or do you just work on whatever strikes your fancy on a given day?
I’m a fairly methodical person, so I work mainly on one thing at a time. Ideas come and go, I take time out to make notes, but I keep going on what the current book is. This doesn’t stop my head from going off track, but deadlines help keep you focused. Once a book in a series is released, you need to focus on 4 to 6 weeks later being the release date for the work in progress. You can deviate a bit, but too much makes your release date slip.
I do allocate some time each day to working on other projects, but come writing time, you work on only the current book.