Saturday, 27 July 2013

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - Beta Readers

July 27, 2013 O’Byrnes Pub, Edmonton Alberta

Part Six – On the value and importance of beta readers

Question: So, just what is a beta reader and how does one help in the process of writing a novel?

Answer: Well, they help in many ways. Basically, beta readers provide some of the functions of an editor, but in a more informal manner. They are of utmost importance in the new paradigm of publishing.

Question: So beta readers are a new thing?

Answer: Beta readers have always existed, though the name might be new. For example, we know that the Bronte sisters had one another for beta readers, as well as their brother. The private writing competition under which Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein was essentially a circle of beta readers. I think a professional editor or editors working for a big publishing house , helping a writer to polish a novel is mostly a 20th century invention. And even at that, many recent writers, especially mid-list and genre writers, are on record as saying the involvement of professional publishing house editors was often minor, when present at all.

Question: So beta readers really are nothing new. Tell us more of what they do.

Answer: It varies a lot. Their first and main purpose is just to respond to the writer’s work honestly in terms of how it affected him or her as a reader. Was the story interesting and engaging? Did the characters seem like people you would want to know, people you could care about? Was the setting interesting? Were there problems in terms of story, of continuity, logical structure, suspension of disbelief?

Question: So the beta reader is basically a story editor?

Answer: Yes, but not at a highly advanced technical level. A beta reader gives feedback that the average person can relate to. She or he’s a careful reader, but generally not a professional. A good beta reader keeps the book grounded in the world of regular book readers and buyers. They probably won’t help you win a literary prize, but with luck they will help you win a readership.

Question: What about punctuation, spelling, word choice, stuff like that?

Answer: I wouldn’t expect a beta reader to go too deeply into matters like that, though if they catch those errors, that’s great. But that’s not necessary, because that’s a line editor or proof-reader’s job. But a writer appreciates having awkward or confusing passages pointed out to her, things that might get in the way of enjoyment of the story.

Question: What if you don’t agree with the input of the beta reader?

Answer: Well, a writer has to take a beta reader’s contributions very seriously, or there’s no point to it. The beta reader is giving you the gift of their time and their considered opinions, so you are very much obliged to think hard about their suggestions. Ultimately, the writer must make the final call, but she also has to give great weight to the reactions of a fresh, unbiased mind, and one whose ego is not bound up in the work. That’s something invaluable that only a beta reader, of one sort or another, can provide.

Question: Can you give some examples of where a beta reader’s input has helped you out?

Answer: Naturally, all input is helpful, whether it is a general “I really liked the story” or a more detailed suggestion. But, to give some detailed examples, there were a couple of places in both Kati 1 and Kati 2 where my beta reader pointed out that I was letting one character relate interesting and exciting events (both were fight or action scenes) as an after the fact story to another character, rather than having those events occur in the moment, as a “you are there” incident. So I changed those scenes, re-writing them accordingly and improving the story. I think the books are stronger as a result of that.

Here’s another example. An upcoming book of mine, a children’s adventure story (Nathan’s Adventures in the Other-Other Land), is currently being reviewed by an age appropriate beta reader. I really appreciate that, as nobody can provide as valuable advice for a children’s story as a young person can. She’s already told me that there are a couple of places where she thinks that the wording can be improved - how can you top that feedback?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - World Building

July 18, 2013 Garneau Pub Patio, Edmonton Alberta

Part Five – World Building

Question: How do you build a world? How big and detailed should it be?

Answer: A clear picture of your world is important in writing a story. It’s hard to develop characters’ reactions to events, unless the setting for the initiating actions is clear; that includes having an adequate amount of detail. Some readers may chafe at this, wanting more action and less background, while others are quite fascinated by the process and imaginative results of world building
Question: I suppose that’s true in all story telling but it seems that is especially acute in science fiction and fantasy. Why do you think that is? Is it intrinsic to the genre, or is it driven by the type of reader who is drawn to speculative fiction - that is, people who enjoy complexity and novelty.

Answer: In my case, the need for world building probably comes from within, rather than from a deliberate attempt to attract a certain type of reader. In my latest book, Kati 3 (in progress) I was having trouble inventing a story because I hadn’t yet invented the setting, especially Gorsh’s planet, the place where my villain lives. I realized that Kati 1 and Kati 2 had very specific environments, and to a considerable extent those environments drove the story. The physical and social environments of those worlds really set the tone for the narrative arcs of the stories. Setting and narrative are interdependent. I suppose any fiction writer would agree with that.

Question: As would any social scientist. After all, the physical environment has a huge influence on the resulting culture and behaviour of the inhabitants of that environment.

Answer: That is true in reality but its just as much a necessary truth in fiction as in non-fiction. After all, you can’t have a person conquer a mountain or fall off of one until you have built the mountain range and the planet it exists on.

Question: Yes, in science fiction, you have to build whole planets, sometimes galaxies.

Answer: But the look in a lover’s eye, the arch of the eyebrow can be just as important as the shape of a galaxy. Nonetheless, one always has to remember that those tiny detail must be contained in that larger setting that we call world building.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - Dystopia vs. Utopia in Science Fiction

Part Four – Dystopia vs. Utopia in Science Fiction

Question: Helena Puumala, I note that the Kati of Terra books are generally pretty up-tempo and optimistic, though they don’t shy away from some serious environmental and social problems. For example, Kati 1 is set in a post global warming catastrophe world while Kati 2 is set on a planet where the local version of the 1% (i.e. the oligarchs) have exploited the bulk of the population for far too long. How do you reconcile this contrast?

Answer: I think that I have read far too many SF books that describe an unpleasant, uncomfortable dystopia, setting these narratives in a relentlessly pessimistic background, never pulling these worlds out of their doldrums. In response to that, I wanted to write books that would offer my readers some hope of a brighter future.

Question: In a sense, though, you do include a dystopian streak. You have dealt with environmental themes, social injustice, slavery, even child abduction. Yet the books are definitely not depressing. The characters take these things in stride, and generally overcome these obstacles, even to the point of helping to set things right.

Answer: That’s how I wanted to do things. Kati is never overcome by obstacles, which is to say she never lets them overwhelm her. She is fully aware of the seriousness of the situations in which she finds herself, often very dangerous situations, but she refuses to give in to a negative or despairing world view. She insists on working things out, as best she can. It’s the same with Mikal. I suppose that they are optimists as well as romantics.

Question: Well, real people sometimes do go through incredibly difficult circumstances, yet still survive and even prevail. Sometimes they even have fun doing so, at least part of the time. For example, a lot of people who lived through WW2 seem to have a lot of surprisingly positive reminiscences.

Answer: That’s how I wanted to write Kati – the sort of person who can be a positive beacon for other people, even in the most trying of circumstances. Mikal’s mixed background helps Kati out, as well. Lamania, his mother’s home planet is an exemplar of civilization, looked upon by most of the rest of the Star Federation as a place to be emulated, as a fair, though not by any means perfect, society. Borq, his father’s home world, has also overcome its less civilized tendencies, largely due to its turn towards a matriarchal social structure. So Mikal knows that things can get better. I hasten to add that the planets in my world have used many strategies to overcome their social problems ) – many still have a long way to go, though.

Question: Well, it’s a big galaxy, so it’s interesting to let all sorts of arrangements get a try-out. And it’s refreshing to think that alternative realities, including our own future, can be hopeful.

Answer: Hope is great, but I also hope that human beings will always have serious challenges to overcome.

Question: That’s a paradox.

Answer: But of course, the best things in life are.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Astrophysics Corner, Part 1 – Neutron Stars

In The Witches’ Stones Book 1 – Igniting the Blaze, a star known as the Firedragon plays a prominent role in Coryn and Steph’s escape from the Organization raider spaceships.   This star is actually a neutron star of the type known as a soft gamma repeater:

“The Firedragon was the most notorious star in the galaxy.  It had been given its name for a reason – it did, indeed, breathe fire, in the form of intense X-rays and gamma rays.  A neutron star of the type known as a soft gamma repeater, it poured out incredible amounts of energy in short, unpredictable bursts. In less than an hour, these flares had been known to produce more energy than Earth’s sun produced in decades. And those were routine bursts of the Firedragon – a super-flare was beyond imagining, capable of sterilizing an unlucky planet at the distance of tens of light years.”

In further neutron star news in the actual world, the research group at McGill University,  to which our astrophysics consultant, PhD student Scott Olausen,  belongs recently made an important discovery in the neutron star field - an "anti-glitch" where a neutron star slows down rather than speeds up.  Prior to this, an anti-glitch had never been reliably detected.  This gives hints about the interior of neutron stars and the makeup of matter, since a neutron star acts somewhat like a gigantic elementary particle (this is a hugely oversimplified explanation, of course). The paper was recently in Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in the science world.  Here are some links to the announcement:

Scott and the McGill Pulsar Group also have many fascinating papers in The Astrophysical Journal.