PhotobucketWhat can I say about Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace? That I loved it? Because I did. That it’s got nonstop kick-glute action? Because it does. That Aguirre turns conventions upsidedowninsideout, making it impossible to predict what’s coming next? Uh, yeah. That she’s put herself on my must-buy-author list? Absolutely; in indelible ink.

Because I want you to have a true feel for Aguirre’s unique sci-fi novel, we’re including a few outtakes from Grimspace this week and next. Let’s start with a short descriptive blurb I swiped from Amazon to set the stage:

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace-a talent which makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. Then a crash landing kills everyone on board, leaving Jax in a jail cell with no memory of the crash. But her fun’s not over. A group of rogue fighters frees her…for a price: her help in overthrowing the established order.

That’s the setup, but there’s waaay more going on than that, because this is Grimspace.

Let’s get to it.

Interview with Ann Aguirre

Q: The complex world you created is full of AIs who sometimes make for better company than humans, Chi masters capable of directing energy, Sliders who steal identities, Psi intellects who can read thoughts, and Jumpers who travel space—grimspace—via space doors called beacons to reach and discover new ports. There are outlaw planets ripe with cave-dwelling blood feeders, gaseous planets that provide the illusion of everlasting sunset, and even some that feel like home. What triggered the idea for this complex novel? How long did it take for you to complete it? And what does grimspace look like in your mind’s eye?

AA: It’s a funny story. I was taking a late night fog walk through a dark, deserted swamp when the ink-black night was split by a lemon-yellow beam, which sucked me up into the sky and—

What? Okay, take two.

The real version is a little less interesting, if just as strange, albeit in a different way. See, I’d grown frustrated of writing within a certain formula. I was struggling on my current work; the pieces weren’t fitting.

So I sat down with a blank mind and began to write. Initially, it was a practice exercise, something to get my creative juices flowing. I had no characters, no plot, not even a core idea when I started typing. To my surprise, the first pages were good. Riveting even. I had something, but I had no idea where I was going. Jax just grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go until I wrote the last word.

Walter Jon Williams penned an interesting novel called Aristoi, wherein he taps the idea that we possess fragments of other personalities locked away inside our brains; he called them daimones. These sub-personalities can think and feel independently and possess talents that we need. It’s an intriguing take on beneficial schizophrenia, and I sometimes wonder if there’s a kernel of truth to it.

Because the fact is, I don’t know where Jax (or her world) came from. She told me about it as we went along.

It took about three months for me to finish this novel. That’s a long time according to my process as I generally do a draft in 30 days. I wasn’t writing 3K a day, however, while working on this. My agent at the time wanted to focus on my other material, but I’d grown doubtful that I would be the next Susan Elizabeth Phillips, renowned for writing sexy contemporary romances limned in laughter. So I worked on Grimspace part-time, amid other projects, until it took over, and I wasn’t interested in anything else! I finished in July of ’06.

In the simplest terms, grimspace looks like a kaleidoscope in my mind’s eye, but that’s not the length and breadth of it. I think the best description occurs in the book itself.

The world opens up to me, an orchid unfurling at accelerated speed. I think of it as the primeval soup from whence all life originally came, a maelstrom of chaos and energy, sights the human mind isn’t supposed to be able to parse, let alone convert into coherent images that can be used to navigate.

Q: Your plotline has more twists than a rotini warehouse. Did you have a clear idea where you were going when you sat down to write Grimspace, or did the characters take you for a ride?

AA: Thanks! The latter, unquestionably, and I’m riding this rollercoaster with the greatest of glee because half my fun is not knowing when to expect the next upside-down loop. I’m definitely an organic writer. It makes my brain hurt to think about plot points in a book I haven’t written yet. That presents a whole new set of difficulties when it comes to writing on contract.

It also reminds me of an anecdote that Nora Roberts related; I had the pleasure of hearing her speak last year in Dallas at the RWA National conference. She talked about her process and how — like me — she never reads how-to writing manuals (because she’d just get annoyed when she found out she was doing it wrong). I was astonished to discover that we go about penning a novel in more or less the same way.

Nora first writes a “discovery” draft wherein she gets to know the characters and everything just happens as it happens. Then she goes back through to fix it up. If it needs it, she might make one more pass, polishing it, and then she calls it done. That’s how I work too. The funny part — and the point I was coming to — was Nora’s dismay when her agent called her and said, “Great news! You can sell on proposal now.”

Apparently, for years, she would simply write the novel first, and then write a proposal for it. This cracked me up because I could so see myself doing that, but in fact, I recently managed to complete a proposal for two more Jax books. So I guess I’m on my way.

Q: How long do you allot for the editing stage, and what’s the focus as you go through the work—pacing, too many adjectives, etc…?

AA: I don’t have a set time. However, since I work fast, it’s rare for me to spend longer than a week or two in the editing phase (in a single pass). The first time I go through a book, I’m looking for character consistency, continuity issues, typos, and super-obvious plot holes. Since I don’t outline ahead of time, it can be tricky to keep track of everything in my head, and with some books, there are more plot points to manage than others.

Next I let the project sit for a couple of weeks, and then I go through it again, if the work needs it. The second pass, I look at refining my use of language, tightening metaphors, culling extraneous phrases, excising repetitive words / phrases, and sometimes, adding detail if I’ve painted a scene with too broad a brush.

I don’t stress about this too much because I know I’ll be going through it again after my agent reads it. Laura has a fantastic editorial eye and gives me great notes. After I get her feedback, I add more polish. Then, finally, Anne Sowards reads the manuscript and gives me more suggestions. That’s pretty much my final pass to sure the book is shiny. Doing it this way, the changes from line edits have been pretty minimal.

I’m not one who over-writes my first draft, though. My books tend to be between 80 – 85K when I finish them. After I incorporate feedback from Laura and Anne, the book gains 5-10K. I always err on the minimalist side, and they tell me where more detail is needed.

Q: Your characters have to cope with one seemingly impossible situation after another. Did you make a conscious effort to keep the action moving at the speed of…er…a jumper in grimspace?

AA: Absolutely. I wanted the book to be fast-paced and action-driven, but I also wanted to develop strong characters and relationship arcs along the way. The contract lists my Jax series as “romantic science-fiction”, and I tried to balance the action / adventure with the romance subplot so that neither element could be stripped away and still leave the story intact.

Frankly, I hope we’re about to see a revitalization of SF. The genre can be imbued with the same feminine magic and mystique that made urban fantasy such a hot property, but it will take the excitement of readers to power the movement. I’d love to be part of that.

Q: What signs do you notice that point to a revitalization? And why do you think it’s important for the genre (if you do)?

AA: The blurring of boundaries between genres is a great sign that change is coming. When urban fantasy (with romantic subplot), authored by women, started to take off, it became rather hard to tell whether a book was urban fantasy or paranormal romance. I think we’re starting to see the blurring of that line in SF as well. What’s the difference between romantic SF and a futuristic romance? To my mind, not a whole lot, and I hope romance readers agree.

I think it’s important for the genre because women buy more books, particularly fiction. SF has long been a boy’s bastion, full of male protagonists. Tech was the focus more than characterization. And that’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the sort of fiction that draws women. I’m hoping mine is.

Q: Mid-book, you’ve written an important flashback. What factors did you consider before placing that scene where you did? What do you think of flashbacks in general?

AA: I never consider any factors about anything. I just write the book.

I think I’d be quite bored if I plotted everything beforehand; I would feel, essentially, that the book was already written in my head, and thus, finished, so I’d have no driving need to find out what happens next and get the story out.

For the most part, I can’t stand flashbacks; they tend to halt the forward motion of the story. In books and television, they irk me, unless they’re done with expertise. Rachel Caine is an author who executes them with absolute authority.

I don’t know whether mine qualifies as expert, but I couldn’t think of any other way to convey the necessary information. However, I’d add that it’s a dream as well as a flashback, which makes it go down a bit easier. It’s not like Jax stopped in a corridor while Wayne and Garth flashback music trills in the background.

Q: Which part of the book, if any, gave you problems, and how did you handle it?

AA: Actually, yes. Their escape from Hon’s Kingdom gave me fits. I spent a couple of days talking possibilities with my husband before finally settling on the scene as written. It was a tough choice, and it was one of the hardest parts of the book to write. But I do subscribe to the “kill your darlings” school of thought, so if that’s what works…

Q: Before the next question, I want to offer a taste of Grimspace and Jax for all the WU readers:

“Oh, Ms. Jax, do be reasonable–” Carl says, as I sprint for him, duck a half-assed grab from one of his goons, open-hand-smash the bridge of No-chin’s nose, then come down hard on the backswing upside meatwad’s head. Yeah, asshole, that’s how it’s done. I smell the faint scent of sizzling skin as he crumples, the shockstick throwing blue sparks. Its live hum in my hands proves to the other five that I’m dead serious, and suddenly they realize they’ve got a fight on their hands.

Okay, the question: Sirantha Jax is one of the strongest and grittiest female protags I’ve read and she has a great journey: from superhero-celebrity to base humanity. What was it like to write her? Did she ever give you any trouble?

AA: Strong and gritty is a great description of her, and I think you’ve hit on the magic of her appeal straightaway. You know how in epic fantasy novels, you start with a very humble person, a servant, an orphan or a slave, who through bravery and grand adventures, becomes a hero of the realm, possibly even a king? (I can feel you nodding at the the familiarity of that trope.) Although not consciously at the time, I realize now that I’ve reverse engineered that particular archetype.

Jax starts out renowned, Corp royalty. People know her name. Before the start of the book, she’s already a hero, but she’s sheltered. She doesn’t how to function outside the artificial world the Corp has constructed for its navigators. And then she becomes infamous for her failure. That breaking point provides incredibly rich ground for exploration. What happens when a hero(ine) fails?

Well, we find out in Grimspace. And I agree; her journey is fantastic. I love how much she’s grown by the end of the book.

As for what it’s like to write her, well, it’s like falling in love: delicious, exciting, full of fresh anticipation, and constant pleasurable astonishment.

But no, my characters seldom give me trouble. See, I have no expectations and no plan, apart from listening to their stories. Since I accept they’re in charge, things tend to go smoothly. Occasionally, however, they do tell me what needs to happen next, and I have no idea how to accomplish that, such as the escape from the Hon’s Kingdom.

Often my role in the process could be defined thus: it’s like being told you have to bring 50K in unmarked bills to a drop point, but how you get the money? That’s totally up to you.

Come back next week for Part 2 of my interview with Ann Aguirre, when we’ll talk more about characterization, use of humor to inform character, and publishing through LuLu. And be sure to come back this coming Wednesday, 2/27, too, because Ann will be here as our guest blogger–and I think she has some presents to share with WU readers!

About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.