Continuing right along in the 12 days of Interviews, next up: science fiction author Sherry D. Ramsey, who has one of the friendliest smiles I’ve seen in an author photograph – and I’ve seen a lot of very happy author photographs.
In fact, if you’re reading this in time: take note that on Saturday, December 14 at 1:00 p.m. Mountain Time, you can watch Sherry beam that smile across cyberspace in a Tyche Books live interview on YouTube. Check their YouTube page here on Saturday to watch Sherry in real-time, and to see previous interviews as well!
In the meantime, check out our…sigh…slightly less technologically advanced but just as lively interview!
9DW: You’ve recently launched One’s Aspect to the Sun, which features a woman who looks like she’s in her thirties, despite being a feisty octogenarian. There are hints in the blurb about DNA and geneticists. What was your method of research?
Sherry D. Ramsey: I always feel that the writer needs to figure out how much science he or she needs to know in order to make the story work. I didn’t feel like I needed a degree in genetics in order to write this story! I just had to know enough about current knowledge and technology to extrapolate intelligently. I have an interest in keeping up with science news, so it was not too difficult to find some articles on theories of why we age and what might slow or stop that process. Then I took a burgeoning technology—nanotech—and imagined where it might go in the future, and how we might use it in medical applications.
9DW: As a reader yourself, how much accurate scientific theory is required, do you think, to make a compelling science fiction story?
SR: I think there are two fundamental ways to approach the science in a science fiction story. The story can utilize existing science (in which case the writer should be well-versed in the elements that are vital to the story), or it can build on a foundation of existing science, but venture into the realms of speculation (in which case a more cursory understanding on the part of the writer will probably suffice). In either case, though, I think the writer needs to consider the minimum amount of theory necessary for the story to work, and include just that much and not much more. The science should support the story, but not overwhelm it. And in most cases, if the writer (and the characters) sound like they know what they’re talking about, that’s probably going to be enough to make the story work. For One’s Aspect to the Sun, for example, I had to make the notion of wormhole travel plausible, and commonplace in the world of the story, but I didn’t need to tell my readers how to build the drive to do it.
9DW: On a recent Goodreads blog post, you provide a lot of sound advice about world building. I’ve also heard warnings about spending too much time world building and not enough on plot, and you address this in your post as well. What’s your strategy for knowing when you’re spending too much time deciding what species of grass grows on what hillside (to borrow a phrase)?
SR: World-building is tons of fun, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that! But it can also turn into a terrible time-sink, and what’s worse, an excuse for not actually writing. For me, before I start a project, I try to think about how much world-building is really needed to be able to tell the story. If it’s a world-spanning epic, then that world will have to be developed in a good deal of detail. If it’s a short story in one corner of the realm, the world-building can be much more focused. I think each writer has to develop a certain level of self-awareness, and enough discipline to stop when the world is sufficiently developed to allow the story to be told. Then it’s time to get to the business of telling the story. You can always add more detail later if it’s needed. But it should all come back to, and serve, the story you want to tell. On a side note, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a great motivator to make you stop world-building and just start writing.
9DW: Thinking back to, say, your first twenty years of reading: what were the well-constructed worlds that you still carry with you in your imagination? And what’s the emotional appeal they have for you?
SR: Edward Eager’s “Magic” books made a big impression on me. I think I appreciated the fact that there were always rules that dictated how magic worked, and these rules were consistent throughout the story. I wanted so badly to stumble into one of those magical worlds! Other books that still resonate are Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, and a little later, his Space Trilogy, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, and Stephen King’s The Stand. I know, it’s a weird mix, isn’t it? Then in my second year of university I took an English course in Foundations of Science Fiction…and I was really hooked. For our final project we could write a short story if we liked! The much-touted “sense of wonder” that draws readers to science fiction and fantasy—I get that. The endless possibilities of speculative fiction really excite me as a writer and as a reader.
9DW: When you read someone else’s SF or fantasy work, what do you look for in terms of world building? What really gets your imagination fired up?
SR: I like a world that feels real, that I can really get immersed in. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is the main focus of the story (see Q. 3!), but that the world is well-drawn and interesting and believable. I like stories that show me other places and cultures and races and things that I haven’t imagined myself…but that don’t get bogged down in telling me too many details at the expense of the story. I’m okay with being thrown into a story world without a lot of explanation at the outset—I’m usually willing to give the author a chance to tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. But a misstep at the beginning of a story will turn me off quickly. Maybe that comes from my editorial experiences with Third Person Press!
9DW: How much of your world building is inspired by what you see here on Earth? Do you do any kind of research, or is it all raw imagination?
SR: I don’t think we can help being inspired in some ways by what we see on Earth—what else do we have to draw upon, after all? As writers, we change it, tweak it, invert it, and extrapolate from it, but it’s the foundation of all that we know. What we create by transforming what we know—that’s where the imagination comes in. But research is important, too. It can show you the flaws in an idea, or offer better ideas than you knew existed. It can help you get the things right that you need to get right for the story to succeed. It’s also another potential pitfall for the unwary: too much research, and you never write the story! It’s all about the balance.
9DW: This is also not your first book (and definitely not your last). What is it about that this book that sets it apart from all your other works? What makes you utter a happy sigh about One’s Aspect to the Sun?
SR: Seeing One’s Aspect to the Sun in print is the culmination of a very long and winding road to publication, a road littered with rewrites and submissions and false starts and waiting. Lots and lots of waiting—until it found the right editor. So it’s very satisfying that way, and so far the response to the book has been wonderful. But most of all, I love these characters. I love their camaraderie, and the not-always-perfect aspects of their relationships, the bonds they share and how they work together even though they’re very different. I think there are a lot of possibilities for them and for the Nearspace setting.
9DW: Changing tack a bit: you’ve been a very active member of SF Canada. There are a lot of associations out there that readers, writers and fans can become a part of, but what does it mean to be really engaged in them? What’s the benefit?
SR: Two things spring to mind in immediate response to this question: that writing is mostly a lonely profession, and that interacting with other writers makes it not-so-lonely. That’s the biggest benefit in a nutshell—knowing other writers, who are part of a community that shares information and works together to make the community better. That sounds a little corny, but you can learn an awful lot from other writers who are willing to share their experiences. It can save you time, money, and sanity. You can also find folks who are willing to read your work and give you feedback, warn you away from sketchy outfits, help you interpret a confusing contract, and write blurbs for the back of your books! Or just commiserate with you if you’re encountering a dry spell. No matter how supportive your non-writer friends or family may be, connecting with other writers can be an invaluable part of your writing life, because they understand it.
9DW: How can we get other writers and readers to be more engaged?
SR: I think we have a great tradition in genre fiction of sharing our experience and knowledge with each other, and especially of being welcoming and helpful to newer writers. That welcoming attitude is key in engaging other writers, and also in connecting with our readers. I think, especially now in the “social media” age, the writer who is accessible has a bit of an advantage over the writer who likes to keep to him- or herself. As for writers engaging with groups and associations, it’s important that non-members know about the potential benefits of being part of the group, so sharing our own experiences is key. If you’re part of a great association, talk about it! Encourage others to join you. That’s how strong associations stay that way!
Sherry D. Ramsey is a writer, web & indie publisher, jewelry-maker and self-confessed internet geek. She lives in Nova Scotia with her husband, two children, and two dogs, where the rest of the family is also creative in various ways. Her published short stories have been collected in To Unimagined Shores (2011), and her debut novel, One’s Aspect to the Sun, was published recently by Tyche Books. She has also co-edited four volumes of regional speculative fiction with Third Person Press, and is a member of the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia and SF Canada. Sherry is currently working on more tales set in Nearspace, and contemplating her stack of other novels in various stages of completion. Keep up with her blog & website at http://www.sherrydramsey.com/, or follow her more pithy musings on Twitter https://twitter.com/sdramsey.