Monday, June 29, 2015

R.S. Penney: The IAN Interview

I was born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario where I attended Saltfleet High School and McMaster University. I've spent most of my life fighting for the little guy in one form or another, advocating for the poor, for environmental sustainability, for minority rights.

Throughout my twenties, I wrote about five novels and threw them all out because they weren't very good. But I improved and honed my skills with each new manuscript. About two years ago, I had an offer from a traditional publishing house, but I chose to go indie instead. Writing is my passion; if I could dedicate myself to one thing, it would be bringing the ideas in my head to life.

IAN: Please tell us about your latest book.

R.S. Penney: Symbiosis is kind of a mix of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Gene Roddenberry envisioned an optimistic future, a society where racism, sexism and other such prejudices were all a thing of the past, where poverty and deprivation had been eliminated. I was fascinated by the idea of “what would happen if people from that optimistic future Earth had to live side by side with humans from the present day?”

Ten thousand years ago, a very powerful species took primitive humans and scattered them on Earth-like worlds throughout the galaxy. Some of those societies advanced to the point where they developed space-flight; some are peaceful and egalitarian while others are dystopic and violent. The story examines the culture clash between some these worlds with modern-day Earth thrown into the mix.

Anna Lenai is a young Justice Keeper, an officer of the law who pursues a felon into uncharted regions of space and discovers Earth. 

The series focuses on smaller, interpersonal conflicts such as family or relationship drama in addition to the larger conflicts of falling empires and changing political landscapes. Character development is a very important focus; in fact every review I've had mentions the depth and versatility of the characters. 

IAN: Is Symbiosis published in print, e-book or both?

R.S. Penney: Symbiosis and all subsequent Justice Keeper novels will be available in both print and e-book form

IAN: Where can we go to buy a copy of Symbiosis?

R.S. Penney: If you’d like to purchase Symbiosis in paperback, follow this link.

If you want to buy it on the Kindle, follow this link. (Note kindle has a free app for iPads, iPhones and other tablets).

And if you want the Kobo version, it’s right here.

IAN: What inspired you to write Symbiosis?

R.S. Penney: When I was fifteen, I was reading a lot of epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth: that sort of thing. One thing I very much wanted to do was to create a story with two central protagonists, a young man and a young woman. Those characters eventually evolved into Jack Hunter and Anna Lenai.

The other thing I noticed, when I was a teenager reading epic fantasy, was that everybody was white. If you look at Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time or even something a little more modern like Song of Ice and Fire, you'll find that most of the main cast is white. You'll get the odd person of colour, but those are few and far between. So I really wanted to write a story where you had a diverse cast with a wide range of ethnicity. The next character I created eventually became Harry Carlson.

At the time, these characters were all living in an epic fantasy world, but I very quickly grew bored with that idea because I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do with these people. Jack and Anna were living in your typical bucolic fantasy town – you know the one; it looks like Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings – and then something comes along and sweeps them off into an adventure. But I found myself so unenthusiastic about writing that story. One thing I dislike about epic fantasy is that it just takes so long for anything to happen. With the exception of the Hobbit, where the journey is the whole point, I was always thinking “can't we just skip to what happens when they get there?”

One thing I realized I loved in sci-fi/fantasy was seeing characters do ordinary things. Yes, Buffy killed demons, but she also went on dates, did homework, took tests. It makes the characters feel like real people. So I wanted to write characters who had ordinary problems (work, school, family, etc) in addition to the extraordinary problems like saving the world from certain disaster. Put all these things together, and the switch to science-fiction became obvious. 

IAN: Did you use an outline or do you just wing the first draft?

R.S. Penney: An outline? 

God, no! 

I'm the most disorganized person on the planet, but I have this freakishly good memory for certain things like plot points and character bios. And a complete goldfish memory for things like shopping lists. Go figure. I'll step you through the process of how something goes from a flash of inspiration to a finished product. 

I usually write a story around the climax, meaning I come up with the climax first and then fill in the details of what led to that moment afterward. I'm a huge fan of rock music. Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Pretty Reckless: that kind of rock music. So a lot of my good ideas happen when I'm behind the wheel of my car.

Take a random song – let's say Alert Status Red by Matthew Good. I'll hear that song, and suddenly the image of Anna running through an office building and dodging security guards will pop into my head. I usually write down the action sequence at my earliest opportunity. I can hold onto it for a few days, but I like to get a first draft on paper before I lose some of the details.

So now that I have that scene, I need a context for it. Generating a context is simply a matter of asking yourself all the logical questions. 

Why is she in the office building?

So I invent an objective. Maybe there's something in the office building she needs to recover. (I'm being vague here to avoid spoilers.)

How did she get into the office building?

What sort of security measures would stand in her way? Most major companies use key-card access. So how does she get a key-card? These all lead to extra chapters that fill in the rest of the story. Chapters where we set up the central conflict, inform the reader of the stakes (What happens if Anna loses), and deal with the mini-conflicts like getting past security. 

Now back to square one. Maybe I'm listening to I'm on Fire by Bruce Springsteen, and that song inspires a major turning point in the romance subplot. Again, ask all the logical questions. How did we get here? Why do the characters feel the way they feel? Put the interpersonal plot together with the action plot, and pretty soon you have a novel.

IAN: How long did it take to write Symbiosis?

R.S. Penney: Six months or twelve years, depending on whether or not you count the time I spent learning how to write. The idea has been in my head since high school. I can generally finish a Keepers book in about six months.

IAN: Do you have a specific writing style?

R.S. Penney: I tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of the scene, the specifics of what happens, and then fill in the character's thoughts, feelings and interpretations afterward. The internal monologue is usually the hardest part for me because I'm always asking myself “how do I express this complex idea without sounding pretentious?” And then, of course, you have to add the little touches that make a character unique. Jack's internal monologue tends to include a lot of slang and vernacular; whereas someone like Wesley Pennfield would have a very dry, very formal monologue. Wesley is less likely to use contractions. That sort of thing.

But I focus on the nuts and bolts for a very simple reason; there is a temptation among authors to really get lost in the musings of your character. That can be fun, but if you do it too often, your readers will start skipping ahead to the point where the story picks up again.

IAN: How is Symbiosis different from others in your genre?

R.S. Penney: Before I answer this question, let me just state that “different” does not mean “superior.” I'll tell you what I think makes my book stand out, but there is a tonne of great sci-fi out there, from a tonne of talented authors, both independent and traditionally published.

My series differs from other science fiction novels by its emphasis on blending the ordinary with the extraordinary. Most science fiction I've read focuses on far-off planets or futuristic dystopias – and there is certainly that element to the Keepers Saga – but the characters who inhabit my universe have jobs, families and social lives. There are chapters of Symbiosis that focus on the friction between Jack and his coworkers or Harry's relationship with his kids.

That's not to say that those elements aren't present in other works of science fiction – they most certainly are – but I think it comes down to the setting. Take, for example, the Hunger Games. Even when she's not in the ring, Katniss's everyday life looks nothing like yours or mine. She lives in a world that is so different from our own that it affects every aspect of her life. For that reason, the minutiae of her average day still feels somewhat fantastic. That's one of the best things about the Hunger Games! Everything feels fresh, new and exciting. 

My characters live in a world that looks very much like our own on the surface, a world where all the fantastic elements are hidden from plain view. To my mind, that has the added advantage of making the abnormal all the more striking when it creeps into the everyday lives of my characters. 

IAN: Are there any new authors that have caught your interest?

R.S. Penney: Glenn Soucy.

He has a remarkable ability to blend crisp fast-paced writing with some very creepy plot twists. The action is solid, the characters fleshed out and the pacing spot on. A strong author all around.

Kristal Shaff.

In her latest novel, Krystal has created a fascinating fantasy world with a unique magic system. It's rare for a book to create a world that pulls you in with its attention to detail and compelling characters. Krystal hits both of those targets with pinpoint accuracy. 

IAN: Do you have any advice for other writers?

R.S. Penney: Absolutely.

Be careful about taking advice from other authors. 

By the way, is this a good time to mention that I do a weekly blog where I offer tips and pointers to new writers? No, but in all seriousness, my advice is to be careful about taking advice from other authors, and that applies just as much to me as it does to anyone else.

When I was younger, I used to read interviews from some of my favourite authors about how to write a book. They'd talk about things like the importance of detailed outlines, extensive notes and what have you, and I tried to do it their way. Their way didn't work for me. 

So to those of you who like my books, don't look at what I do and set that as the benchmark for how you should go about writing a novel. When it comes to writing fiction, there are a million ways to get it right and a billion ways to get it wrong. 

Ultimately, your job – the job of any artist, in fact – is to create an emotional connection with your audience. The nuts and bolts like smooth prose, clever plot twists and snappy dialogue are just tools to achieve that end. Doing these things poorly will damage your emotional connection – so you do want to learn to do them well – but there are so many ways to do them well.

IAN: Who designed the cover?

R.S. Penney: His name is Mason Matlock. If you're interested in his services, you can contact him at

IAN: Tell us about your next work in progress.

R.S. Penney: The next novel I will be publishing is called Friction, and it's the direct sequel to Symbiosis. The novel is already complete and is currently in editing. I expect a release date in the early fall.

I don't want to get too deep into the details for fear of spoilers, but Friction deals with a terrorist group trying to break up the uneasy alliance between the planets in our corner of the galaxy.

Just last week, I completed the first half of Entanglement, the third book in the Justice Keepers Saga. This book features some shady things going on in the outskirts of our solar system, forcing our heroes to go investigate.