Dan Moren: Five Things I Learned Writing The Aleph Extraction
Aboard a notorious criminal syndicate’s luxurious starliner, Commonwealth operative Simon Kovalic and his crew race to steal a mysterious artifact that could shift the balance of war…
Still reeling from a former teammate’s betrayal, Commonwealth operative Simon Kovalic and his band of misfit spies have no time to catch their breath before being sent on another impossible mission: to pull off the daring heist of a quasi-mythical alien artifact, right out from under the nose of the galaxy’s most ruthless crime lord.
But their cold war rivals, the Illyrican Empire, want the artifact for themselves. And Kovalic’s newest recruit, Specialist Addy Sayers, is a volatile ex-con with a mean hair-trigger who might put the whole mission at risk. Can Kovalic hold it all together, or will the team tear themselves apart before they can finish the job?
Must go faster
My first two books were written on spec—which is to say, I wrote them, and then my agent pitched them to publishers. But The Aleph Extraction was the first time I wrote a book on contract, meaning the publisher paid me to deliver it on time. Which meant that if I didn’t deliver it, it wasn’t one of those “nobody will get upset at me but myself” situations. No, many many people would be upset. Least of all me.
Look, I’m no stranger to deadlines. I’ve been a working journalist for almost fifteen years, and in that time I would regularly punch out an 800-word piece in about an hour. But getting into the creative zone and spinning an entire world out of whole cloth? It takes a little more energy. My first book took nine years to go from being written to getting published.
When Aleph came around, I realized I had about nine months. Nine months to write it, get feedback from beta readers, incorporate that feedback, send the draft to my agent, incorporate his feedback, and then eventually send it on to my editor. Doable? Well, if a human child can develop in nine months, seems like I ought to be able to dash off a book with spaceships and pew pew pews.
Believe me, I am as flabbergasted as anybody to discover that not only can I write a book in nine months, but it’s actually pretty good. Luckily, deadlines are one of the few things in the world that can motivate me to plan ahead, so I ended up creating a schedule for when my first draft had to be done, when I needed to revise it, and when I needed to send it to various parties. Did I hit all those milestones? I mean, do I look like Idris Elba, the handsomest man alive? The answer to both of those questions is “no—but close.”
A lot of writers advocate torturing your characters. That is because writers are, at heart, sadists. Well, maybe just Stephen King. But we are definitely control freaks, which is why we delight in creating realms in which we have absolute, godlike authority.
Anyway, I once read some writerly advice that coincidences in stories are no-nos if they help your characters along—oh ho, here just happens to be the exact MacGuffinator that will destroy Kirkon the Unfathomable’s invulnerable Battle-o-Gon. The day is saved!
But, on the flip side, they pointed out, you can always have coincidences that make things worse for your characters. Trapped in a space station that’s slowly falling out of orbit into a planet of such crushing pressure that Dirkly Massivepecs will soon be nothing more than a cube of compressed flesh? Thank god there’s an escape hatch right here that will let him jettison to saf—OH NO, IT’S FULL OF SPACE BEES.
No one ever expects the space bees.
A point with a view
Both of my previous novels featured two narrators, but was that enough for The Aleph Extraction? Nope. I’ve added a third character, because I believe in increasing the difficult every time I start on a new ordeal. Like that guy in The Crucible. “More weight!” Never stay still. That’s when the space bees get you.
Addy Sayers, my new narrator, is very different from my previous POV characters, Simon Kovalic and Eli Brody: she’s got a chip on her shoulder the size of a small asteroid, and she’s not here to make friends. Growing up on the street, eking out a living as a petty criminal, Addy’s had a hard life and she doesn’t expect anything from anybody.
Putting Addy into the mix with Kovalic and Eli not only means an opportunity to take a different perspective on what’s going on in the Galactic Cold War, but also means I got to explore some parts of the universe that we haven’t seen before. And let me tell you, they’re not pretty: thieves, gangsters, arms dealers. A big war is a perfect time for them to thrive.
Timing is everything
Of course I worried about timelines in my previous books: time, as the only saying goes, only exists so everything doesn’t happen at once. But neither of those earlier books included an elaborately plotted super space heist. Does Tom Cruise leave anything to chance when he jumps out of a plane to land on a nightclub in Paris? I mean, I don’t know, he’s kind of crazy, maybe? But does Ethan Hunt? Heck no.
Telling a heist from multiple viewpoints means that I had to make sure that everything lines up correctly, otherwise one character might de-ionize the neural explainotron before their partner remembers to invert the retro field’s dynamic quotient, and we wouldn’t want that, would we? Ha ha, we would not, let me tell you!
For me, that meant going through and isolating every place in that chunk of the story where one of the characters makes any reference to time, and then making sure that all of those times agreed. Not only so that things happened in the right order, but—much more importantly—so that eagle-eyed readers won’t write in to point out that it doesn’t align. Because it sure would be embarrassing to have a basic math error make it to print in one of your books, not that I’d ever know. Ha ha ha.
Unexpect the expected
I wrote the book. I turned it on time. I lined up some publicity. I even planned for the space bees.
But the crystal ball neglected to tell me that there was a pandemic waiting in the wings. LOUSY PIECE OF GLASS. Point is: no matter how well you think you’ve planned your latest endeavor, life invariably finds a way to mess with you. Release dates get moved, copies don’t get shipped on time, audiobook production gets held up. That, as my father would say, is the way the cookie crumbles, which also explains why I eat all my cookies in one bite now.
What to do? Well, the only thing to do. Roll with those punches. Paper copies get shipped before the official release date? Encourage those folks to write reviews or share pictures on social media! Book launch gets canceled? Consider a virtual reading instead. Can’t handle the crippling doubt of whether or not this book will succeed and you’ll get the opportunity to write another one? Spend hours building a utopic island paradise in Animal Crossing. I mean. What?
The things that are in your control, you do your best to be flexible and to adapt to the new normal. The things that are out of your control? Well, in the words of the ice queen herself, let them go.
Just remember: in space, no one can hear the bees.
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DAN MOREN is a novelist, freelance writer, and prolific podcaster. A former senior editor at Macworld, his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Macworld, Popular Science, Yahoo Tech, and many others.