We’ve never talked about the process of writing a whole series here on Zen DiPietro Science Fiction. There’s a lot more to it than writing a standalone, so M.D. Cooper is visiting us to talk about series writing. You might have seen his Intrepid Saga on Amazon–and if you haven’t, go check it out.
Zen: Have you decided how many books there will be in the series?
M.D.: That answer to that question is more complex than one would expect. In the strictest sense, Destiny Lost is the last in The Intrepid Saga series, but I’ve written it in such a fashion that it can also be read as a standalone novel—though a reader may understand more of the nuance if they have read the first three books.
Immediately following the events of this book is a second series which is called The Orion War. The Orion War will also contain four books and will follow the same characters as they shepherd humanity into a new phase of galactic expansion.
The Intrepid Saga will also contain a sub-series of books that all take place during the timeframe of the third book. I expect there to be two books and at least one novella which occur during those years.
Zen: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
M.D.: I wrote the first book (which is now the 4th) by the seat of my pants. Part way through that process, a character named Tanis Richards showed up with a fascinating backstory. From there the tale simply began to tell itself. Tanis is such a strong character, governed by her sense of what she thinks is right, and her duty, that once I put myself in her shoes, most decisions about what would happen next were all but dictated by her.
When I decided to write the prequels (now books 1 through 3), I knew where the story had to go, so in many respects it was my outline. That being said, the plot elements of those books were largely spur of the moment.
For the second series (The Orion War) I did create an outline, but with four books and an anticipated half a million words between them, my 2 pages of notes probably isn’t considered an extensive outline by true outline/plot-driven writers.
Zen: The fourth book of the series (Destiny Lost), which just happens to be releasing November 1, was actually the first one you wrote. Did you have a hard time writing the “past” without changing things in the fourth book? (Polluting the timeline, so to speak?)
M.D.: I did have to make some adjustments, especially to the second half of the 4th book, but by and large I was able to leave it as it was originally written. I have very extensive notes and data about the universe and the setting, so I was able to keep things very well aligned as I wrote books 1 through 3.
Much of the story is about the evolution of Tanis and her journey toward being a much more balanced person. At the beginning of the first book, Outsystem, she is emotionally broken by events in her past. She functions purely on a sense of duty and force of will. Over time she finds her true worth through her successes, but also through friendship with a group of people who respect and admire her, as well as her long romantic journey with her eventual husband, Joseph Evans.
The character of Tanis that the reader sees in the fourth book is noticeably different than the character at the beginning of Outsystem, but that evolution was measured and deliberate. In fact, given that Tanis ages over 170 years through the first three books, it is expected.
Zen: What was your initial plan for the series, in terms of length and overall story arc? How has that changed in the process of writing the books?
M.D.: I initially planned to write three, perhaps four books with a much more localized sphere of influence. As I did more research and plotted out my future history of humanity, I realized that these characters and stories could play a pivotal role in changing the destiny of the human race.
This turned what was initially going to be a 3 book series into two four-book series with the attendant sub-series and novellas I had mentioned earlier. I also have ideas for a third series of books set far in the future, after the events of The Orion War (the second) series.
A lot of this has happened because as I flesh out the setting, I keep seeing stories around every corner. Whenever I talk about a planet, or even space station, tales spring to mind about who built it, what they encountered, and what their work ultimately led to.
An example of that is another series I am planning. Throughout the books I refer to the Phobos Accords, and the AI wars. The AI wars took place a thousand years before the events of The Intrepid Saga, and resulted in the Phobos Accords, which govern human/AI interaction. The AI wars encapsulate two separate major wars known as the first and second Solar Wars.
I never intended to write these, but many of my readers have asked to learn more about those times and what created the unusual symbiotic relationship between humans and AI in the Aeon 14 universe.
Zen: In this series, humans haven’t managed faster-than-light (FTL) travel. As an author, I’ve found that getting from here to there in a book can be tough—you don’t want to slow down the action, but you have to get your characters to another location. In science fiction, FTL is a convenient means of creating a sort of shorthand for traveling massive distances in a manageable amount of time. How have you worked around not having that?
M.D.: My decision to write the books without FTL was inspired by two main factors.
The first were books by other authors which also showed humanity travelling between the stars without FTL. Two notable examples are Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky. In these books Vinge shows a plausible future where humans build massive trade empires where they have to count on the continued existence of the destination civilization before embarking on an interstellar journey. Alastair Reynolds also write great science fiction where there is no FTL and the Ultras ply the black in light hugging ships.
In both of these author’s worlds they posit amazing advances in technology that are not only logical, but required if you don’t have interstellar travel at your fingertips. It also creates the possibility of grand and dangerous adventure where you cannot simply jump to light-speed to flee from trouble.
But you’re certainly right about the pacing and tension being tricky to manage. In Outsystem, the action takes place mostly on two space stations and the colony ship, the Intrepid. Events are fast paced and there are limitless options when it comes to conflict and characters.
However, The Intrepid Saga is about the journey of the Intrepid, and the struggle of the characters to get it to its destination. Many books which utilize FTL have much broader stories about interstellar war, or trade, alien incursions, or all three. Those stories are much harder to tell without FTL.
Without FTL, time itself takes the place of your rapid travel. Given humans that can live hundreds and hundreds of years, you can have things change and progress in a similar fashion just by showing large passages of time.
Zen: To give people a feel for the series, is there a movie or tv franchise you’d liken the Intrepid Saga to?
M.D.: Though the series bears little overt resemblance to it, I took a lot of my inspiration from Firefly. A careful eye may spot similarities in that there are very high and low tech places in Firefly, and that there is no FTL. Another series that I think shares some similarities is both the original and remake of Battlestar Galactica. The similarities there are the all alone feeling that they inspire where there is nothing that the crew can rely on other than themselves. I think some amount of Voyager crept into my writing as well. I find Captain Janeway to be an amazing character, and my favorite Star Trek captain. Also, though they have FTL, they too had a long journey to make across the stars.
Zen: Keeping all the details for an entire series straight can be really tough. I like to use OneNote for organizing books and series. I know a lot of authors who swear by Scrivener. How do you keep everything organized?
M.D.: I have veritable reams of notes, maps, images, and software used for calculating distances, speeds, etc… This kept me going for the first two books, but it began to become too much to manage in that format. I created a website at www.aeon14.com which is the canonical reference for the history and events of the series. Not all of the information I have up there is available to other viewers, but I am working on making it all available to visitors so that they can learn about the series and the setting it sits in.
Zen: A lot of men are wary of writing women in leading roles, either because they have concerns about accurate depiction or that their characters just always generate themselves as men. How did you come to focus this series around women?
M.D.: When I first wrote the series, it never occurred to me that I should be worried about having a female protagonist. I grew up reading Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, and a host of other female SciFi and Fantasy authors who had female protagonists. I always felt that female characters had more nuance to them, and that they were still under-represented.
As I wrote I have to admit that I wondered what business I had writing from a woman’s point of view. I took the time to re-read some of my favorite books and pay careful attention to how their authors presented their female characters.
I also did a lot of research on women’s issues and learned a lot more about how different the world is for them than men. Even though women are reaching parity with men in our western society, they still face much more societal pressure than men do—far more than most men realize they do.
That caused me to give a lot of thought to what women will be like two-thousand years in the future. It is unlikely (hopefully) that there will be any vestiges left of a society where women are told they can’t do things because they are only women, or when they have gender-based expectations placed on them.
In the 42nd century, anyone can look any way they want, and have a lifespan measured in centuries. If a woman wants to have a career that requires intense dedication, followed by decades of child rearing, she may do so without worrying about her biological clock.
I feel that this is evidenced in the main character, Tanis Richards. Following a disgrace in the military, divorce, and disownment by her family, she has a lot weighing on her. However, she is very pragmatic, knowing that she has a lifetime to get past her issues. She also turns down romantic entanglement until she in a place where she knows she won’t be a broken person leaning on another.
When she eventually does become involved with Joe, it is as equals (though she is his superior, and more of a type-A personality than he). I endeavored to show them as a partnership where they can both show strength and weakness to one another.
I should also note that all of my beta readers and editors are women. They have also provided useful guidance and advice when it comes to ensuring that I am true to the characters.
Zen: What’s the hardest thing for you about writing a series?
M.D.: Keeping secrets! There is a really big twist in the fourth book of The Intrepid Saga, and there will be another in the third book of The Orion War series. I’ve had to keep my mouth shut about the twist in Destiny Lost (the fourth book coming out on Nov 1) for over 8 years at this point. I’m very excited to talk about it with my readers in the coming months.
Zen: How does series writing compare to writing a standalone?
M.D.: Measuring out which plot threads to keep open, which to close and how many to juggle at once. It also takes a lot of thought and care to drop clues and hints foreshadowing future events several books in advance. It requires having a clear picture of the story and holding true to that picture.
The best way to manage that is to take one’s time and not rush the story. Sometimes a lot of reflection is needed to work through issues gumming up the plot and come up with clever and elegant solutions.
Zen: Do you have plans for books outside of the Intrepid Saga series(es)?
M.D.: I have a few side projects in the works. I plan to write a novel in the Paradisi Chronicles universe, and I am also participating in a Kindle World with a space opera novella that will come out on December 1st.
Zen: Just out of curiosity, why did you choose to use your initials for your author name? Did another author have the same name?
M.D.: There is another Michael Cooper out there that writes Science Fiction (though I can’t find him on Amazon or Google for the life of me right now). When I first published a number of people thought I was him, so I switched it up.
Zen: Who are your biggest writing influences?
M.D.: The single largest influence is JRR Tolkien, because the moment I put down Return of the King I got a ream of paper and started writing. However, I would say that I don’t write in his style at all, and he isn’t well known for his SciFi. I think that Larry Niven and Vernor Vinge are my seminal influences when it comes to plot and setting. They showed that you can write good, hard science fiction, and still have a fantastical element to it. All of that being said, I think that Anne McCaffrey is my biggest influence. From her I learned a lot about the craft, and I still re-read her works with an eye to how she tells a tale and creates deeply relatable characters.
Zen: What do you hope for people to take away from your writing?
M.D.: The vision of the future that I have in Aeon 14 is one where humans and their creation (AI) have gotten past all the early ugly stages where AI become citizens and society has to adapt to what is effectively a new slavery emancipation. In this future humans and AI have learned to co-exist and have built amazing things together. Though the books focus on conflict and struggle (because that makes for a much better read) it really is an optimistic vision of the future, and one I really hope we can achieve.
Zen: The girl on the cover of Outsystem bears an uncanny resemblance to Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory. Did you ever notice that?
M.D.: An angry Kaley Cuoco, lol. I hadn’t, but now I will.
Zen: Well, you’re welcome for that, then!
Let’s finish up with some quick word association—just say the first word that comes to mind.
Robot: Oppy (Opportunity)
Writing about oneself in the third person always feels really weird, so I won’t do that—you’ll just have to bear with me.
I started writing the day after I put down J.R.R Tolkien’s Return of the King. I quite simply didn’t want the story to end. I wanted to know more about the characters I’d grown to love, what they would do in the future, what challenges they would face.
There have been a lot of starts and stops over the years, but eventually, with the help of my wife—who is a proliferate writer—I completed my first book and got it out to agents.
I am not such a popular writer that I can make a living solely by putting pen to paper, so I do a few things on the side to make money. People often call those things jobs.
By day I write software and manage teams of developers using the Agile development process, continuous integration and other fancy software development thingys.
I find that to be very rewarding and creative work, but it doesn’t quite fill my creativity tank. As a result I can often be found in my wood shop where I build furniture from reclaimed wood and sell it on Etsy and CustomMade.
However, the thing that hits me deepest, that gives me the most satisfaction, is writing a great story, making the characters come alive, and watching them grow and become something I never imagined at the outset of the story.
Get in touch with M.D. Cooper: