In today’s interview, I have the pleasure to speak with R.M. Olson. Olson has taken the Space Opera genre by storm in 2020 with her series The Ungovernable. She shares insight on planning and writing series, the world of self publishing, and what we can expect to see next in her action packed series.
What other Space Operas before you inspired you to write your own Space Opera series?
I watched the Star Wars movies for the first time when I was 10, and was immediately enamoured–I spent countless hours of my childhood playing Star Wars with my brothers (I was always Han Solo). And then, as an adult, I fell in love with Firefly–the found-family, the interactions between the crew, and the mix of high-tec and low-tec was all just so enjoyable. And then there are books that cross the spectrum–Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.
Space opera is so much fun–you can write a thriller, or a mystery, or a western, or a socio-political satire, all within the same genre. And I think in the end that’s why I wanted to write in the genre; I love the freedom it gives you to write all sorts of different stories.
What came first; the characters or the plot? And how has one driven the other?
Usually it’s the characters, but for this series I woke up one morning and thought, you know what would be fun? A heist. Except, in space. And then I blocked out what I’d need to make that happen. And, of course, once I had the characters, they took on a life of their own. So book one was based on an idea for a plot, and I brought in the characters to serve the plot–but the characters have really shaped how the series has turned out.
What made you decide to self publish the Ungovernable series and can you tell us a little about the self publishing process? What are your favorite aspects of it and what are the biggest challenges that come with it?
A year ago, I was one of those people who thought that if you wanted to be a “real writer” you needed to have an agent and be published by a big-5 publishing house. But I had several author friends who self-published, and they all told me I should give it a try, so I thought I’d put my queries on my other books on the shelf for a bit and write a new series specifically to self-publish. And honestly, I’ve loved it! It’s a steep learning curve, because it’s not just the writing, but finding an editor and cover designer, figuring out logistics, starting a newsletter and a website, learning how to market, etc. Essentially, you need to be doing two jobs when you’re a self-published author–the writing part, and then the marketing/business part. You are in charge of every aspect of the process, from the idea through to selling the final product, and all the decisions in between. And while it’s exciting, it’s also a bit intimidating–how do you know when it’s good enough to go out? How do you decide whether the title and the cover will sell? Where do you advertise? That’s all up to you.
But the nice thing is, the self-publishing world is generally very friendly, with many, many authors more than willing to go out of their way to give you tips and give you a hand. I’m active on several self-published author facebook groups, and they’ve been incredibly helpful as I’ve been learning the ropes. And while sometimes marketing and logistics make me want to pull my hair out, it’s nice to know that I’m the one steering the ship, so to speak–if there’s some aspect of marketing that isn’t working for me, I can drop it and try something different, and I have full control over the process.
Furthermore, I’m both a fast writer, and dreadfully impatient, so perhaps my favourite part about self-publishing is the fact that, instead of waiting 2-3 years to see my books on the shelf, it’s about 6-8 weeks from first draft to publication. I love that I can write all I want, and as much as I want, and as fast as I want, and the only gatekeepers are my readers.
Out of the five books in the series so far, which one was most difficult to write? Did you find that the books got easier to write with each release or vice versa?
Hmmm. Honestly, I’d say Firewall, my most recent release, was the hardest to write. I think it was because it’s the mid-point in the series–the books up until then were all pretty light and fun, and this marked a bit of a change in tone–they’re still fun adventures, but the potential consequences of failure for the characters just got a lot bigger. It was a shifting point for the characters as well, where motives changed and relationships changed and characters made decisions that set the direction of the next four books. And finally, I had to set all the minor plot points in motion that will lead up to the ending. So it was a lot of juggling. But Trojan Horse, book six in the series, was a much easier story to write, and book seven is on track to being the same way.
So overall, it’s gotten easier to write as the series has progressed–I already have my characters, and a basic idea of the overall series arc and what needs to happen as I write. But, because I’m almost as ADHD as my main character in the series, I thought it would be fun to write each book in a slightly different “genre,” so to speak–Zero Day Threat was a heist, Jailbreak was a prison escape story, Time Bomb was a claustrophobic thriller, Insider Threat was a university caper, Firewall was a mafia book, Trojan Horse is all about a crime sting–and there’s more to come. So each book has had its own challenges, new tropes, and fun things to learn about–and, of course, the characters never quite act the way I think they will when I put together my outline.
So far, all books in the Ungovernable Series have been released in 2020, which is an amazing feat and I commend you on it. How long did writing the series take? What does your planning and writing process look like?
It was one of those things where you look back and shake your head and think, what on earth was I thinking? I decided to try out self publishing sometime in December of last year. In January, I picked a genre I wanted to write in and decided on the basic storyline, and I started writing book one at the end of the month. So far (knock on wood), I’m on track to finish at least a first draft of all nine books in the series by the end of the year–although the last one won’t be published until April 2021.
As far as process, basically, I take a week and write up about 10-15 planning documents. I use the snowflake method, by Randy Ingermanson, as well as the beat sheet from Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. So after a week or so, I end up with a story chart for each character, telling the story from their point of view, as well as their motivations, story goals, and what they’re going to learn by the end, as well as a larger 4-page document that sets out the overall story and theme and when each story element takes place (the inciting incident, the pinch points, the midpoint, etc.). Then I put this into a spreadsheet, and make one line for each scene in the book. I know my own writing style well enough by now that I can make a rough guess as to how many words each scene will be, so I can make sure each plot point happens at the right point in the book, and the book is around the length I want it to be (I try to keep each book between 75-100k words for this series). Then, once I have each scene set out, I put the scene notes into Scrivener, and then I just sit down and pound the keys. If I keep myself on track, once I have my planning documents done each book takes between two and three weeks to write. For book seven, though, I’ve decided to try dictation instead of typing. We’ll see how that goes, but I’m excited about it.
Worldbuilding is particularly important within a Space Opera series. Can you tell us a bit about your process worldbuilding and how you find the delicate balance between creating lush, interesting worlds and bogging down the narrative with too much detail?
I’m a very analytical person naturally (I’m a lawyer in my spare time), so when I think of a story, I can’t write it down until I’ve figured out all the socio-political aspects of the world that could possibly play into it. So I’ll generally chew on the important worldbuilding questions while I walk my dog, or do the dishes, or whatever, until I’ve pounded out the important points. That being said, I’m not a super visual person, so my fatal flaw is that I will avoid description unless someone beats me over the head and forces me to put it in (thank goodness for beta readers and editors!), and I also tend to forget that everyone isn’t as familiar with the inner workings of the world I’ve created as I am. Also, I love writing action. So if I have a choice between writing a fight scene or explaining what the prison planet looks like, I’ll always pick the fight scene. The upshot of this is, I’m usually pretty firm on the world-building in my head, but it seldom makes it into the first draft. So then I’ll go back and add in the explanations and the descriptions afterwards. That being said, I think I’m slowly getting better at adding those world-building and descriptive elements in as I write, rather than having to put them in later, which has been saving me a lot of time in the revision process. And as far as keeping the world-building from bogging things down–I have one beta reader who will let me read sections of my first drafts aloud to her (she should be promoted to sainthood, honestly), and whenever I see her eyes start to glaze over, I know I need to cut back.
While the books are Sci-Fi, they have a heavy action element to them as well. Who is the intended audience for your series?
Really, anyone who loves exciting, action-packed books that don’t take themselves too seriously. As a kid, and even now as an adult, those are my favourite books to read. When I started this series, I assumed my readers would be young-ish (in their 20s or so), female, and probably queer, but turns out that many of my readers are older, are men, are straight, or are all three. So I suppose I’ve learned not to assume–I thought men wouldn’t want to read female characters, and straight people wouldn’t be interested in queer characters, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
LGBT representation is largely important to me, and I was really pleased that your main cast includes three LGBT characters. What do you think the future of LGBT presence in Sci-Fi will look like and what does LGBT representation mean to you?
Honestly, I hope we get to a point, both in sci-fi and in real life, where you love who you love, and no one even bothers to comment on whether that person is the same gender as you or a different gender. Those are my favourite types of books to read, to be honest. I’m bi, and I have several family members and close friends who are gay, lesbian, or non-binary, and it’s so important to me to see lgbtq+ characters represented in fiction as a casual, normal thing. Not just when the storyline revolves around the character’s sexuality (although those stories are certainly important), but in every genre, and every circumstance–robbing banks, saving the world, flying spaceships, doing magic, going undercover, driving a bus. I want my kids to be able to read books where queer and trans characters are just as expected as straight and cis character. As an example, when I was a kid, I read so many books about women disguising themselves as men to be able to do cool stuff, or women fighting against the patriarchy to be able to do cool stuff–and those are important stories. But the first time I read a book where the world the author had created treated women as just as competent as men, and they didn’t have to fight just to exist as a woman, it was a revelation to me. I hadn’t expected how empowering it would feel to read that. And that’s how I try to write queer rep in my books. I try to write worlds in which there may be discrimination and injutices on all sorts of different basis, but skin colour, sexual orientation, and gender identification are not among them. You’re a person first, good or bad, and your gender identification and sexuality are just accepted for what they are.
Outside of the Ungovernable series, what other work or hobbies occupy your time?
Well, between being a single mom of four, and a lawyer, and writing like a mad woman, I don’t have as much time for hobbies as I’d like to. That being said, I do usually manage to make time to get outside for hikes in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. I also love doing art–mostly pencil sketches. In a perfect world, where I had all the time I wanted, I’d spend a lot more time drawing and maybe do some watercolours, I’d pick up wood carving again, since I’ve always loved doing that, and I’d go back to my sadly-neglected violin.
Book Number Six; Trojan Horse is coming out on November 30th, and this National Writing Month, you are working on number seven. How many books total do you think the series will include? Do you have a predetermined ending you are reaching for? Or are you letting the story itself decide when it’s reached its conclusion?
The Ungovernable series is going to be nine books long. I’d decided that from the beginning, and made a basic outline for the series, and I’ve been planting the seeds of the ending since book one. However, I’ve really fallen in love with these characters, so maybe one day in the future I’ll revisit them with another series that takes place 8-10 years after this series is over. I have a bunch of other series I’m dreaming up that I plan on launching in the next couple years, but if this calls to me strongly enough, I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point.