M.C.R. Marshall wrote and published his first novel Delphi's Shadow, an action-packed and thoughtful science fiction story. Here's my interview with Mike...
Where did the idea for Delphi’s Shadow come from?
I had a completely different idea for my first novel. Started developing it and everything. Then about two weeks into the first write your first novel course someone (might have been David in fact) posted a link in the Ottawa Writers Workshop FaceBook page about the Hubble telescope detecting a pitch-black planet. Hmm what could they be hiding? I thought. And off I went.
Delphi’s Shadow is a ‘hard’ sci-fi story, meaning that I try to ground it as much as possible in realistic science and logic, as opposed to something like Star Wars which is closer to fantasy. There was a lot of influence from the Expanse book series and Charles Sheffield’s Cold as Ice series, as well as Ian Banks (especially the names of the ships).
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing Delphi’s Shadow?
This was my first attempt at approaching novel writing in a structured way. I had the usual misgivings about structure somehow destroying the art of the writing, but once I understood it as a process that teaches you the fundamentals, rather than some sort of restrictive set of rules, I was good to go. Although I got into a real mess because I used cue cards to map out my structure rather than a Word document, and I ended up turning them into such a scribbly mess that I couldn’t understand what I’d written and had to redo the whole thing.
As it is with a lot of people, getting the space to write was a big challenge. I have a busy job that demands a lot of brain energy, I’ve got kids, I’ve got chores around the house, I have friends and hobbies and I like to stay in shape and all sorts of things that take up my time. So I had to make room by giving things up. For me that was Netflix. That hour I’d spend watching a series, I recommitted to writing.
Another thing I noticed was that about halfway through the novel I felt as if I’d leveled up as a writer. I’d hit 50k words and suddenly I was putting better sentences together, I was showing and not telling, I was getting comfortable with pacing and foreshadowing and reigning in my overdependence on passive verbs. Which was great, but also discouraging because I realized I had to do something with the first half of my novel to raise it up. I spent a lot of time rewriting entire sections and I still don’t know if it made that much of a difference. I think this is a dilemma that most first time novelists may face one way or another.
Finally the editing almost killed me. Seriously. I think I spent just as long editing as I did writing. Some people love editing. I don’t know what planet they’re from, but for me it was like pulling teeth.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Definitely a plotter. I have to know where I’m going at least in broad terms. I think of it like planning a long journey. I start out with where I want to go, I have a good idea of how I’m going to get there, but I’m completely open to changing it up along the way if something interesting comes up. If I look back on my original plot outline and compare it to the final manuscript, there are big deviations. But the initial outline allowed me to think about how this was going to change the story and keep me from the dreaded writing myself into a corner trap.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I read a lot, as most writers do, which shows me how other authors have approached all the technical aspects of writing, how they create stories and engaging characters (or not - which is just as valuable). I’m constantly following up interesting articles and blogs, which is where I get my concept ideas. I particularly enjoy science and futurism blogs like Isaac Arthur’s Youtube channel. I also do a lot of people watching, because at the heart of any good story there are interesting people. All of my characters are made up of bits and pieces of people I know or even just passed on the street one day.
Now that your first novel is out, can you tell us what’s next in your writing agenda?
Delphi’s Shadow was set up as the first in a trilogy. But my next project was going to be totally different, because I wanted to experiment with something new. I’d plotted the new book and started in on the first sections. But I was having difficulty getting into it and I found myself drawn back to the story I started with Delphi’s Shadow. So I’ve given in and I’m plotting out the sequel, tentatively titled Delphi’s Remains.
Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their first novel?
Obviously I’m a big believer in making a plan and a plot, which was key to me getting the work done. But at the end of the day the most important thing is this: Write. Write. Write. It’s the only way you’ll get good at it and the only way you’ll finish that story. Make it a priority. Tell people that this is important to you so that they can help you claim the space to do it. Make it the thing you reward yourself with. Make it more important than that exciting new show on Netflix.