Former Nebula nominee, literary leaning, and all around nice guy Jake Kerr talks about his writing process.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Jake: It varies. I’ve started from a structural idea (“Requiem in the Key of Prose”) and then moved onto actually creating a story around it, and I’ve started with a single image (A boy creating graffiti that could only be seen in whole from one perspective in “Perspective”) and then wrote the story around how that could mean something to someone, and I’ve plotted a story out from beginning to end (“The Old Equations”).
Generally speaking, I do start with an idea and then I work out all the details in my head. I don’t necessarily write the story in my head, but I ponder the actual story as a narrative–the central conflict, how the characters interact, and the overall theme. When I finally sit down to write, I have a very good idea where I’m going.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Jake: This is a tough question, because I enjoy the entire journey but for different reasons for each. I like the experience of first writing something because, without fail, I’ll think of something new that will delight me in some way, whether it is a new twist that adds to the story or even a symbol that pops up at the end that ties the whole narrative in a bow. I also like the process of receiving critiques, because–also without fail–I’ll be informed of something stupid I did that is due entirely to my own blind spots. This can be anything from the overuse of a word to something that I think is clear being actually quite confusing. And, finally, I absolutely love to revise. I spend a great deal of time on practically every sentence, and shining and polishing the words for maximum effect is a wonderful experience.
Tamago: In general, how many drafts does it take before you are satisfied with a story or novel?
Jake: Probably around four or five minimum, but it can go significantly higher. I should note that if I receive five critiques I’ll go through the document five times, taking notes and making changes each time as I go through the critique. However, I consider the sum total one draft–the critique draft. I generally do a first draft, a structural second draft where I look for ways to put the story together more effectively, then a prose polishing draft. Then it is off to critique partners, and then I do the critique draft. After that it’s generally one or two more drafts, and I’m done.
Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?
Jake: Sometimes after the very first draft. I’ll immediately recognize some obvious flaw that didn’t hit me until i wrote the piece. This is not uncommon. Usually, however, it’s after I get a piece of feedback that points out a major flaw that I missed. Sometimes the feedback is very frustrating in that I had a very specific intent in writing the story a certain way, and the effect doesn’t work. I recently wrote a story where the two characters share a consciousness, but the shared pov technique I used went right over the head of the editors. Another time I had a final draft of a novella, and some female readers told me that the very positive theme of the story was completely overwhelmed by the fact that one of the main characters was a young woman who was biologically engineered to be a sex slave. The misogyny in the piece, which was created by design and meant to deliver a positive message in the end, just came across as misogyny. So I trunked the piece, and it was the right thing to do. Sometimes a writer can’t ignore that a piece does not exist in a vacuum.
Tamago: Do you do any research for your writing?
Jake: I really hate doing research, but I often end up doing it. The amount of scientific detail in “The Old Equations” is well-documented elsewhere, but the level of detail went beyond that. I’m not sure if this counts as research, but I counted every single message to the character so that the character limit in the piece would be accurate. For my current story in Lightspeed, “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince,” I researched low-lying countries for a single article on global warming that Julian Prince writes. But did I research what the impact of an asteroid on North America would do to the planet? No. I had a very specific goal with this story, and I had no wiggle room in terms of scientific accuracy, and when the story is in conflict with scientific accuracy, I’m going to go the Ray Bradbury route and just put the aliens on Mars even though I know that it’s an impossibility.
To be fair, and I believe “The Old Equations” speaks to this–I take scientific accuracy and research seriously when it there is no narrative reason to ignore it.
Tamago: I know that you have taken some collegiate level writing workshops. How do you feel this influences your genre writing?
Jake: Nothing has had a bigger impact on my writing than my four year education at Kenyon College. I grew up reading nothing but fantasy and science fiction and reading comic books, and in my freshman year at Kenyon I was immersed in the whole chronology of literature. For me this was like someone who has eaten nothing but pasta being taken to a restaurant where you can suddenly experience steak, sushi, soups, desserts, and every variety of food. I was so blissfully happy as I discovered Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne and countless others. I mean, to this day I can remember finishing “Typhus” by Anton Chekhov and almost dropping the book in absolute awe.
The immediate result was counter-productive in that I finished college with a world-class understanding of what great literature and writing looked like and what went into it. I also had a sad understanding that what I wrote wasn’t great literature. I had this knowledge gap in that I knew the structure, pieces, and essence of great writing, but I didn’t know how to actually put the pieces together. After twenty years and over one million words written, I was still meandering about when I discovered the Writers Garret in Dallas and started getting critiques. The signposts that they gave me in terms of what I was specifically doing wrong were exactly what I needed, as I already knew that my writing was poor.
But make no mistake: All the fundamental elements of writing in my toolbox originate from my college education, and I remain profoundly grateful for that experience.
Tamago: Do you discuss your initial ideas or drafts with others? Why or why not?
Jake: Sometimes I’ll share an idea I have, but usually I keep the specifics of a story or novel idea to myself. There’s no reason for this other than I think it is perhaps rude for me to move a conversation to myself and my ideas. So I’ll involved myself in these conversations, but I won’t originate them.
Tamago: Are you involved with a writing group, or do you get feedback on your drafts in another way?
Jake: My primary writing feedback comes from in-person groups in Dallas. I am involved in the Writers Garret, and the Dallas Spec Fic Writers critique group. I occasionally will get feedback via the Codex online writing group, as well. So I clearly believe in the critique group dynamic.
Tamago: What’s been your favorite project so far? Why?
Jake: Damn. Are you going to ask me which of my kids is my favorite next? I think each piece has had its special moments for me, but if you are going to make me choose, I would probably say my current story at Lightspeed, “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince.” There are so many pieces to that story that I like on an individual basis, but what I love the most is how all the pieces, incomplete and ephemeral as they are, add up to a full picture of a man and a catastrophic event.
Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?
Jake: It was the moment that I went to browse Reddit’s scifi section, and there was a post with dozens of upvotes with this title: “‘The Old Equations’ by Jake Kerr. I listened to the audio and cried through most of it.”