Come Aboard the Starship Horizon, an Interview with Tabitha Lord
Starting a new book is like boarding a ship destined for unknown waters. As such, you want to make sure you trust your captain. Debut author, Tabitha Lord, is a captain who warrants such confidence. In her first novel, Horizon, she deftly guides her readers through seas of turmoil on the earth-like planet, Almagest, and then navigates them through the white-capped waves of interstellar battles created by tides of galactic conflict.
Once you’ve embarked, your trip through Horizon’s universe will be varied and exciting. You will find yourself cheering on her protagonists, Caeli and Derek, as you live their story along with them.
Please join BCB as we visit with Tabitha, to learn more about Horizon, and the inspirations behind its vibrant and compelling story.
Amy: She felt them before she heard them is a captivating opening line. With beautiful subtlety, it hints that your female protagonist, Caeli, has an intriguing ability. Yet, the sentence provides so much more than knowledge, as it yanks at the reader’s desire to learn more. Did you find it a challenge to craft the opening line and chapter for Horizon?
Tabitha Lord: First, thank you Amy, for featuring me today on BCB’s blog. And this is so special because it’s Horizon’s release day! So – the opening line…I’ve received quite a few compliments on that line and, truthfully, I just sat down and wrote it. I’m pretty good with titles and opening lines. The rest of the chapter was a different story. I knew I wanted to begin the book with the crash scene – to open with the defining moment where Caeli meets Derek, and her life, already irreparably altered, takes another sharp turn. But I also had to describe Caeli’s surroundings, convey the fact that she was alone in the wilderness, and show her saving Derek’s life. I added so much detail that this sequence went on for three chapters! It took quite a lot of editing to distill it down and find the right balance between world building, setting the scene effectively, and moving the plot along.
Amy: Long after your first sentence, you continue to scatter useful pieces of information like breadcrumbs sprinkled across the sturdier ground of the plot. For example, in the first scene when Caeli’s backpack falls to the ground and splays open, we read, bursts of red berries scattered over gray-brown dirt. Instantly, we’re aware she’s on an Earth-like planet and she might be living as a type of hunter-gatherer. How did you learn the craft of disguising useful information within an action scene?
Tabitha Lord: This question ties nicely to the previous one. My first draft was so full of detail and heavy on description that it really got bogged down in places. It took several rounds of editing to do what you’ve described. Often, I would highlight a section of rambling prose. Then I would read through a chapter and challenge myself to find places where I could drop in pieces of information in a more subtle way, maybe using an action scene, or a dialogue sequence, or sometimes a flashback. If I was successful I’d go back and hit the delete key on the boring chunk.
As a first time novelist, I’m glad I didn’t know how much of the writing process lies with editing! I think I would have been discouraged. When you finish a draft, you think you’ve done this amazing thing. And you have, of course, because the alternative is no book at all. But a draft is just the beginning. I read a quote attributed to Terry Pratchett that said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” For me, this rang true. With my early drafts, I had to get down every detail so nothing would be lost. I had to learn who my characters were and how they would react in all kinds of situations. In Caeli’s case, you hear her entire backstory. But for Derek, you don’t get as much directly, so it was really important for me to know it well so I could sprinkle in the details, and round him out as a character. I didn’t want to give away too much of the story too soon. I wanted it to unfold, with the reader curious to learn more, but not frustrated or confused.
Amy: Derek, the male protagonist of Horizon, is quite obviously an alpha-male, which you, equally obviously, are not, yet his voice comes across as genuine and believable. Do you think being the mother of three boys helps you to understand men better? And, have you had other experiences that assisted you in capturing Derek’s alpha-male essence so effectively?
Tabitha Lord: I have three sons and a daughter, and I would say being a mom in general has honed my observation skills. Raising boys – watching them interact, their mannerisms, the way they talk to one another – has given me a good deal of insight and appreciation for them. I’m pretty well surrounded by male energy!
I chose to write Horizon from the perspective of both Caeli and Derek, and I have to say, writing Derek was more fun. He’s a pilot, a spy, and a soldier (basically, an all around bad ass!), so he tended to have more of the action scenes which I really enjoy writing. But a few of my early readers didn’t like him at all, and I had to figure out what they were seeing in him that I wasn’t. I realized when I started the story, in my mind Derek was about ten years younger. Once the plot got moving, he needed to make decisions and have a certain authority in his own world that required him to be older and have more experience. The character I had written was still too arrogant and immature to be the hero I needed him to be, and I think this is what my readers recognized. So I did a major edit of his scenes, attempting to keep the essence of his character, but giving him more depth and maturity.
Amy: Caeli has a tremendous ability to provide for herself and others, utilizing the resources of the planet Almagest. Yet, instead of just describing her making a stew, or carving a spoon, you imbue these scenes with a sense of reverence and ritual. Actions of subsistence living become prayerful. Where did you find your inspiration for this unique viewpoint?
Tabitha Lord: I lived in a rural neighborhood until I was twelve years old. I spent most of my playtime outdoors, in the woods, exploring and climbing trees. I distinctly remember the smell of pine, the quiet in the forest after the first snow, the taste of wild blueberries. I tried to call on my own childhood memories to give Caeli’s experience authenticity. And as an adult, I’ve had a few adventures that influenced this particular aspect of the story! Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying students on several class trips.
We’ve hiked the rain forests in Costa Rica, paddled dozens of nautical miles in the open ocean off the coast of Maine, and camped in the mountains of West Virginia. I have actually tended a cooking fire, carved utensils, found edible plants, bathed in the ocean, and slept outdoors. When you spend significant time doing these things, you realize there is tremendous satisfaction in performing such necessary tasks. The uniquely human rituals of eating meals together, telling stories, singing, etc. connect us to each other and remind us of what’s essential in our lives. Through Caeli, I tried to convey these sentiments.
Amy: Horizon explores the theme that people are often afraid of what they do not understand and either want to destroy or control it. Did you intend to enter this philosophical territory, or was it just a natural consequence of the story unfolding?
Tabitha Lord: It was intentional. I had two distinct parts of a story floating in my head when I began writing Horizon. The first was the crash sequence. It was more basic at the time of its inception – just a young man who crash lands on a planet, and a young woman, in some kind of trouble, who saves his life. The second part was more complex. I was playing with the idea of what would happen if one segment of an already small isolated population evolved differently (either naturally or by design) from the other. What if some had gifts that enabled them to imagine a different kind of future for themselves and their world? What if they were empathic and could sense each other’s emotions and thoughts? What if some of them could heal with their mind? How would the unchanged people feel about their neighbors? It created such an interesting premise I knew I had to find a way to make it into a story.
Amy: You recently wrote a blog, claiming that an early passion for Star Wars provided the impetus to write science fiction. Are there any specific scenes or components of Horizon that are directly influenced by your Star Wars obsession? And, tangentially, will you be seeing the newest Star Wars? And, if so, will you be dressing up?
Tabitha Lord: Horizon is a traditional space opera in the sense that it contains battle scenes, adventures, romance, and a good vs. evil premise. In my opinion, Star Wars is still the most epic space opera ever to grace book or film! But I have to say it’s the idea of redemption that I wanted to include in Horizon. Without the possibility of redemption, we are faced with absolutes. And in my experience, things are very seldom so clear. When Caeli is forced to live and work in Alamath, the city of her enemies, she comes to understand this. Her friendship with Finn, an Amathi soldier guilt-ridden over his participation in a genocide, captures this idea, I think.
Yes, I will be at the opening night screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my boys, but the jury’s still out on a costume!
Amy: There are a couple of romances imbedded into the storyline of Horizon. Did you find it challenging to make sure you didn’t lose your pure action/sci-fi readers by including this element?
Tabitha Lord: The relationship between Caeli and Derek is central to the story. I didn’t want to water it down, or put less of a focus on it to please a segment of my audience. On the other hand, I didn’t want to lose or disappoint readers who were counting on a sci-fi action story. This is where beta readers are so helpful. I included a real military pilot, and a friend who likes darker, gritty work. They let me know when I crossed the line!
Some of my press releases for Horizon actually talk about crossing genres, and how it’s becoming more acceptable not to pigeon hole a book into a rigid category. Space opera, as a sub-genre of science fiction, already contains elements of military fiction, romance, and adventure. I think I pushed the envelope a little by adding survival fiction, and by focusing more on character development and relationships. But I wanted to tell this particular story the way I envisioned it, rather than write to a specific genre. I think readers care less about genre and more about a good story, as long as something isn’t totally mislabeled.
Amy: You’ve said that the kernel idea of Horizon swirled in your mind for many years before you tried to make it a story. Did you wish you had started sooner? And, what advice do you have for anyone who has that core impulse, but doesn’t know how to begin writing a novel?
Tabitha Lord: I’ve asked myself the first question many times. My husband would always joke that I should just write a book already (I actually wrote a blog post about this!). I’ve had to write ad copy, communications, and do some editing as part of my previous work, but I never felt like I had the energy for the creative stuff, and I definitely didn’t have the confidence that I could craft a full length novel. And honestly, I’m not sure I would have had the maturity before this point in my life to do what it takes to publish. As I mentioned earlier, I was so thrilled I had produced a first draft, but I had no idea what else needed to be done, or how difficult it would be to do it. So much of the real work comes afterwards. And some of that work, for an artist, can actually hurt. You must be able to take constructive criticism because your manuscript will undergo significant change. You must walk a fine line between vulnerability and toughness. I felt so exposed the first time I let someone read a chapter! It took me days to process the first round of mark-ups from my amazing editor, and it was really tough to get that first rejection letter. The other unexpected piece was how long it takes. My journey from first word to publication was three and half years – and this is considered quite speedy!
Having said all that, when people come to me for advice about writing, or tell me they have an idea they want to explore, I always say, “Do it! Write it! Just start!” The other half of the conversation can happen later.
Amy: Any other projects on the horizon? Sorry, I couldn’t resist!
Tabitha Lord: Ha! Yes. I am currently drafting the second book in the Horizon trilogy. I also have the bones of a thriller outlined, a few short stories swirling, and an idea for a historical fiction novel. I was afraid for so long that I didn’t have the imagination for fiction writing. Well, now I have to tell the characters in my head to wait their turn!