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Author Spotlight: Jake Kerr

Your story, “Requiem in the Key of Prose” takes on a very different style than most stories; how did you come up with the idea to split the story up as it is?

The idea originated from a number of elements that all came together into this singular idea. The first was a TED talk by Benjamin Zander where he discusses music and passion. At one point he plays two notes and says the job of the C note is to make the B note sound sad. I immediately was struck by a parallel to writing, where we use various prose elements for a specific effect. For example, present tense exists to focus the reader’s attention on the now, short sentences communicate fast-moving action, and so on. So I left the Zander presentation thinking that my new appreciation of the tools of music had no parallel with readers appreciating the tools of prose.

The next element was watching Penn & Teller. I’ve always been fascinated by their ability to explain the magic tricks that they are going to do before they do them. And then we still enjoy the tricks, even as we know what is happening. There are narrative parallels where we know how the story ends in the beginning and then we enjoy the journey to how the story got there, but I could think of no true Penn & Teller parallels, where the actual “trick” of story-telling is explained before the author uses it.

Finally, what brought everything together for me was listening to Frederic Chopin’s Sonata in B-Flat Minor. I loved how this great composer telegraphed not just what he was presenting—a sonata—but also the tool he was going to use—the key of B-flat minor. Everything flowed together, and I envisioned a story where the author would telegraph the framework in the title, and then use that framework within the piece, just like great composers did, with a touch of Penn & Teller to boot. The actual direct inspiration was a requiem, specifically Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor.

Do you think there’s something to be said for sacrificing one person for the good of the many?

This is a theme with a deep history not just in SF but all of literature. I’m sure we can all recite Spock’s final words from The Wrath of Khan. For me, I am much more interested in the personal toll of such a sacrifice. Does having your loved one sacrifice him- or herself and become a hero make you feel happier as a survivor? Proud? Deeply sad despite the sacrifice? Guilty? Perhaps all these things? I wanted to address these emotions in my story.

Adam’s chosen because he knows a little of everything; is too much specialization a bad thing?

Specialization is not a bad thing, but having a complex structure where everyone is so focused on the parts that no one understands the whole is a bad thing. In the story, Adam is a fallen intellectual in the sense that he isn’t a great engineer or electrician. He’s the kind of guy that likes to slop around with the guys laying the cement to see how they create vertical cylinders. If he has a specialty, it is knowledge. When the oxygen structure fails, there are plenty of people with expertise, but only Adam seems to have the wide-ranging knowledge to save it.

In the story, the reason things break down is that the oxygen generator is built without any thought of the future. The goal is just to get it going. Society today seems very much focused on the here and now. Was that a statement you were trying to make?

Not consciously. The reason for the immediacy in the story is pure desperation. If they didn’t build something quickly, they would all die. I could see a parallel to our cultural mindset today in that there is this sense of desperation. It’s tough to focus on the future when your present is miserable, and solving that misery in any way possible as quickly as you can makes a sad sense to me.

Finally, what can you tell us about your writing process? Any tips for beginners?

Conceptually, my writing process is to take an interesting idea or situation, and then add a human element to it. This is mostly done in my head. By the time I sit down and write, I have a very good idea of the entire story, from beginning to end.

In terms of tips, one of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is working in a vacuum. They hear that all they have to do is write one million words, and they’re on their way. The road to improvement, however, requires objective feedback. Otherwise you make the same mistakes again and again, and that one-millionth word you wrote is no more effective than the first one.

So the first thing you need to do as a beginning writer is welcome feedback from people who will tell you that you are doing lots of things wrong and then pay close attention to what they say you did wrong. Join a local or online critique group. Grow a thick skin. Seek out and embrace readers who are viciously precise in their criticism. It will help enormously.

Related to the above, you are well served by improving your own ability to recognize what actually is great fiction and what is not. This will not only help you recognize your own shortcomings, it will help you recognize when you are getting advice that is unhelpful. Read the classics and learn the things that make those stories great. And when I say learn the things that made them great, I mean not just what those stories achieve but how they achieve them. It is not enough to say that a lot of people are playing a C note and a B note, and thus you will too. You need to know that the C note’s job is to make the B note sad.

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak

Andrew Liptak is the Weekend Editor for The Verge. He is the co-editor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, (Apex Publications, 2014). His writing has also appeared in io9, Gizmodo, Kirkus Reviews, Tor.com, BN Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Clarkesworld and others. He lives in Vermont.