Q&A with Elisabeth R. Adams

Elisabeth R. Adams remembers writing stories at as early as five years old, but she didn’t take it seriously until she approached thirty. The story ideas came pouring out after that, and her latest, which is featured in the March/April issue [on sale now], is the first that takes advantage of her day-job experience as an astronomer.


Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

EA: [mild spoilers] I read an article about a cave that had such a difficult entrance passageway that only tiny scientists could explore it, and I thought, huh, now there’s a qualification for the job that they were not thinking about when they decided to become scientists—I wonder how that would work in my field (astronomy)? Around that time I read about an exciting new scientific discovery, and the two ideas mashed themselves together and became this story. [end spoilers]


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

EA: The cave’s actual name is Rising Star Cave, so the title wrote itself.


AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

EA: My ideas come from everywhere. It’s usually not as obvious as in this story, where I could probably pull up the two articles I read from my browser history of August 2016, but I often file away interesting tidbits for settings or other details from things that I read or that come up through work. (I have a lot of crazy exoplanet settings in want of a cast of characters and a conflict.) I don’t intentionally base my characters on real people I know, but I shamelessly steal supporting details from my life.


AE: What is your process?

EA: I know some writers advise that you need to write a certain amount every day (100, 500, 1000 or more words). That doesn’t really work for me. I once tried to do NaNoWriMo (where you are supposed to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November), with a story idea I was excited about, during a particularly unbusy time in my life. It was great for the first week or so, while I wrote out the idea that was in my head . . . and then I got stuck. But I kept going, because the point of NaNoWriMo is to write something almost every day. And while I finished it, and it wasn’t awful, it killed the story for me, and I wish I had taken more time to figure out the next bit of the novel as opposed to pushing through. Going back and reading it five years later, it’s still solidly okay; the first couple chapters aren’t bad, and there’s stuff in the later parts that could be salvaged . . . but I have no desire to pick it up again.

What works best for me is if I get an idea, and a character voice, and then I don’t start writing right away. (This is easy; the rest of my life is pretty busy.) Then, after a few days or weeks, I often find myself waking up one morning thinking about lines of dialogue and opening sentences, and eventually I will find an hour or three and set down 1,000 or 1,500 words in one go. The best stories are the ones where I have an internalized character voice that keeps feeding me lines and decisions as I go, and then the process feels more like taking dictation than doing something hard like writing.


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

EA: One kind of writer’s block comes right at the beginning, when I have an idea, and then write a few sentences, and think, no, that’s dumb, and erase the sentences, then try again, rinse, lather, repeat, until I have half a sentence to show for an hour or two of effort. This is an old problem for me—I have a vivid memory of getting stuck on a prompt about Columbus Day in first grade, and getting as far as the words “One day” before I gave up, and I had to miss recess, and I still never finished it. (The problem was I had absolutely nothing original to say on the subject of Columbus Day; ask me to talk about tiggers and I would have filled pages.)

Nowadays when I find myself obsessively editing and critiquing a story before I’ve gotten anything out, I try to just make myself keep writing. I promise myself that tomorrow I can read what I wrote and get rid of 99% of it if it’s so terrible, but not now. This is hard for me because my natural style is to edit and reword as I type, and for some kinds of writing (scientific articles, this Q&A) that works, but usually not stories. I once wrote a whole book on an iPad with no external keyboard, because the onscreen keyboard took up so much space that I could only see the last four or five sentences, and the process of editing was so slow and annoying that it was easy to put off until I was on a computer. The weird typos just made the revision step more amusing.

But sometimes, I get stuck somewhere solidly in the middle. There are some tricks I’ll try then—I really dislike outlining before I write, but writing a linear chronology of what happens when can sometimes show me the structural/plot flaw that I couldn’t get around. Other times, I’ll have to put the story down for a while and hope my subconscious does my work for me. Occasionally I shelve it for months or years and then dig it back up after I’ve completely forgotten the original story as written. (Right now I’m working on a story that I abandoned after two initial takes in 2015.) Often my abandoned stories are write-and-forget (or, write-and-get-rejected-a-bunch-and-forget), but there are some ideas that I still keep thinking about years later, and may attempt a clean rewrite with a fresh perspective.


AE: What inspired you to start writing?

EA: I still have some of the handwritten books I stapled together when I was 5 or 6. I wrote a couple of real stories in middle school and high school (which are terrible, and great, and terrible), and then just . . . stopped. It’s not so much that I didn’t feel like I had something to say, more that I felt that I would be able to say it better later, in my own voice, after I figured out what that was, exactly. I did write in my twenties, just not for publication; perhaps my favorite was a collaborative project where we played a series of multiplayer turn-based games, dubbed Yarnspinners, where everyone wrote in-character turn summaries about the victories and defeats of our glorious empires.

And then one day as a post-doc, approaching thirty, thinking about what I wanted to do in life, story ideas just started to come, and I started to write them down. My first published story was written in one go during a long lunch break on the roof deck of my office.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

EA: I have two short stories right now that I am working on; one is a locked-spaceship-puzzle at the “over half done, but how do I get to the ending?” stage, and the other is more of an idea waiting for the right main character to announce their voice. I am also working on a kids book about dwarf planets.


AE: What are you reading right now?

EA: 2019 has been a good year; I’ve enjoyed all of these: (fiction) The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, and (nonfiction) Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard, and Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will by Judith Schlansky. Also whatever the nearest child thrusts into my hands, because who can resist a one-year-old saying “read a book”?


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

EA: Read a book! The internet is full of many strange and wondrous sources of inspiration (as witness this story), but reading actual books, for fun, feeds a virtuous cycle of having more ideas and wanting to write more. I love science fiction for its quirkiness and unexpectedness and bigness, and I find it motivational to read something that I never would have thought to write myself, but now wish I had. And don’t underestimate the power of thinking “I can do better than that . . .” (This is especially true of children’s literature, about half of which is truly dreadful stuff if you read it more than once, which you will. All of its flaws will be laid bare on the five hundred and thirty-seventh reading.)

Find other people to read your stuff (whether a writer’s group or friends who will be honest with you). Listen to what they say isn’t working, because if they’re confused then something’s probably wrong. But don’t (always) follow what they suggest to fix it, because you know your world better than they do.

Don’t quit your day job. This isn’t (just) about still wanting to pay for food and rent and other boring things like that. Right when I first started writing again as an adult, I did end up out of work for a while (a gap after a postdoc ended, not uncommon in academia), and it was great because I had enough time to write my book ideas . . . and then it was terrible because I wasn’t coming up with enough ideas because all I was doing was writing and surfing the internet. It turns out that a vital part of my process is having something to procrastinate away from doing, so that I write stories instead.


AE: Many of our Analog authors are interested in science. Do you have any scientific background, and does it impact your fiction?

EA: [mild spoilers] I’m a professional astronomer, and Rising Stars is the first story I’ve published to actually use that. My protagonist is working in the near future with the next generation of telescopes, because we can’t meaningfully detect chlorophyll on exoplanets with the ones we’ve got now, but otherwise I stole quite liberally from my grad school experience. (Two differences: big telescopes are still not automated to the point where someone doesn’t need to go there in person, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel to telescopes on five continents. Also, my offices have always had windows.) [end spoilers]

I love the inspiration of using real or plausible but crazy places in the universe to use as settings for stories, and this probably goes back to the hard science fiction I read as a kid (think of Larry Niven’s Smokering or Ringworld). But I find that when I write, I am less interested in, e.g., calculating the exact size and trajectory of an asteroid impact—that’s too much like my day job—and more interested in figuring out what the ramifications of actually living in such a place would be like. Sometimes if I’m looking for a writing prompt I’ll pull up the archive of new published planetary/astronomy papers and skim until I find something interesting, and see where it takes me.

Right now is a great time to be a science fiction writer if you want to ground yourself in real but weird places because there is so much new knowledge pouring in, both about our Solar System (little snowman-shaped Ultima Thule!) and about the thousands of worlds beyond (fare thee well, Kepler; hello, TESS) that it would take many lifetimes, in both of my jobs, to write all the stories there are to tell.


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

EA: My personal webpage, while extant at the same URL since 1998, has not been updated since 2016. Its bytes are handcrafted by gnomes who have of late suffered numerous staffing and budgetary cuts and are, quite frankly, rather suspicious that this whole so-shul media thing isn’t just a ploy by the evil empire to enslave us all.


Elisabeth R. Adams was born in southern California and now lives in New England. She is a professional astronomer and planetary scientist. Some cats and some kids do their best to assist with, and hinder, her storytelling.

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