Author. Artist. Gamer. Nerd. Today’s Writer Wednesday guest is the talented EJ Fisch, author of the Ziva Payvan sci-fi series. Read on for more about her books and what she’s been up to lately!
Hi EJ! Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did you begin writing?
I’ve loved telling stories and have had a vivid imagination for as long as I can remember. I’ve often had discussions with family members and childhood friends about how much we pretended when we were younger, creating scenarios and making up stories as we went along. Some of my earliest written stories were based on those games I played with my friends. I’m not sure if I can really explain the “why” behind it – it just seemed like the natural thing to do.
I started writing more seriously in junior high. Some friends and I created some original Star Wars characters and kind of role played with them via AOL instant messaging. I would take the transcripts from those chats and novelize them afterwards. We had this huge, nonsensical story that we just kept building on. The majority of it made no sense, but it was all on a larger scale than anything I’d ever written before and it started forcing me to look at the big picture, take all the characters’ actions into consideration, etc. The protagonist from my current series actually started as a filler character for a few scenes of that old story, and something about her concept really clicked with me so I pulled her out of that universe, scrapped whatever minimal development she’d already been through, and began grooming her for her own story.
Are you a pantser or plotter?
A little of both (aren’t we all?). I’ve found that I can’t start on a story unless I at least have a high-level outline of it. I usually try to have the first ~3 chapters’ worth of material planned to a T, with in-depth notes and questions and potential problems all written down (I like to use a pen and paper for this rather than typing it because it forces me to put a little more thought into what I’m writing). Once I’ve got that out of the way, the rest of the material tends to flow pretty easily. I still like to have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, but it’s not a definite road map. Sometimes that’s not the best thing; I’ll end up with disjointed, rambling scenes that have to be extensively reworked later. Other times, I can just power through a scene I didn’t really plan for and new ideas come to mind that help fill all the gaps. So in short, I start out as a plotter and often become a pantser somewhere in the middle.
Tell me about your journey to publication.
I was just thinking about this the other night when a reader asked me what I had to do to get published and I responded with, “Upload the document to Amazon and hit the yellow button.” In the context of the conversation and the question, that answer worked, but obviously there was (and should be) a lot more to it than that.
I actually wrote my first book (Dakiti: Ziva Payvan Book 1) back when I was in high school. Back then, I wrote purely for entertainment and never let anyone else read my work because I’m the World’s Most Self-Conscious Person. But I had all of these characters and worlds inside my head, so I had to do something with them. I had all of these plans for a trilogy, and I wrote the first two books and started plotting the third one before I stopped, thought about all the work I’d put into these stories, and realized what a waste it was to continue just letting them sit and gather dust. I knew self-publishing was an option, and I’d had some friends express interest in reading my work, but either way, the idea was still very daunting. After reading up on it and consulting a little with my aunt (she has self-published several books through Amazon as well), I decided to bite the bullet and just do it. I took Dakiti and gave it a major facelift, adding several new chapters and mercilessly slashing all the nonsensical high school ideas that made the logistics of the story impossible. Then I recruited my aunt, a couple of other bookish friends, and my trusty critique partner, TA Hernandez, who was one of only three people who had ever read the story at that point. They all read through it and helped me edit and offered feedback, which was kind of a terrifying experience because I’d never had anyone reading it in that capacity before. At the time, I was also reading G.S. Jennsen’s first book, so I emailed her to ask about her experience using CreateSpace for paperback publication and she was kind enough to offer some really helpful tips. I finally got everything set and hit that yellow PUBLISH button at the end of May 2014.
And then I read through the published version…and it was terrible. I found multiple typos and missing words that neither I nor my beta readers had caught previously. Luckily both Amazon and CreateSpace make it easy to edit the files and just re-upload them, but that didn’t stop my first buyers from getting those bad copies. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Once I’d gotten over the initial fear of publishing, I’d been too excited, and I rushed it.
That first round was basically a lesson in “what not to do,” as most first attempts at anything are. It was a learning experience, and since then, the publication process has gone A LOT smoother.
Your Ziva Payvan series is set on “the distant world of Haphez located on the edge of populated space.” What are your top world-building tips for authors delving into science fiction?
Make your world unique but familiar.
I know, that’s kind of vague. It really depends on how exactly your sci fi setting is structured. If you have a story that’s set on Earth or where humanity has colonized other planets within our solar system or galaxy, there’s already a set of baseline rules/concepts that you can follow. Characters can do things and say things that originated on Earth, and they make sense to readers. But other sci fi stories – like mine – are set in fictional galaxies and thus “Earth words” and concepts wouldn’t make sense to use and might even seem out of place. I’ve actually had a reader tell me they struggled a little with the scattering of American idioms I’ve used throughout my books because they seemed unnatural – I’m honestly glad they mentioned it, because it’s something I would have never considered otherwise. Still other readers have commended me for making the settings and dialogue feel familiar despite being set in another universe. The trick is to somehow find balance between those two things. Make your world unique enough to be intriguing, but familiar enough that readers can still relate to it. Despite not being set in our universe, the Ziva Payvan galaxy is still fairly human-centric; there aren’t any real details about how the humans got there, but many of the rules they follow are similar to what we know here on Earth. The Haphezians and some of the other near-human races living on the fringes of this galaxy still conform to some of these human rules simply for consistency’s sake when people travel back and forth between planets and systems. This setup gives me a little bit of freedom to make things more familiar, but I can still give each individual planet some cool attributes that balance everything out.
Where did you draw your inspiration for your protagonist, Ziva Payvan? Who could you see portraying her in a screen adaptation of your series?
I mentioned earlier that when she first came about, Ziva was supposed to just be a filler character for a few scenes in another story. Because of this, she was a total cookie cutter character and I didn’t really put any effort into giving her unique qualities. She was based almost entirely on NCIS’s Ziva David (Ziva P. made her debut in writing at just about the same time that Ziva D. made her debut on the show). That’s where the name came from and everything. Her last name came from Canadian volleyball player Sarah Pavan; the commentators mispronounced her name with a long A in a match once so I altered the spelling and rolled with it. Not very exciting, is it?
Once I decided Ziva needed her own story, she went through extensive re-development and a lot of her inspiration came from other things I was watching at the time. I wanted her to have the brash fearlessness of Jack Bauer but the layered complexity of Jason Bourne and the chilling calculatedness (is that even a word?) of Anton Chigurh. Notice how those are all male characters? I wanted to take these qualities that they had that were so appealing to audiences and pack them all into a badass, compelling female character.
In terms of on-screen portrayal, this is always a tough one. The Haphezians are basically super-human, so they’re bigger and stronger than regular humans. Ziva, for example, is supposed to be 6’5” and like 200 lbs. So whenever I think about who might play her in a show or movie, I think more in terms of the whole thing being CGI and the actress just has to do motion capture and provide a face model. Tricia Helfer and Ali Larter are my current two favorites; Ziva is described as having very severe facial features, with a narrow jaw, sharp cheekbones, Roman nose, thin lips, and kind of sunken-in eyes. Both of those actresses do a great job looking intense and pissed off, which Ziva is most of the time.
I saw on your website that you’re working on a new, spin-off series, The Ziva Payvan Legacy? What can you tell me about it? When will it be available to readers?
There’s a lot I can’t talk about due to the nature of Book 3’s ending (spoilers!), but attentive readers who have paid attention to the story and all of my recent tweets and Facebook posts probably already have a general idea of how things are going to go.
While part of the overall Ziva Payvan universe (which really does need an actual name), I’m considering the two Legacy books separate from the main series. The three currently-existing books are THE Ziva Payvan trilogy. I hesitate to say the Legacy books will be a “fun” addendum, because the characters will once again be put through hell and everything will probably be insanely depressing. But they are an addendum nonetheless. It’s actually just one story, but I split it into two parts for fear that the whole thing would end up being the length of a George R. R. Martin novel. The two books will be direct continuations of one another, with Part 2 (Embers) picking up right where Part 1 (Fracture) left off. The only exception is that each book starts out with a prologue, which will end up being two halves of the same scene and will shed some light on something that happened at the end of the main trilogy. The structure has been really fun to work with. In terms of story, leftover plot threads will carry over from the trilogy, but the main plot is going to be totally new and the majority of it will be recycled from an old Ziva & Co. story I wrote ages ago. There will definitely be some familiar characters and locations though, and it’s been cool to see readers who are eager to find out how the story continues.
At this point, I have absolutely no clue when these stories will be ready. I’m writing them in tandem, which is something I’ve never done before. Fracture is about 30% complete and Embers is about 10%, and that’s assuming my word count projections were accurate. Working full time and coaching high school volleyball doesn’t leave me much wiggle room, so I write a little here and there whenever I can. It would be cool if I could have Fracture ready by late spring 2017, but we’ll just have to see.
What is your most challenging aspect of writing?
Just writing. Just doing it. I’m the absolute worst when it comes to procrastinating, even when I have detailed outlines and have chapters so well thought out that I could totally just burn through them if I wanted to. I’ve actually written several blog posts on this topic because it’s been such a factor. I put off writing, then whine about not making any progress, then get into a writing slump, and it all just turns into a huge downward spiral. But then when I do actually sit down and make myself write, the thoughts and words just start flowing, and they come faster and faster, and before I know it I’ve got a whole chapter written. Somehow this shocks me every time. You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now.
One solution is to just write every day, even if it’s only like 20 words or something. I did that while working on Book 3, and even though I was only writing small chunks at a time, I kept track of my daily progress and was able to physically see the change happening, and that in turn helped motivate me to keep going. Another solution I’ve discovered just recently is to go ahead and write something that’s not necessarily part of the main story you’re working on. At least you’re still writing and keeping your brain juices flowing, and that’s got to count for something.
What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
I’m honestly not sure if I can pick just one moment because, as a whole, the experience has been absolutely amazing. Of course I’ve had my ups and downs with the occasional bad review or writing slump – what author hasn’t? But the indie author community is an incredible group of people, and I’ve had the opportunity to make new friends and learn things I would have totally missed out on if I’d never taken the leap of faith and decided to publish. Let me see if I can at least think of a couple of favorites…
I got an email once from a guy who had just finished reading my 3-in-1 Ziva Payvan Collection after learning about it from another indie sci fi author. It wasn’t a long message, but you could tell a lot of care had been put into it all the same. He merely thanked me for writing an incredible series and said he’d be sure to continue reading any further work I put out. That email made me cry. Granted, I read it first thing in the morning right after I’d woken up and I’m more susceptible to emotion when I’m tired, but still. It just goes to show a) the importance of spreading book information by word-of-mouth and b) how taking 5 minutes out of your life to write a message like that can really make someone’s day.
This one isn’t strictly related to the books and to publishing, but one day I was leaving church and a girl (I think she was about 12) came up to me and asked if it was true that I’d written three books. She said she wanted to be an author someday too because she loved writing and telling stories, and I just thought that was the coolest thing because so many kids these days hate reading and writing and it seems so rare to find someone like that.
It’s a small thing, but the publication of my third book was also a happy moment. You might even say it was liberating. There’d been such a build-up in the series and everything was leading up to this story and it just demanded to be told. The day after its release kinda felt like the day after Christmas.
Who are some of your favorite and/or most influential authors?
This may sound strange, but I really didn’t start reading sci fi until I started publishing (I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!) so a lot of the authors I’ve liked over the years are in different genres. I read a ton of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti in junior high and high school, and I often feel like they had a pretty big influence on the thriller aspects of my stories. A Wrinkle in Time is probably the first sci fi book I ever read, and when I think back on it, I have a feeling it’s what got me interested in the genre.
I have of course discovered many new books and authors since publishing, and I highly doubt I would have ever heard of any of them otherwise. I love all of Hugh Howey’s work, his Silo trilogy in particular. A few of my favorite indies are G.S. Jennsen, Tammy Salyer, and Lucas Bale. All three write great, character-driven sci fi/space opera. G.S., Tammy, and I actually put together a collection called Forged From The Stars that contains the first books in each of our series.
Where can we find you on social media?
Just about anywhere, though I’m admittedly much more active on some platforms than others. In order of popularity:
I’m always up for chatting about the books and characters, sci fi, or writing in general. You can stay up to date on my work by connecting on any of the outlets above, subscribing to my newsletter (I vow to never spam you!), or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The distant world of Haphez is located on the edge of populated space. The planet’s native superhuman race is feared and respected by neighboring civilizations. Their military and police forces are unmatched.
Lieutenant Aroska Tarbic is an agent with the revered Haphezian Special Police. He’s lost a lot in a short period of time; the other members of his squad were killed in a tragic accident, and his younger brother was wrongfully convicted and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. Just when Aroska thinks he’s starting to piece his life back together, he’s assigned to a joint task force with a special operations team. It seems like a unique opportunity, at least until he learns that his new commander is none other than Ziva Payvan, HSP’s finest operative… and the assassin who killed his brother.
Ziva is good at her job, a business that requires her to ignore her feelings and carry out her missions without question. She’s confident in her own abilities to complete the assignment, but Aroska is a wildcard. When their team stumbles across a young human during a routine investigation, they soon realize that the situation isn’t what it seems. The boy has unwittingly uncovered an age-old plot, one that could put the entire Haphezian race in jeopardy.
Now the lines between friend and foe have become blurred, and no one can be trusted. United by the imminent threat, Ziva and Aroska must set their differences aside in order to save their people… and maybe even each other.
All roads lead to… DAKITI