Creative Colleagues: Nicole Luiken

Nicole Luiken

Nicole Luiken

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

While I was aware of her via mutual friends here in Edmonton, I first spoke Nicole Luiken after her reading at When Words Collide, a splendid reading-oriented convention in Calgary. She keeps so busy that I seldom see her outside of the occasional dinner for a mutual friend or at our own local convention, Pure Speculation.

1. You’re a member of at least one local writers’ group. What advantages and obstacles do you encounter in such a group? How do you parse the useful feedback from the personal taste of the other writers?

The writer’s group that I’m a member of is SF/fantasy-oriented. This is a huge advantage. I find that I can get much more knowledgeable feedback from someone who reads in that genre and knows its tropes, than from a general writing group.  While tastes still differ (I may get a reader who doesn’t read YA for instance) the critiquer will usually mention that up front.

One of the obstacles is that I write novels, and I write faster than the group can keep up with (1-2 chapters/month is about the maximum load). Happily, sometimes an individual will volunteer to read and critique the entire novel, but I often end up with only bits and pieces critiqued because of the time factor.

2. As a writer of both adult and young-adult fiction, what elements do you find yourself consciously changing between those categories? Where do you draw the line on issues of sex or religion or politics in young-adult that you might explore further in adult fiction?

I usually know immediately at the idea stage if the novel will be YA or adult. My unconscious mind chooses.

All my books have a romantic subplot, but in my YA novels this is restricted to kissing. I avoid heavy issues like teenage sex/drugs/drinking/abuse, because I don’t feel that I have the space in a SF/fantasy plot to give them the serious treatment they deserve. Also, when I was a teen, I read to be entertained, and I avoided ‘realistic fiction’ like the plague.

In both my adult and YA novels, I write to entertain first and often only identify my theme when I’m several drafts in. Which isn’t to say I never do serious themes, just that it’s my unconscious mind that chooses them. I never said to myself, “I should write a book about bullying,” but there is a small subplot in my YA novel Dreamline that deals with mild bullying. And I definitely never intended to get into the heavy waters of rape and abuse, but the storyline for my adult fantasy novel Soul of Kandrith dragged me there. In order to stay true to the story, I had to deal with that issue.

Soul of Kandrith3. You leave a certain amount up to your unconscious mind, but what conscious decisions do you make about theme or the fantasy/SF elements of a story before you begin? Are there particular ideas that fantasy and SF allow you to explore in a way that non-genre fiction wouldn’t?

One of the things I love about reading and writing SF/fantasy is that you can explore issues like racism and sexism in more subtle ways than you can in mainstream fiction by using the Other as a metaphor. I wrote an Aliens-invade-in-1200-AD alternate history novel which explores things like tribalism/nationalism and genocide. In the second draft I consciously chose to play up this element that had emerged in the first draft by giving each main character a different set of loyalties. Mirror only cares about her twin brother; she would set the world on fire to save him. Thomas is loyal to the English King and is quite willing to set a plague of demons on the French. Emma feels all of Christendom needs to unite against the ‘demons’ (aliens). The alien Engineer sees all humanity as a too-clever threat that will in time slaughter his people unless he makes a pre-emptive strike. Only Owl, Mirror’s brother, who has been enslaved by the aliens, comes to see them as individuals, not just ‘demons’ and enemies.

4. As someone who writes fast, how much time do you find yourself devoted to revision? Are you an “outliner” or a “discovery writer”? Have you ever tried it the other way?

I am an outliner. I spend a few weeks to a month brainstorming the plot and writing an outline (though there always end up being holes that I have to fill in as I go along.) Then a month to two months doing the first draft (YA being shorter than my adult fiction), I spend a lot of time on revision. I think it took me ten months to revise Soul of Kandrith (which clocked in at 130,000 words). Now that my youngest is in school, I’m hoping to cut that in half. I’ve budgeted Nov.-Feb to do the 2nd and 3rd drafts (I do them simultaneously) of my current YA novel (which is at 77,000 words and growing). Despite using an outline, I often end up re-jiggering the whole plot during my second draft.

I’ve never written anything longer than a writing exercise off-the-cuff. I get stuck too easily. Staring at the computer screen makes my brain go on strike and I end up playing Bejeweled Blitz.

5. What other fiction (film, comics, television, and so on) most appeal to you? How do stories from those media influence your prose writing? And in what ways do they simply not apply? (That is, what can prose do that film can’t, and vice versa, and so on?)

My primary entertainment comes from reading novels. I read about 200 a year. (Yes, really. Look me up on Goodreads if you want.)You know how some people say they don’t have time to read? For me it’s the same thing with TV and movies. There’s lots of great stuff out there—but I can never find time to watch more than a fraction of it. Thanks goodness for the PVR.

For the TV shows that I do watch, however, I am a very loyal follower and hate to miss an episode. I get most caught up in TV shows with a SF or fantasy element and long-running story arcs—Lost, Babylon Five, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time. Writing on TV is so much better these days than the Three’s Company and Dallas of my childhood.

Film and television are great at visuals. There are shots in LotR that convey a sense of majesty and otherworldliness that took pages to accomplish in prose. I’ve read the books exactly once. I’ve seen the movies three times. Helm’s Deep and the big battle scenes make a jaw-dropping impression on the big screen. You can see the scale of the conflict there, in a way it was difficult for the books to convey. On the other hand, action scenes in movies often happen so fast they become a blur, and it’s hard to follow who’s hitting whom. Especially if the action takes place in the dark. Alien3, for instance, completely lost me; I remember it as Bald People in the Dark. Prose is also much better at getting inside a character’s head and showing what that person is thinking/feeling, their driving motivations and heroic struggles to make the right choice. There’s only so much an actor can convey with facial grimaces.

Check out Nicole’s website for more on her previous and upcoming work.


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