Spotlight on Local Author: J Dianne Dotson

I won’t be shy about admitting this: Dianne’s one of my personal heroes.

A trained scientist, turned science writer, and now indie publisher, Dianne’s one of those people that makes me wonder how they find the time for it all.

Did I mention she also has two kids, did a cross-country tour to promote her books, and was on a panel with Cory Doctorow at Wondercon last year?

Dianne was kind enough to take some time — over Skype, given current circumstances — to talk with me about her writing process, going indie, and what’s it like to work on one long story for thirty years.

The first two books — Heliopause and Ephemeris — in her Questrison Saga are out now, and the third’s on its way soon.

Writing Process

Let’s start with your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I would say that everything is in my head. I already know what’s happening. I basically just sit down and write it out. I don’t really follow an incredibly structured situation, I just write it. Things can come up as I write that influence where I think things might go and the characters have minds of their own. They might do things I didn’t expect.

But I don’t do outlines.

What about editing? Do you do multiple editing passes or do you do everything in one big push?

For the most part, I will go through the book and I will do my first pass, and then I’ll go back and do it again.

Then I hand it off to beta readers.

Then the beta reader feedback, I get back. If there need to be edits or anything expanded upon, then I incorporate that. I read through it again.

Then at that point, I need to hand it off to the editor.

Do you mind going into a little more detail about your editing passes? I know some writers will break it up, so first they do a dialogue pass, then a consistency pass, etc

No, I just go through it all. It’s just in literal order, line by line, chapter by chapter to the end, and I fix things as I go.

Do you take any time between writing a draft and then doing the edit?

I don’t like to, because I feel the fire. I feel like I want to get this done. That’s very much a “me” thing. I’m very much like that. Once I finish something, I want to make sure it’s really, really done. I can’t stand waiting on stuff like that. I tend to just jump right in.

Do you give any guidance to your beta readers?

Well, I don’t like to frame things for them in advance. I do it more after they read. I do ask them, I say, “Hey, if you see anything blatant, let me know. If you have any questions, let me know.” I keep it simple.

After they’re done, that’s when I really ask them the questions, because then they read it. That’s what I want to know about, as a reader, what worked for you, what didn’t work? I’ll ask things like, “Who is your favorite character? What made you laugh? What made you cry?” Different things like that. “Do you think that this particular passage worked?”

Do you do an editing pass per beta reader?

No, because they’re finishing at varying times. I thought, well, I want to ask my questions now that it’s fresh on their mind, they just read it. Then because of that, then I’ll go ahead and incorporate right after that, their feedback, if I felt that it merited changing.

Not everything does. In some cases, I’ve had to say, no, this is the way it is supposed to be.

You have a lot of really strong characters in your books. Are those based on real people?

Some of them are.

Sumond, the alien chef in Ephemeris, I based on this chef that I knew from San Francisco from when my brother lived there in the early ’90s. This guy, this chef was hilarious. He had been an opera singer. That’s where Sumond comes from.

Or take Troy in Heliopause. We all know Troy. He’s a lounge lizard kind of a guy. He’s loosely based off some people I know and he’s named after my dad’s cousin, Troy, who was more like an uncle to me than a cousin. It’s a little bit of family nod there.

Then who else? Let’s see. Even Veronica is influenced a little bit by people I know. I won’t say who.

Everybody’s got a little bit of influence from here and there, but nobody’s an outright translation now.

Aeriod, though, is full-clothed from a dream that I had as a young teen.

Wait, what?

I dreamed that this alien Brit rocker had taken me up in basically a boat with some friends of mine up to this island in the sky, this land that he had with palaces. He showed me around and he talked to me.

There are some direct lines in Ephemeris from that dream, when Galla is dreaming about Aeriod showing her around. That dream was my dream.

Aeriod was just straight out of my head like somebody I knew. He seems very real to me. That’s one reason I guess people say he’s complex. It’s because he’s been in my head this whole time.

Does that happen often? You dream of characters for your stories?

I have very vivid dreams, and sometimes they do lend themselves to stories.

In fact, the first little scenes of Forster in Heliopause, where he’s walking along the soft floors with the dim lights, that’s from a dream.

I had already made his descendant, Kein, but Forster himself I dreamed separately later. It’s funny.

Indie Publishing

You’re publishing the Questrison Saga yourself, rather than go through a traditional publisher. Why go indie?

When I had worked on this for so long and then didn’t really know what to do after that, I knew I should submit to a publisher. I realized that, oh, you can’t really do that anymore, that there’s a gateway to publication and it’s called a literary agent.

That was about 2017, around the time that I started going regularly to the Writers Coffeehouse at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. I was going to get an idea of what I needed to do.

I started there and I queried quite a few agents. I got some bites.

At the end of it, there were four that I came very close to using.

One of them turned out to be a shyster.

The other one was just really sitting on it, and sitting on it, and not getting back to me.

The third one had a very strange reaction to it. She’s like, “I think it has too many characters,” but then she kept going back to read it. I’m like, “Just make a decision.” What’s the decision? She couldn’t make one.

Then the fourth one, I really hit it off with, and she had loved the samples that I had sent her. She read the whole book. But she actually wanted me to kill more people than I was ready to kill at that time.

That was when I decided: I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s my story. I’m going to tell it the way I want it. I’ve had it in my head for years.

I can write other stories and submit to this process all over again, they won’t matter as much to me. This particular one, I’m doing myself.

Plus, I was uniquely positioned in a time in which you could make a really good quality independently published book by having professionals do the covers and having professionals edit it.

When you set it side by side with a traditionally published book you can’t tell, that was the goal. That was accomplished.

Would you do it again?

I will not do this again, because it is a lot of work. It is expensive. You are the publisher, the agent, the promoter, and all these other things when you’re still a writer.

If you’re taking a lot of time to promote this book yourself, that’s time taken away from your writing. Even though I’m a very fast writer, it can be exhausting to keep on top of it.

I still feel that it was the right decision for this series.

But for everything else I’m doing, I will submit to traditional publishing.

How much did it cost you to produce Book One? Was it any cheaper to finish Book Two?

About the same. It is actually a little bit more expensive for Book Two because the editing, it was bigger book.

Do you mind talking about those costs?

I don’t remember exactly all the costs. For the first editor of Book One I think was $1,200 and then the copy, the final proof was mostly $600, the art was $600, and then I actually had to buy the books myself from IngramSpark to be able to supply to bookstores and to conventions. That’s a significant expense.

Advertising, promotional materials, posters, everything ranging from postcards to business cards to just all kinds of stuff, it was a few thousand at the end of the day.

Have you made that back?

I have made it back for Book One.

I have not made it back for Book Two, I don’t think. Not yet.

I think what was interesting was that the minute Book Two came out, more people bought Book One. I think people just like a series.

How did you find all the people that you’ve ended up working with: the editors, the artists, the graphics people, and the web designers?

Well, everything about this process has been throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, literally. Because I didn’t know what the heck I was getting myself into, piecemealing it, but I figured it out.

I got the website going first. For that, I had gone through a couple of web design people and logo designers.

I ended up asking a food and lifestyle blogger, Michael Wurm Jr., who runs “Inspired By Charm”, because he had a really sleek website. He gave me the contact information for Dash Creative. That’s who I’ve used the last couple of years.

In terms of the editing, I had gone to San Diego Writers Ink. They had a class on book publishing.

The woman who hosted the class, Laurie Gibson, said she was also an editor and so I contacted her after I’d finished the draft of Heliopause. That’s how I met my main editor.

Then through her, I met Lisa Wolf who did the proof edit who is actually the editor for Book Three.

It’s a chain of contacts, basically. My cover designer was a parent at my kids’ school and he knew the artist, Leon Tukker. That’s how that happened.

Can you talk about distribution? I think you mentioned you use IngramSpark?

IngramSpark prints and distributes most of the books that you see.

When I upload a book and it’s ready to go and I purchase the option for both paperback and eBook, they upload it to everywhere: Kobo, Amazon, Google Books.

They do all that and they also put the links up all across the world on various international bookseller websites.

I chose Ingram because of its reputation, it’s worldwide distribution, and the fact that it would not be limited to Amazon. I wanted independent bookstores to have my books and not feel competition from an Amazon published book.

Did you have to form your own publishing company to own the copyrights or deal with IngramSpark?

I filed copyright. I immediately copyrighted it through the U.S. government.

If you’re an indie author, I highly recommend that you get an entertainment lawyer to help you with policies because we don’t have big publishing companies behind us.

We need legal help. We need contract help. That’s what an entertainment lawyer is for. I secured one of those.

He recommended that given the uniqueness of the name Questrison, that I trademark the Saga. I did that. That was extremely expensive, but I feel good about it.

Because now I can put the circle R, it’s a registered trademark. The Questrison Saga. You can’t use it. It’s my baby.

Questrison Saga

You’ve mentioned before that you’ve been working on these books for thirty years. Can you talk about why you decided to finish these books when you did?

All through college, even though I was overwhelmed with schoolwork, the stories were always in the back of my head. I had also drawn a lot of the characters in them. I sometimes would still sketch those while I also learned how to do actual watercolor art from classes.

After I had graduated college, it was a nightmare just entering the workforce. I ended up moving to the West Coast from Tennessee in 2000, and did work for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle for a number of years.

Then after that, I briefly lived in San Francisco. That’s when I thought “I have to get back to these stories.” They’re been in my head all this time.

That’s when I started working on what is now Ephemeris. I even made a brief little comic of it with my own sketches, outlining the story a little bit. That was the closest thing I’ve ever come to an outline, was this storyboard.

After that, I had children. And I was very busy with them. laughs I worked as a science writer for four years. I felt that I was preoccupied by writing nonfiction.

After the recession, I was laid off. I decided to apply to graduate school and I chose epidemiology, which is very topical at the moment.

I came to San Diego to start a Master’s Degree in epidemiology. I would have finished it, but I never saw my family and my younger child, who at the time was two, did not cope well. I chose to withdraw from the program. I have no regrets about doing that, because it was the right thing for the family.

Then I meet another parent at my kid’s school, who was an editor. He edited scientific papers, not fiction. I mentioned I had these stories, and I showed him the first few chapters of what become Heliopause.

Not being a fiction editor, it wasn’t really something he could work on, but he did encourage me to finish the story. I hadn’t had that kind of encouragement. It was a kick in the pants. For that, I’ll always be grateful to him.

I call him the man that saved Heliopause.

It’s funny how encouragement or discouragement at just the right times can make a huge difference.

Yes, and I definitely had been discouraged a few times.

Some people would say, “Maybe it’s time you just let that story go and work on something else.”

I hated hearing that. I thought, no, I want to finish the story. It’s been in my head for most of my life.

Positive encouragement is more powerful than discouragement. Because when somebody believes in you at the right time, and I hope that everyone has that person, it makes all the difference.

Having worked on these for so long, how many drafts do you think you’ve been through for Ephemeris in particular?

Well, it’s funny because what is now Book Four was actually the first book.

I started with what is Book Four now and then morphed it around, and what is now Ephemeris then came after that.

Ephemeris is an interesting book because it takes place before, during, and after Heliopause. It’s giving you a preview of things to come as well as things that happened in the past, and tying everything together later in the book with people from Heliopause.

I’ve had so many drafts of these stories over the years. In my closet here in the office, there are binders full of handwritten drafts from over 30 years ago, including maps that I made, travel guides, glossaries, everything.

My handwriting is just garbage, and that never got better.

There were some typed versions too. I had a terrible typewriter, but a lot of it was handwritten.

There’s so many drafts. It’s ridiculous. I kept a lot of them. I threw out a lot of them too. I don’t even know how many there were to be honest with you.

Basically, we have to talk in terms of the Questrison Saga instead of just one of the books, the whole saga. I knew the endgame from the beginning when I was a young teen. Just the journey to get there changed along with me as a writer in developing the craft as well as maturing as a person in experiencing life.

When reading Ephemeris, it felt like I could point to certain locations and go, I think this is such and such a place that I know Dianne has lived. Like reading about Perpetua, is that Seattle?

Heliopause, I’ve often said, is a love story to Oregon. Because Forster keeps remembering Oregon, and the time he was with Auna in Oregon.

That’s why when Aeriod presents him with the possibility of such a place as a planet [Perpetua], basically an untouched Oregon, he’s delighted.

Aeriod sets him up that way. He’s thought it out. He knows what Forster cannot say “no” to. He’s already thought through all the scenarios. “How can I get Forster to do what I need him to do? Let’s throw out everything that he could just never say no to.” And that’s what he did.

When I write about Galla on Perpetua, that’s her first experience on a forested planet, near an ocean or anything like that. It’s very instantly different than anything else she’s experienced. That is similar to when I moved to Pacific Northwest in 2000.

Not Seattle per se, which I don’t have a lot of love for, but Oregon I absolutely adored.

Are there other planets in the books that are also drawn from places that you’ve lived before?

Well, I’ve driven a lot of roads.

There’s definitely some influence from my road trips because I have gone across the country several times in the past several years by car.

Now there’s a world in Book Four that is heavily influenced by my time in both Tennessee and San Francisco. Because I know that planet the longest, it feels very real. I feel like I’m there when I’m reading it.

You’ll see connections to a lot of the places I’ve lived in that book. It will seem very intimate. It will seem very real, I think.

Books One and Two are already out. When is Book Three due?

Early April for pre-order, with an intended release the end of May.

Keeping Score: March 20, 2020

What a difference a week makes.

Last Friday, I still felt okay going out to my local coffeeshop for coffee in the morning. I thought this week would be much like any other week, that we’d have to take extra care to make sure people that felt sick stayed home, and not congregate in large groups, but that’s it.

But then they closed the schools where my wife works.

And people started posting pictures of empty grocery store shelves.

Now everything is closing down: pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, the zoo, bookstores, publishers, everything is either shutting down or going remote-only.

It’s a frightening time, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that it’s made it hard for me to focus.

So I’m not sure how many words I’ve written this week.

I’ve worked on something, every day. I’ve gathered statistics that I’m going to use in a blog post for next week. I’ve been working through Gail Simone’s ComicsSchool, which has been fantastic, and should result in my first complete comics script by the end.

But I haven’t come back to the short story I was editing. Or made any progress on the novel.

I will do both, though, and soon. But for now, I’ve just…gotta work on something a little more low-key, to leave room in my head for processing everything that’s happening.

I hope you find the head space to keep working, whatever your project is, and that give yourself the time to feel the cocktail of emotions this thing is putting us all through.

Keeping Score: March 13, 2020

Got 1,224 words written so far this week.

Those are spread out over different projects. I added a little to the novel, started drafting several new essays, and decided to go back and edit a short story from last year.

The story was easy for me to write, but it’s been hard to edit. It’s quite personal, pulling something from my childhood and turning it into a horror story. It’s the first story I’ve written about where I grew up, and as such is hard for me to see any other way than how I’ve written it.

So it’s taken me counts on fingers about six months to digest some beta reader feedback I got on it, and figure out what the story needs.

And I think I do, now. I can see a hole in the story, a gap in the POV character’s motivations that I tried to paper over with his personal flaws.

That might work for me, or for someone who also grew up in the kind of town I did, but it doesn’t work for communicating that character’s perspective to everyone else. That’s a failure on my part, a failure of craft, and — hopefully — it’s one I can fix.

What about you? Have you ever had a story — or a novel — that you simply couldn’t edit into shape until after a lot of time (and maybe some leveling up in your writing skills) had passed?

Keeping Score: March 6, 2020

Got back to exercising this week. Back to holding to a schedule in the mornings. Back to allowing myself time to outline, when I wanted it. Time away from the novel.

And it’s working! I’ve written 1,540 words so far this week 🙂

The new scenes in the book are coming together. I’ve finally got things mapped out in my head enough that I can sit and write them out again.

Still might end up throwing them away, or heavily editing them. But at least I can get the raw material out now, to work with later.

I’m even allowing myself to start thinking about revising some short stories that I’ve had sitting on a shelf since the move. Time to get back in the habit of submitting.

So March is off to a good start. Here’s hoping it continues.

Keeping Score: February 28, 2020

Sometimes what feels like a really good week is followed by a bad one.

For example, this week, in which I’ve only written 329 words.

It’s frustrating. Just when I felt like I was getting back in the groove of jogging, writing, and work, two things brought progress to a shuddering halt: I got injured, and I switched from editing back to writing new scenes.

The injury was relatively minor. I had a planter’s wart on the underside of my big toe that my dermatologist finally had enough of and burned off. Worth it, for sure, but that put a crimp in my jogging schedule.

And the new scenes are…maybe a mistake. There’s a sequence towards the end of the book where the POV character travels from one of the station to the other, witnessing the disaster that’s just befallen it.

She’s mostly on her own, in the original sequence, which made it easier to write, but didn’t feel as realistic to me. I mean, the chance she’s going to go from one end to the other without seeing anyone are small.

Plus, I think it drains the whole stretch of a bit of tension. If most of the danger has passed, including the danger of discovery, then what’s going to pull the reader through the passage?

So I’m trying out a version where she does get discovered, and has to talk (or trick) her way out of it.

I think it’ll be better, but it means I’ve got to invent three new characters, their personalities, and enough of their backstories to make them believable. Oh, and also make up what they were doing when they discovered the POV character, and how they go about it.

Not to mention getting the POV character to tell me how she escapes from the mess she’s now in.

I’m telling myself that it’ll all be worth it once I’ve got the new version done…But until then, it’s slow progress each day, as I spend more time outlining now than setting words on the page.

Keeping Score: February 21, 2020

976 words written so far this week.

I’m slowly getting back into my old habits: Walking/jogging in the morning, writing during my lunch break, getting in a language lesson at the end of the day (I’ve decided to take up Swedish. Don’t judge me).

And it shows. It’s getting easier to slip back into the novel every day, easier to make the edits I need.

I’m still daydreaming about a couple of short stories I’ve got floating around in my head, but I’m trying to keep my actual write-and-edit focus on the novel. Because I’d like to be done, or at least done enough that I can send it out to beta readers.

Which will need to include sensitivity readers, I’m realizing. Several of my POV characters are African-American, and I want to be sure I do their perspectives justice.

Depending on their feedback, that could mean I end up doing a lot more rewrites. Or having to scrap the book altogether, if doing right by those characters turns out to be beyond my reach. I hope not, but…I’m not exactly in the best place to judge that.

So I’m going to ask for help. And listen, when that help is given.

Till then, all I can do is write the book as best I can, and hope.

Keeping Score: February 7, 2020

So the move was…rougher than I expected.

As you can see above, I sliced my head open while unloading stuff into our new garage. It’s better now, but at the time we thought I’d need stitches, because it just wouldn’t stop bleeding.

(And yes, I went to Urgent Care, but they couldn’t see me, because — and I’m not making this up — they were overwhelmed with patients coming in prior to the Super Bowl).

We had help moving, but even so it took us all weekend, plus Monday and Tuesday evening, to get everything out of the old place and into the new one. I swear I had no idea how much stuff was crammed into that townhouse.

And now we’re unpacking. Or, as I’ve come to think of it, the “Where the hell are my socks?” phase. Every day is a new hunt for things I used to be able to pinpoint without thinking about.

Oh, and I didn’t take any time off after the move. Which in hindsight was maybe a mistake? Given how much we’ve had to do every night, after work.

As a result of all that, I’m tired, I’m frazzled, and I only got 250 words written this week.

But there’s a weekend coming up, and while it’ll be full-on unpacking and organizing, all day each day, it’ll bring some sense of order to this place. Reduce my cognitive load enough to where I can get back to (writing) work.

I hope.

Keeping Score: January 31, 2020

As I’d hoped, I was able to write some more over the weekend last week, and boost my total word count to 1,724.

So the fact that I’ve only got 1,121 words written so far this week is ok.

Especially now that I’m at the point where I’m mostly editing chapters again, instead of drafting new ones to fill in gaps. Easier to comb through a chapter for continuity errors than write the first draft containing said errors.

So I’m 13 chapters from being done! And 10 of those are already first drafts, so they just need editing passes to bring them in line with the rest of the book: a continuity pass, a blocking pass (to check that the setting, and the characters’ movements within it, is consistent), and a dialog pass (to make sure each character speaks like themselves).

Let’s say I’m able to finish 3 chapters a week. That might be ambitious given my schedule, but it means I could be basically done by March.

Done. As in, “let’s send this out to beta readers” done. As in, “you can work on something else now,” done.

That would feel…fantastic. I hope I can pull it off.

What about you? How far along are you in your current work? Can you see the light at the end, or are you still in the long dark of the tunnel? And how do you persuade yourself to keep going, when in that dark?

Keeping Score: January 24, 2020

Only 947 words written so far this week.

I’m not worried though; first because I’ve got the weekend coming, and I should be able to crank out another 600 words, either tonight or tomorrow.

But also because I’ve been working every day, even if that hasn’t produced any words. I’ve been outlining, and drawing up maps, and planning out blocking for scenes that need it.

So I’ve been making progress every day, at least. Keeping the story fresh in my mind, so when it is time to spin out the words, it’s not so intimidating.

What about you? Do you give yourself credit for all the work that happens around the writing, and if so, how?

Keeping Score, January 17, 2020

Only 500 words written this week.

The impending move (and sale + purchase) has absorbed most of my available head space. Every day there’s been more paperwork to fill out, more historical information I need to sift through, more obstacles to clear.

I’ve been able to work on a new short story, outlining and sketching out dialog, but that’s all. No progress on the novel, no revisions to other short stories…Nothing.

But today I should, finally, knock out the last few forms until closing day. And for closing, all I have to do is show up 🙂

So I’m hoping to do some catch-up writing this weekend, and have a head clear enough to get back on my regular schedule next week.

What about you? How do you manage to keep your writing going in the middle of a stressful event like a move?