Today I have an interview with Shawn Inmon, one of a very small percentage of authors who earn a living at this, and one of what might be a smaller percentage of fiction authors who handle time travel well. With his most recent release now out, he was able to spare us some time to answer a few questions about this dark art.
JK: So, Shawn, first please tell us how you got into writing in the first place.
SI: I won a writing contest when I was fifteen years old and was named one of Washington’s Most Promising Young Writers. I was sure fame, fortune, and Pulitzers were right behind that.
As it turned out, I didn’t actually publish my first book for forty-seven more years.
That first book was a memoir–an easy entry for many a first time writer. In my case, life had handed me a pretty terrific story–falling in love as a teenager, having that romance forcibly ended and rekindling it thirty years later.
It made for a can’t-miss kind of story that was easy to write. The hardest part, as Bob Seger memorably said, was “What to leave in, what to leave out.”
And it was one hell of a tale. What inspired you to transition from non-fiction to fiction?
I honestly thought that first book might be it for me. Then, when it surprised me and started to sell well, I decided there might be a career there after all. However, I only had one love story to write about, so I knew I needed to segue into making up stories. That proved to be the right move. Fiction is limitless, whereas if I tried to continue to mine my own life for stories, that could wear thin pretty quickly.
Yeah, and any life would eventually run dry. Not much interest in The Rock I Tripped over When I Was Three. Who was your greatest fiction influence, and how/why?
I think I’m probably more influenced by Ray Bradbury than anyone else. I loved his natural style of storytelling. It never felt like he was trying too hard, but rather that he just sat down at his typewriter every day and magic flowed from his fingertips. I’m sure he worked and sweated as much as any of us, but it never showed.
Also, he was so workmanlike. I suppose that could be insulting to an “artiste,” but that doesn’t include me. I’ve always tried to bring my lunch pail every day and just get my words down.
Plus, I think Ray Bradbury was a good human being and I so often agreed with the themes he put forth in his books.
When I was a teen, Robert Heinlein was my guy. He swung his opinions like a weapon of war. I was attracted to that when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older myself, I find myself returning to Bradbury much more often than I do Heinlein. All these years later, I’m envious of what he accomplished so consistently and with such apparent ease.
So did you seek to emulate those strengths when you took to fiction writing, beyond the very obvious one that the lunchpail approach is one that gets the job done?
No, I can’t say that I did. I never consciously emulate anyone, though I’m sure all the reading I did seeped into my pores through osmosis. I’m more likely to take an idea from a book I read–a trope, or a situation–and file it away for future use. I have dozens of situations stored in my brain and hope that my subconscious will hand me the right one at the right moment.
For instance, in my most recent book, my protagonist met an antagonist. The antagonist took an instant dislike to our hero. That was the extent of my plan for that character. Then, they got thrown in together and grudgingly grew to respect each other and of course ultimately became like brothers. That’s a situation I had loved in a previous book that fell into place here. My situation ended up looking nothing like the source material (which is a good thing!) but grew from it.
My overall favorite author is Stephen King, and although I never attempt to emulate him, I know his habits have worked their way into my writing. I so admire his ability to connect me to a character in just a few words. Unlike some readers, I love his little side trips off the main plot. The difference is, his side trips are often ten thousand words. I try to limit mine to just a few hundred!
How long have you been writing time travel stories?
I started my first time travel book in 2015. I initially published it as six separate episodes, then bundled it all together into a single book in July of 2016. That was intended to be a standalone novel. About halfway through writing it, my first reader said, “This is going to be a great series!” I had no plans for a series, but that planted the seed.
When I finished that first book, Lord help me, I added a single line at the very end: “Coming Soon, The Redemption of Michael Hollister.” I had no idea what that story was or what it looked like, but I suddenly had a series.
I published the twelfth book in that series last September. I’m taking a little break from it at the moment, but I am planning to write the thirteenth book in October of this year. Essentially, that series–The Middle Falls Time Travel Series–took up all of my creative life for about three years.
And it has been an enormous success, with compelling characters in conflict–the essence of good fiction. What drew you to the genre?
To me, it’s just so much fun. There are so many ways you can go about it.
The first book I ever started (and never finished) was a time travel book. I just didn’t know enough about how to structure a story yet.
Time travel lets us visit different eras, which is fun. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again and feeling like I had actually been in New York before the turn of the twentieth century. When Stephen King wrote 11/22/63, my favorite part of the book wasn’t about Kennedy, but just what life was like in America in the late 1950s.
Then, there’s the fish out of water element. What happens when we take modern man (or woman–I’ve written three books with a female protag) and drop them into a completely foreign time zone? Whenever I start reading someone else’s time travel novel or start writing one of my own, I am still in awe at the possibilities.
What were some early struggles or issues you had to confront about time travel fiction?
So many! To me, it’s so easy to go astray writing time travel. So many hidden traps that we can fall into.
I remember when I first told you I wanted to write a time travel novel, you told me what you often didn’t like about the genre–that events continue to play out the same, over and over. Whereas, we know that in reality, just because a person does or says something in one version of reality, there’s no guarantee they would do or say the same in another go-round.
I took that to heart. So, when my characters wake up back at an early point in their life, things are initially–the first few minutes or hours–very similar. The farther they move away from that reset point, the more things change, though.
That can be used for dramatic effect, of course. What if a character is counting on something to happen because it did happen in their first life, but does not happen in their second, because they’ve done things differently and changed the world.
Of course, there’s the whole issue with “What if I traveled back and killed my father before he conceived me?” Blech. I have avoided those issues by creating a multiverse in my series. Each time a character is “restarted” at an earlier point in their life, it creates a new dimension, so there can’t be any conflicts like that. Essentially, I took the coward’s way out.
In my new series, I am using a portal for time travel, a la The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That also does away with that kind of conundrum. Someday, I suppose I should write the more prevalent type of time travel–get in a machine, or step through a wormhole, or something along those lines.
What would you say has been the single biggest struggle or issue?
For me, it’s been how to keep a series fresh over twelve books. My series are all standalone novels, so there isn’t one overarching plot line. That means I have to essentially reinvent the wheel every book.
The central conceit–someone dies with unfinished business on their soul and wakes up at an earlier point to set it right–is unchanged from book to book. My challenge has been, ‘How can I write stories that adhere to that conceit, without getting repetitive?’ I’ve done so by mixing up sub-genres within the main time travel genre.
For instance, the first book centers on stopping a serial killer from killing. It’s a cat and mouse game. The second book, which features the antagonist from the first book as the main character is simply a redemptive arc for him, if such a thing is possible.
Meanwhile, the third book focused on a romance–how many lives would you live to get back to the one you love? The tenth book was a murder mystery combined with time travel, which is definitely an aid in solving a murder. With the twelfth book, I set a special challenge: create a main character on the autism spectrum, then give him only thirty days to live, and require him to change.
With that twelfth book, I found that all my ideas were riffs on books I’d already written. That’s when I took a break to write the portal fiction trilogy. Now that I have, a great idea for a thirteenth book has arrived: What if someone doesn’t want redemption? I’m looking forward to writing that one.
I think quite a few people will be looking forward to reading it. Happily, you are prolific. Would you call time travel its own genre, or a subgenre of others (such as SF, fantasy, romance, etc.)?
I suppose it’s a sub-genre, although it could be located under either Science Fiction (if it is science based time travel) or Fantasy (if it is portal fiction). To be completely honest, although I call my Middle Falls books Sci Fi, they’re really not. There isn’t a bit of science in any of them. They would more accurately be labeled as Metaphysical Time Travel, or even Reincarnation, but Amazon doesn’t have categories for that.
The truth is, I just write the stories I want, then figure out how to market them later.
Who else is excellent at writing time travel, and what makes that author’s work excellent?
Probably my all-time favorite time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sadly, he passed away shortly after it was published, so the follow up he was working on was never published. Word is that his estate has been looking for someone to finish the book, but so far, no one has come knocking on my door.
In contemporary fiction, my friend Nathan Van Coops does an excellent series called In Times Like These. His books are filled with humor, adventure, and he does a great job at making the reader feels like he’s there.
That’s what I feel great time travel writers do: they bring you into a time with just a few short stabs of details. Some writers will do a bunch of research and then beat you over the head with it. Clever writers slip those details in as part of the story, instead of long info dumps. I love those writers.
There’s a big difference between storytelling and showing off, and plenty of writers seem not to realize that, I think.
Speaking of which: You’ve surely seen a lot of bad time travel writing. Not going to ask you to name names, but what are some of the tells that signal a badly done time travel story?
Thank you for not asking me to throw other writers under the bus!
The first sign to me is what I just mentioned–the info dump. If I start a book and the writer spends the first three pages setting the scene, I’m outta there. Too many books waiting on my Kindle.
With my new book, I have my hero discover the mysterious door in his basement in the first few thousand words. By the second chapter, he’s being dive-bombed by pterodactyl-like creatures. If it’s an adventure story, let’s have an adventure.
Of course, plot holes are easier to create in time travel than just about any other genre. I’m more forgiving of those, though, as I might slip into that pothole myself from time to time.
More than anything, though, I think the sign of a bad time travel book is when it’s more of a situation, rather than a story. I can throw a guy two thousand years into the past, but if I don’t do something interesting with him once I get there, it’s all for naught. All the elements of a good story–tension, conflict, goals and goals blocked–need to be just as present in a time travel book as anywhere else. So often, I find a writer will create a cool scenario, then not have any real idea what to do with it from there.
We all know that reviews can be ignorant, cruel, or quite frequently both. What’s the most unjustified type of review comment you see on time travel books?
I never mind bad reviews, really. If you go to Thomas Weaver on Amazon, the Top Review lists all the reasons people shouldn’t buy my book. (The book has 300 reviews, but that one stays at the top!) The thing is, I love having it there. The things she complains about (although she exaggerates somewhat) are things that other people will look at and say, “Hey, that’s for me!”
Occasionally, a reviewer will say something that flat out isn’t true – an element of the book that just isn’t there – but I feel like I’ve just got to move more copies of the book, which will result in more reviews, which will drown out the white noise of those few negative reviews.
I came to grips with the idea that not everyone is going to love what I write, no matter how hard I try. That was pretty freeing. Now, when those bad reviews crop up, they don’t hold any sting. The other thing is, if I’m just getting positive reviews, that probably means I haven’t done a great job of reaching a wide enough audience.
Initially, I try to swim where the water is warm and get the book to my readers that I know are prone to like it. Eventually, though, I’ve gotta toss it out there where there be sharks.
Which is a good outlook. But can you give an example, without singling anyone out, of a type of review comment you have seen often on a time travel book (yours or someone else’s) and thought, “That’s just ignorant.”? For example, when I see the snippy “obviously she should fire her editor,” that’s one of my own triggers. It says to me: “This reviewer doesn’t know how books are assembled.” Any category of comments like that, with respect to time travel?
Overall, I find that people confuse editing and proofreading. I think that’s because editing is mostly invisible. If an editor saved me from wandering down the wrong path, it just never shows up in a book. However, if a stray typo survives, that’s noticeable to anyone.
I think the kindest thing I can say is that there are different levels of readers out there. Many readers just want to skim along the surface and if they don’t pay attention and bump their noses against something because they weren’t paying attention, they may complain loudly about it.
I occasionally hear from readers who have put a lot of time into thinking about the concepts and themes of my books. Every writer loves that, of course, and I’ve had some enlightening conversations with people that helped me see things I didn’t even know I had put in the books.
Speaking of reviews, I have written an entire book because of a fairly negative review. It was on the third book in my series and the reviewer complained that my protag was too single-minded in the pursuit of his goal. I wasn’t put off by that comment, because that was a feature, not a bug, of the book. I wanted him to be single-minded to the exclusion of all else.
However, that review set my mind off on another path and I eventually wrote the fifth book in the series as an answer to it. Essentially saying, ‘Okay, you want a non-tunnel vision character? Here she is!’ I mentioned that in my Author’s Note for the book and the reviewer eventually got in touch with me. (He must have liked the series well enough to read at least two more books.) We had a good laugh over it.
Talk about abiding by the lemons and lemonade parable. I no longer need to ask you the question about “where do you get your ideas?” Because we know how authors love that one.
Ha! They do come from the oddest places!
The tenth book in the series came from listening to a sportscaster one morning. He said, “So picture this–eighteen year old kid is suddenly given fame and millions of dollars. You can imagine what happens next.” He was right–I could. It turned out to be a pretty good story, I think.
Of course the first book in the series drew from my own life. One of my cousins killed his older brother in a car accident, and I used that as the inciting incident in that first book. The serial killer came from my imagination, though. If I know any serial killers, I’m not aware of it.
And we’re going to keep it that way.
Since I’m close to the SF community, I talk to plentiful writers about time travel story concepts. What guidance would you offer a fiction writer new to time travel?
I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.
It’s always about the characters and the story. Do we care about them? If we don’t care about the characters, we sure don’t care about the book. We need someone to root for and maybe root against.
I just finished Blake Crouch’s Incursion. What an intricately plotted story! I felt my mind bending into a pretzel trying to keep up. It was exciting and full of twists. And yet, I forgot about it right after I finished it, because, for whatever reason, the characters didn’t resonate with me.
There’s a tendency I need to fight against, as well, and that’s creating “too” characters. Characters that are “too” good. Too competent, “too” whatever. I constantly try to remember yin/yang, and that there is a little of each in the other.
Yep. I see that all the time, the character where the author pounded me in the face with “this is the bad guy/gal.” Okay, I get it, now stop belting me with that.
You’ve got a new book out, one that looks to begin a new series. Can you please supply a purchase link, and tell us how your past work has influenced this new release?
Here’s the new book: A Door Into Time.
This book is essentially opposite of The Middle Falls series. That series is all about contemplation, introspection, redemption. This one throws a modern Special Forces member into essentially a prehistoric world, strips him of all his weapons, and challenges him to survive.
My favorite books as a young teen were John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mysterious Island. The problem is, those books were written 100+ years ago, so they are stilted in style and delivery by today’s standards. This book attempts to update that sub-genre of throwing a normal guy into an impossible situation.
I had such a great time writing it, and I hope that shows in the final product.
I am sure it will. Shawn, thanks so much for taking time out of your post-release schedule to answer these questions in such detail. Best of continued success in your work.
Please see the numerous links in the interview body for more about Shawn and his work. Others:
Shawn’s page on Audible (most of his books are also available as audiobooks; he’s way ahead of the world on that)