Writers on Writing: Interview with LJ Cohen

With almost twenty-five years of experience as a physical therapist, novelist LJ Cohen now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. In the novels of the Halcyone Space series, a reckless and brilliant computer programmer and her accidental shipmates blunder into a galactic conspiracy forty years in the making.

In the recently released Dreadnought and Shuttle (Book 3 of the Halcyone Space series), a materials science student is kidnapped, drawn into a conflict between the young crew of a sentient spaceship, a weapons smuggling ring, and a Commonwealth-wide conspiracy. She must escape before her usefulness as a hostage expires. All three books of the series, including Dreadnought and Shuttle,  are currently at the top of Amazon's LGBT Science Fiction e-book category. Read more about LJ's work and process in our interview below:


You have written at least one book per year for the past five years. What is your process like? What are your daily writing routines?

I’ve actually written eleven books in twelve years, though several of those will never, ever be more than a file on a hard drive labeled DO NOT READ. It’s funny – while I know that I tend towards terrible distractibility and have the dubious skill of following any rabbit hole to obscure dead ends, I still manage to write, revise, and edit a novel in a year.

I’m not sure I’d recommend my process to anyone, since it relies heavily on my ability to hyperfocus and a touch of obsession, but once I start a manuscript, I set a goal of 1000 words a day/5000 words a week until it’s finished. There are days and weeks where I do not meet my quota, but by setting those intentions, I am able to go from initial brainstorming to finished first draft of an 80-100K word novel in under six months.

Beyond that, I don’t have any formal writing routines other than to re-read the prior days work, lightly edit and continue into new words. I can write to music or silence, at home or in a coffee shop. The only thing I can’t do is write if the television is on. Which can be problematic if I want to write in the evenings at home when members of the family want to watch TV, as my office is off the living room and doesn’t have a door.

Dreadnought and Shuttle is the third book of the Halcyone Space series. When drafting, are you more of a plotter or a pantser? Are there any tips or tricks you have learned to managing the details of a series?

I don’t formally outline, but I do a fair amount of brainstorming (typically in a cheap, spiral bound notebook) where I set out the basic log line for the book, the major characters and their goals, and a general understanding of the beginning, middle, and end of the story. I describe this part of the process as my writing version of the game Clue. Instead of Miss Scarlet in the library with a candlestick, I have a character in a setting with a problem.

From there, I start writing some sample scenes to get a feel for the characters, their speech patterns, their setting. It’s rare that those initial scenes end up as the book’s real opening. Sometimes they get scrapped all together. Sometimes they get moved or changed radically.

As I write, I outline retroactively. This is extremely helpful in working out problems in pacing and greatly eases the revision process.

In terms of writing a series and details, that’s been an evolving process. When I started DERELICT, I had no plans for a large series. I was simply writing that book and working my way through the process. When I wrote ITHAKA RISING, I was constantly reviewing my notes for DERELICT and re-reading sections of the finished book to make sure I hadn’t gotten any details wrong. One thing that actually helped: I was reviewing the audiofiles for DERELICT while I was revising ITHAKA RISING, so it gave me the opportunity to catch any errors.

When it came time to brainstorm for DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE, I spent some time creating a personal wiki (I use a free/open source program called wikidpad). It’s still a work in progress and I should have started it two books sooner. Thank goodness for computers and the ability to search a file for relevant information!

I have a strong situational memory – I’m not sure that’s a formal term, but I noticed this when I was a practicing physical therapist. If I tried to remember the specifics of a patient away from the office and out of context, I could only recall the broadest of details. But, once that patient was on the table and I was in the context of a treatment session, I had perfect recall of the problem, what we’d tried, etc. It’s the same way when I’m writing. Once I slip into a character’s POV, I can access all the scenes and storylines that character has been in.

This story features a shifting point of view among a cast of characters--all unique, vulnerable, flawed, and passionate. Reading the book, the characters felt incredibly real. Do they ever surprise you?

Yes! All the time. Barre Durbin surprised me. When I wrote him into DERELICT, he was only supposed to be a foil for his brother Jem. Instead, he became a major character with a major role to play in that book and the books that followed.

I was also surprised by Micah. He was initially supposed to be a drug dealer on the station. But his backstory and inner conflict made him far more interesting and far richer than in my initial imaginings.

Ro didn’t surprise me all that much, only because she was the character I had envisioned most thoroughly in planning the story. She is also loosely based on a college friend, so I had a good sense of the emotional vulnerability beneath her brash exterior.

Dev – a new character to the series in book 3 – was a complete surprise. And her background and depth ended up taking the story to a place I had not anticipated as well as set up the major conflicts that will play out in the next books.

If this book was a movie, who would you like to see playing the roles of the Halcyone crew?

Can I tell you how hard a question this is for me? I have a severe limitation in my ability to visualize. It’s called aphantasia and has had a lot of play in the news this past year. Until I read about it in the NYT, I had no idea that other people actually had visual images in their minds when they thought of things. Some writer friends of mine talked about writing the movie that unfurled in their minds and I just thought it was a fancy metaphor.

So I really struggle with visualizing the actors who might play my characters. Except for one. I think Dame Judy Dench would make a great Ada May. If the Halcyone books were to be optioned for movies, my main concern would be that the director be committed to keeping to my vision of a multi-cultural future.

What is currently on your TBR list?

I am eagerly awaiting episode 6 of Rick Wayne’s THE MINUS FACTION. I have the forth book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, CIBOLA BURN next on my kindle.

What advice would you offer a writer who is starting out?

Write what you’re passionate about because you’ll be spending months to years with those characters and situations in your head. If you don’t love what you’re creating and don’t fully believe in it, not only will that show on the page, but you won’t have the stamina and the emotional resources to get through the rejection that’s endemic in being a creator.

Learn all you can about the industry so you can make the best choices for your career at any given time and so you can protect yourself from being taken advantage of.

And always be mindful of paying it forward.

Learn more about LJ Cohen on her website. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Google+, or her newsletter Blue Musings. Her new book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, is currently available on Amazon (ebook and print), Google Books, Kobo, B&N, iBooks.