A Labor of Love - Mark Raines

11 Jan 2024

 “How to explain?  How to describe?  Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.” 

These are the opening words to Vernon Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, a science fiction tale of incredible scope and ambition. They describe the blight awakened beyond the beyond about to wreak havoc on the galaxy, but I am going to use them to get at the essence of why I write. I love science fiction and fantasy novels. I love reading them, love contemplating the ideas in them, love getting to know the characters that populate them, and love talking about them. And writing is another way to share that love with others and paint a picture of the things I love about science fiction and space opera. 

It's impossible to describe everything that makes science fiction and fantasy literature so appealing. How to explain? How to describe? But, in creating my own worlds, my own characters, and introducing readers to my own concepts and ideas, I can try to share much of what I love in a special way. For me, that’s the joy… creating a version of what others have created for me, through my own lens. 

I spent a decade not writing after I came up with my idea for a far future space opera series. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it’s that I let other things get in the way… and I hadn’t figured out the structure I really needed to write a novel. I’ve always been a write as I go, don’t plan, you’ll get there, writer (is the term for that “pantser”?)… but in writing novels it wasn’t working. I needed structure. I needed a process.

I didn’t find online writing communities until after I finished writing my first two novels (though before publishing). One of the many cool things about finding those communities was learning how different everyone’s processes are. I doubt any two are exactly alike. I write chapter descriptions ranging from 1 sentence to a few paragraphs of how the plot will go in every chapter. These are typically vague, as I can (and do) adapt my story as I write and discover more about the characters and even the full scope of what is going on. It’s essentially a map to keep me moving toward my destination, but it will change as I go. I’ll revisit it often, changing as I finish chapters and the story gets more fleshed out in detail. 

The biggest thing I’ve read from every successful indie author is that you need to keep writing (and if you’re a successful indie science fiction or fantasy author that’s spoken about things that helped you become successful I’ve probably read it or listened to it). It’s hard with a full-time job (I run my own law practice) and two small children, but I stick to my process and write when I can. Some months it’s very little, some months I get to write much more. But even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking, playing the shape of what is to come in my head.

“They're on the side of life… boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smelly, fallible and short-sighted, God knows, but REAL life.”

My guiding star in writing is Iain M. Banks, and these are the words of Horza, the chief protagonist in Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first Culture novel. Banks introduces the Culture through the eyes of a character hostile to it. He went on to describe the Culture as “an evolutionary dead end”. It’s a great idea as Banks anticipates the readers’ possible opposition to the Culture and plays into it. Banks’ ideas are grand and fascinating. I often wonder if each book started with a broad conceptual idea, as that is how all of mine have started. Then the questions for me are always… how do you execute that idea? How do you create characters and a story where readers will be engaged as you bring that idea to life? That’s the challenge, that’s the joy.

“Human’s question all our beliefs, except the ones we truly believe, and those we never think to question.” 

This line from Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead has become a centerpiece on how I view the world. It’s important to question, to challenge your perspective and make sure your viewpoint is more than just something that was forced upon you by your surroundings. It’s also at the core of how I try to write characters…as both products of where they come from but also individuals trying to do the right thing. 

I often describe my debut novel as Banks’ Player of Games combined with Banks’ Matter, though with a more Scalzian feel. I love the ambition of Banks, but his far future society is a little more Alien than the one I wanted to create. Much of Banks’ Culture series revolves around stories of Special Circumstances, where the Minds (super artificial intelligences) direct involvement with more primitive societies because they have determined it is a moral imperative to do so. Much of what I’m trying to do is remove the Minds from the equation and let fallible people and aliens make those kinds of calculations. 

The challenge for me is to write characters that aren’t good or bad, per se, but are limited by their own understanding and perspective. Sometimes they may be right, sometimes they may be wrong, but that’s for the reader to consider… not for me to say. 

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to stay and defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.” 

But no story is complete without giving your characters their moments to shine, their moments of growth, their moments to surprise you, to disappoint you, or to invigorate you. Bigwig’s stand against General Woundwort (one of the great villains in literature) is the culmination of so much that is wonderfully set up in Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Bigwig is a product of his environment. He is the strongest of our rabbits and was a member of the prestigious Sandleford Owsla. But he constantly defied the expectation that he might push for himself to be the leader, to be in charge. And here he acknowledges that Fiver is their Chief Rabbit much to the utter shock of General Woundwort. Bigwig as a character often surprises you, and in that moment he invigorates you, despite what you might expect from his background. 

How do we give our characters these kinds of moments? I probably view it as the most important part of my writing process…the one you do and desperately hope your readers find the same kind of satisfaction and excitement reading it as you had writing it. There’s a scene in Felan’s Rescue I won’t spoil but exemplifies what I’m talking about. I had created an expectation for Sandra’s brother (Sandra is one the main characters). But as I was writing a late scene involving Sandra and her brother, I suddenly viewed the brother in a different light. I thought the writing worked better with him being in that light and wrote the scene differently than I had planned. It shifted the story in some ways. It was a moment that for me writing it was immensely satisfying, because it wasn’t planned in any way and gave that character a moment I never expected. There are many character beats like this for me in my writing. It’s the challenge of finding their moment and hoping that moment excites your readers. 

“And what do you think God’s plan is General Cosca?”
“I have long suspected that it might be to annoy me.”

That witty retort from one of my all-time favorite characters, Nicomo Cosca, a signature Joe Abercrombie creation, speaks to what I view as the hardest part of being an indie writer… self-promotion, finding ways to reach readers that haven’t found you and convincing them to pick up your book.  

It’s the part I almost certainly don’t do enough of or do well enough. Whether it be Instagram posts or attempting to do some video (Tiktok type) content (which I’ve avoided completely), or limiting my twitter feed to book content (I really struggle with that / refuse to…ha). There are some authors that are exceptional at it whom I salute. I’m trying to improve. Mostly, though, I’m trying to do the parts of it I like the most. Sharing my book reviews, sharing pictures of the books I love, giving updates on my stories. 

I’m terrible about asking for reviews (I’ve forced myself to do it, though usually not directly), or feedback, or support from others. This has always been the case and not limited to book promotion. I try to help promote others when I enjoy their books, or when a reviewer points me in the direction of a book I enjoy. As a relatively new indie author (my first novel was published in August of 2022), I know how much those little things others do for you can mean. 

Most of all, I try to be genuine and appreciative. Nobody is obligated to help you or even like your work. I think my first novel is probably not an ideal debut because the multiple POVs feel so distinct, not just in tone but setting. A reader must trust me to bring it together without having any track record of doing so. I’m not going to like every book I read, nor will I be moved to read a book by every book review I consume… but when I am, I like to let the author know. I like to promote the reviewer that got me excited about the book. It’s helped me feel more invested in the online indie book community I’m still learning about and trying to be more a part of. 

I’m sure there are many indie authors who have similar struggles. Find the things you can enjoy doing to promote your book (at least to some degree) and don’t overdo the tedious stuff. And most importantly, don’t expect people to support and help you… people will, but nobody owes you. That’s the number one thing I try to do… be respectful to those working hard to promote their work in the indie book world (whether authors or reviewers/booktubers). Be appreciative when they help you and don’t let it effect your view of yourself or them when they don’t. 

“That is what protects me here; that and the illusion I have fostered, the source of my sorry and my shame, the anguish that has brought me to this great wen, this dusty city dreamed up in bone and brick, a conspiracy of industry and violence, steeped in history and battened-down power, this badland beyond my ken.”

The prologue to Perdido Street Station is perfect. This is the last full paragraph (one sentence remains after). The narrator is in pain. The city is foreign to him and filled with challenges… But he must and will attempt to do what he needs to do. 

There have been some highs and many lows for me as an indie writer. The number of people that have read my books is not enough that I’d consider myself particularly successful, but the number would be substantially lower if I hadn’t just done the thing and worked hard to get my book out there. It’s exciting that people have read and are still reading my books. I’m not where I want to be, but I will always appreciate coming this far. 

There are many challenges in being in the indie world: coming up with the ideas, crafting a plot, bringing the characters to life, finding time to write, launching your book, promoting your book, finding readers for your work… it’s important to celebrate the little victories. It’s important to celebrate the positive reviews, the appreciative feedback from satisfied readers… the fact that so many more people have your book and have read your book than would have ever done so had you not committed to publishing. 

Writing is a labor of love. I love Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. I create worlds, characters, and stories that I love and hope they will speak to others as they speak to me.  The setbacks in this field are many, I’d bet that is true even for very successful Indie Authors. But despite the challenges, the reward of finishing, and seeing your work out in the world is great. It’s worth it.

Interested in what you've just read? You can acquire Mark Raines' novels using this link

About Mark Raines


I’ve been an avid reader since I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card in the eighth grade. It was assigned to me by one of my least favorite teachers in one of my least favorite classes (an advanced English class that was tedious and boring). However, in assigning us to read Ender’s Game that teacher gave me a lifelong appreciation for Science Fiction and Fantasy novels that has never waned. You never know where important moments in your life will come from.

I remember putting off reading the assigned chapters until the last possible second. I think she’d assigned us to read the first 5 chapters the first week. The night before, I laid in bed around 9:00 picking up the book to read those chapters. I didn’t put the book down until nearly 4 in the morning. I’d finish it the next day after school. 

From that day forward I plowed through the Ender’s series (It was 4 books at that time), the Foundation Series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and every other piece of science fiction I could get my hand on. I dabbled in fantasy with Watership Down and Lord of the Rings but struggled to get into some of the big series at the time, like Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth. Eventually, my tastes expanded, and I dove into the Hyperion Cantos, the Culture Series, Game of Thrones, First Law, etc. 

At some point, I started coming up with ideas of my own. I wrote out some vague plans for an ambitious series and even wrote a rough draft of the prologue and first chapter of what would eventually become Felan’s Rescue. But ultimately, I never committed the time to following through and in my twenties, when there was plenty of time to be had, those pages stayed mostly blank.

Then came law school and limited reading beyond law school assigned readings. Then came getting my law practice off the ground. But shortly before the birth of my now four-year-old daughter I had an epiphany. I knew I wanted to write these, but if I didn’t commit, those pages would always remain empty. I wanted to tell my daughter that I gave it a shot. That I had something I really wanted to do, and I took the time to do it. So shortly after she was born, I began revisiting Felan’s Rescue. My wife would read as I went and was incredibly encouraging throughout the process. Over the next seven months I wrote during my lunch at work, sometimes at night, sometimes if I had a light day, I’d write during work hours (the beauty of owning your own practice) and I finished a draft of Felan’s Rescue

Several edits later I had a draft I was very happy with. In the meantime, I wrote a second novel, a direct sequel to Felan’s Rescue and began work on a third. Maybe the only people that will read these novels will be close to me, but I’m proud of the work I’ve put into them. I love the characters and love how the pieces of both stories fit. I hope one day they’ll be on bookshelves everywhere, but until that day I’m happy my daughter inspired me to commit to the writing process and write two novels I’ve intended to write for over a decade.