I stumbled across Demetria Spinrad’s web serial story Astra Nullius while I was wandering aimlessly across the interwebs. I like space opera, and the story seemed to be in the vein of Firefly, so I thought I would give it a shot. I have to say that her site tag-line of “Action! Adventure! Aliens!” does not disappoint.
Curious about how she came up with this series and why she publishes it the way that she does, I reached out to her for an interview, and she was kind enough to oblige.
For those who aren’t familiar, tell us a little bit about your series Astra Nullius:
Captain Nyx Dysart has a spaceship that’s barely holding together, a crew of misfits, and no idea what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.
Nyx was a proud officer of the multi-species Coalition, tasked with spreading the message of intergalactic peace, harmony, and a whole lot of love throughout the galaxy. But on her return after a lengthy exploratory mission, she found the Coalition in tatters and the galaxy spiraling toward interspecies war. Now, it’s all she can to do keep what remains of her crew together while they try to keep their beloved ship flying.
What inspired you in creating this world and setting?
I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series of games, and like so many fans, I was disappointed by the ending of the third game. For those who missed the whole kerfuffle, the third game’s climax shows the destruction of the special alien artifacts that your character uses to travel between star systems. The entire galaxy-spanning civilization you spent three games defending is functionally defunct. Sure, you get a few cut scenes showing your own party, but you never find out what happened to all the other people you spent so many hours helping.
I wanted to know what happened next. The franchise being what it is, it would have to involve a scrappy band of misfits, plenty of difficult moral choices, and a whole lot of alien boning.
The idea kept percolating in the back of my mind as I worked on other stories. I wanted to write the story of a spaceship’s crew dealing with the fact that their shiny futuristic civilization was crumbling. Over time, influences from other science fiction stories crept in. My protagonist became a former officer of a Star Trek-type federation, trying to find her place in the world after the organization she devoted her life to collapsed. Freed of the constraints of an established franchise, my alien species got much, much weirder.
Your series features several non-human races and the site even has an appendix describing them. How long did it take you to world build your setting and put all of this together?
It didn’t take all that long to write the appendix, maybe a few evenings of work. I tend to let my story ideas marinate for a long time before I start writing, so bits of it were circulating in the back of my brain for years before I put anything down on the page.
You post your stories for free on a website. Why did you choose to release your stories this way as opposed to self-publishing through Kindle or some other method? What appeals to you about this method?
For several years after college, I was doing a tremendous amount of writing. Every time I reached the end of a novel, I’d put it away on my hard drive and move on to the next piece. The problem was that I could write, but I couldn’t edit. My first drafts were rough, with major plot holes and inconsistent world-building, and I would get overwhelmed with the amount of work required just to turn a piece into something coherent. I was working my way closer to an understanding of how to manage the complicated intertwining plots and character arcs that a novel-length story requires, but I wasn’t quite there yet, and I was getting frustrated with the fact that I never seemed to have anything I was proud to publish.
I realized that I needed to start getting my work to the point that it was ready to be read, even if that meant putting novels aside and just working on short stories for a while. I also noticed that a lot of my favorite authors got started by putting their work up for free online and their careers took off after they had already built up an audience.
I looked into a lot of different options for publication. I liked the way that Wattpad, Tumblr, and Archive of Our Own made it easy to build an audience and get feedback quickly, but I wanted to have more control over the back end. Kindle, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble have some awesome self-publishing options, but I knew that if I were asking for money up front, I’d be constantly worrying about whether my work was good enough to be worth paying for. Building my own site with WordPress gave me the most flexibility, and I can set up a Patreon account if anyone ever does want to donate money.
I’ve seen other web-serials and most of them release content once or twice a week. By contrast, you release once a month. What are the pros and cons of longer periods between release?
I like to read online science fiction magazines, and that 4-5k range felt like the sweet spot for a short story that could be read in a single sitting. Shorter, and you start having to cut out elements like character development or exposition just to get enough time with the action; longer, and you’re asking your readers to set aside a significant chunk of time to read an unbroken page of text.
I tried splitting my stories into smaller segments for weekly publication, but the word counts never added up quite right and I was worried that readers would get frustrated and lose interest if they had to click through too many pages. I also tried cranking content out faster, but there’s a limit on how fast I can work without burning out or wasting time set aside for other projects.
The biggest downside of releasing just once per month is that you don’t have that constant flow of audience checking in every week. It’s definitely added an extra level of challenge to building an audience.
Would you recommend this method of publication to other authors?
My day job is in digital marketing, so part of the reason I chose this method of publication is because I needed to practice the skills involved in creating a website and growing an audience. This requires a lot more work up front than publishing through a platform with a baked-in audience like Archive of Our Own or Wattpad. It also cuts me off from the monetization options that publication platforms like Amazon and Smashwords give their authors.
I was excited about designing the site and marketing my story to an audience, so I was willing to take on that extra work. If you only want to write fiction and you don’t want to spend any time staring at Google Analytics or playing around with display ads, this method is probably not for you.
Do you plan on collecting these episodes from the website to a book in the future?
I would love to do that someday. I’ve done some work laying out print books at my day job, so I think I could make something nice and put it up on Createspace. For now, though, I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. I’m going to spend the next few years building an audience and then I’ll see whether they would like to have the option to purchase a physical book or an ebook story collection.
How far ahead in the series do you have planned in terms of plot or episodes?
I’ve got a spreadsheet with 30 very rough story ideas and a general sense of where I want the main characters’ arcs to take them. I’m not much of an outliner, though, so I guess it’s always possible that I could decide to go off in a completely different direction.
The short story structure works perfectly for someone like me who likes to veer off on unexpected tangents. I’ve got a lot of potential conflicts floating around in this world, and each month I get to tug on a new thread and see what unravels. When you’re writing a 50k or 100k-word story with the structure of a traditional novel, you don’t have the same freedom to jump around and introduce new conflicts and characters at any time.
Do you have other series or stories you want/plan to write, or are you focusing solely on Astra Nullius?
I’ve got dozens of stories floating around in my brain. Part of the reason I’m keeping the publishing schedule a little sparser than I’d like is so I can have time to work on other projects too.
I also crank out a lot of written content for my day job, so I have to save some creative energy for that.
What authors/creators inspire you?
Oh man, how long a list do you want to read? Because I could go on all day. I’m an omnivorous reader, so I wander pretty far outside the genres I write.
I mentioned that many of my favorite authors started out by releasing their work online for free in one form or another. Here’s a short list of the people who inspired me to choose this specific publishing method: Scott Lynch, C. S. Pacat, Allie Brosh, Noelle Stevenson, Tom Siddell, Dylan Meconis, John Scalzi, David Wong, Naomi Novik, and Joseph Fink.
What is your writing routine like?
Not anything you’d want to emulate! I write in spurts when I have the time and energy. I used to be more consistent, but last year I was planning my wedding and this year I spent a huge chunk of time house hunting, and I work full time on top of all that.
I try to write a story over the course of a week or two. I send it to my beta reader, stick my head under the covers and pretend I don’t need to edit for a while, and then I finally force myself to make changes. When I can, I try to keep at least two months’ worth of stories in my backlog in case life happens and I need a break.
What writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
There are authors out there who’ve gotten famous for writing things weirder and more shocking than you could even imagine. Don’t worry about whether you’re pushing the envelope. There’s someone out there who’s setting that envelope on fire.