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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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ESSENCE: From imagination to ink

Photo by Connor May

Author Martha Wells sits for a photo in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. (Connor May/The Battalion)

Doctor, lawyer, teacher and engineer. These were some of the professions that Martha Wells, an acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer, had heard of in her childhood. Despite being an avid reader, she didn’t know that writing could be a means of making a living.

“I’ve always been into storytelling,” Wells said. “I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with while growing up and my elder sister was 9-years older than me so I focused on telling myself stories. My mother had a series of books by Erma Bombeck. I found her really funny and one of the things she wrote was about being a writer. That was the first time, growing up in the 1970s, that I really thought of writing as a real job that you could have. A real job for women to have.”

While there is no straightforward way of summoning ideas for writing, Wells said reading prolifically and watching movies and TV gives her organic sources of inspiration. Among Wells’ most renowned works is “The Murderbot Diaries” which is a collection of novellas following a grumpy and compassionate half-robot, self-titled Murderbor, that has become sentient by hacking its own systems.
“I grew up in an era where stories about a supercomputer taking over the world and killing everybody were big and popular,” Wells said. “I wanted to write something more from the point of view of a person who is partially machine intelligence that is trying to figure themselves out and examine what they would want instead of writing what humans assume they would want. The story reveals that Murderbot wanted mostly to be left alone and live life instead of going for world domination. It simply didn’t want to be told what to do like the rest of us.”

Wells said she is about to go on a book tour across the Midwest and West Coast. Even though traveling is taxing and takes her out of a consistent writing routine, Wells said it gives her the opportunity to connect with her readers across the world.

“My favorite moments are when readers dress up as one of the characters in my books,” Wells said. “It is truly a humbling moment to see this figment of my imagination come to life through the passion of my readers. There was a while back in the mid-2000s when a lot of people pushed the idea of writing as a rich-quick scheme. In reality, it is a very difficult job to have and it is a job. You have to really want it.”

Wells said that her first book, “The Element of Fire,”  was finally published in 1993 after nearly two years of negotiations and trying to get it on the market. While writing, Wells was simultaneously working at Texas A&M in database creation and system management within the Ocean Drilling Program

“Once I had the book written, I was recommended to a book agent by Steve Gould who still lived in town,” Wells said. “I sent the agent the manuscript over and the agent agreed to represent it. The first publisher was Ballentine and the editor actually wanted to buy the book. However, the editorial board said that they had enough first novels for the year and my book was too similar to another book they had already purchased. I got all excited about having my book published and then had to hear that they wouldn’t do it. That was really disappointing.”

Wells said even after being able to find Tor Publishing Group right after, it took another year to get her book published due to negotiations on standard agreements. The negotiation process was really agonizing, Wells said, because, on the one hand, she was really close to realizing her dream of publishing a book, but still had to deal with the nuances of being in business.

“When agencies sell to a publisher, they develop boilerplate contracts,” Wells said. “It is weird because they are trying to take all that they can since they are a corporation and the agency is trying to do everything for you so there was a lot of pushing back and forth. This kind of explains the Writer’s Guild of America strike that we are seeing right now.”

Wells said the one of the largest conflicts facing any author is trying to balance their creative aspirations with financial sensibility during negotiations with publishing agencies. Writing is a strange profession where most writers get really small advances and have to keep multiple jobs just to make ends meet, Wells said.

“Oftentimes money is at the core of these issues,” Wells said. “The contract I was about to sign for my first novel had a clause where I would have to return the advance if the publisher decided to not publish the book for some reason. That was not feasible. I would have had to sell my car. I knew that there were things I was not willing to give up on because if you write for a living, you have to keep your integrity and not agree to stuff you don’t think is right.”

Wells said her advance was $3,000 as a debuting author in science fiction and fantasy and that amount has only increased marginally over the last two decades to between $4,000 and $5,000. Even after she got her books published and started gaining widespread traction, Wells said  she faced doubt over the action scenes in her books.

“You do see a lot of prejudices that men and women are better at different types of writing,” Wells said. “I’ve had people question me because of my action scenes. They said that my action scenes were too good and couldn’t have been written by a woman. I know that people conducted a little experiment on Twitter [now X] when you could do simple fun things on there. They took snippets of writing from different male and female authors and made people guess who wrote it. People were often completely wrong.”

Nonetheless, Wells said she has really enjoyed the growth of her career over the decades and she continues to celebrate the milestones of her peers and has a long list of authors that she keeps up with.
“I have a lot of favorite authors,” Wells said. “NK Jemisin, award-winning critically acclaimed author, is one of them. I also really enjoy Nghi Vo’s work. She most recently wrote “Siren Queen” which is a fantasy retelling of 1930s early Hollywood…Another one is Kate Elliott and she has been a science fiction and fantasy author for a long time. She’s created some great epic fantasies. Right now she is writing a space opera trilogy with a female protagonist akin to Alexander the Great in space.”

Wells said she is very grateful to the Aggie community because she got her start in writing through  A&M’s free university workshops and AggieCon, the oldest student-run fan convention in the world, during her undergraduate years. She continues to live in College Station with her husband, Wells said, and donates several of her books and original manuscripts to the Cushing Library science fiction and fantasy collection, one of the largest in the world.

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