An hour-long conversation with David D. Levine, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Regency interplanetary airship adventure novel Arabella of Mars (Tor 2016), sequels Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Tor 2017) and Arabella the Traitor of Mars (Tor 2018), and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories.
David D. Levine is the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Regency interplanetary airship adventure novel Arabella of Mars (Tor 2016), sequels Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Tor 2017) and Arabella the Traitor of Mars (Tor 2018), and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories.
Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, his story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, his story “Nucleon” won the James White Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon, and Locus. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tor.com, numerous anthologies and websites, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as his collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press, which won the Endeavour Award for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer.
David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of Book View Cafe, a writer-owned publishing cooperative, and Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc., a non-profit organization that produces OryCon and other SF conventions. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa and the audiobook of Space Magic, and his video production “Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor” was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert.
David lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, David.
Nice to be here.
Usually, at this point, I talk about how we’ve met each other at conventions or how we know each other through this or that, but I don’t think we’ve ever met anywhere.
No. At this point, I don’t recall how you crossed my bow. I’m always interested in podcasts. I’ve done interviews on a lot of podcasts and I also do podcasts narrations. I narrate my own stories and also sometimes those of other people.
Well, we’ll have to talk about that, too. But first…the other cliché on this podcast is I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, and find out how you got interested in…most of us start as readers, so perhaps that’s how you began—you probably did—how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing: how you got started putting words on paper, which it still was probably when you started writin
It was, yes. So, my father was a science-fiction reader back in the ’30s, in the days of the pulps, so there was a lot of science fiction around the house, as a matter of fact. There are stories that my father told me as bedtime stories when I was a kid which I now recognize as being classics of the field, like Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. And so, I was surrounded by science fiction. I always loved it, big fan. I counted myself fortunate when Star Trek premiered in 1966 that I lived in the Midwestern time zone because if I’d lived in the Eastern or Pacific Time zones, it would’ve been past my bedtime. So, I was a Star Trek fan from day one. And my early…the books that I remember were, there was Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars, Have Space, Will Travel, and Willy Lay’s The Runaway Robot was an early favorite.
So, I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I know I started writing science fiction stories about as soon as I started writing it all. I actually have a science fiction novel in two volumes, which is to say two spiral-bound notebooks, that I wrote in fourth grade. And, you know, I picked it up and re-read it a while ago, and it’s not bad. It’s, you know, I mean it’s dated, but it’s not embarrassingly badly written. I mean, it’s juvenile. It’s juvenile, but I think the sentences are in the correct order, and, you know, there’s actually plot and character—not so much on the character, but definitely there is plot. Character has always been my weakness and plot my strong point, and that’s been the case since the beginning. So, I wrote a lot of stories in middle school and high school, and in college, I took a science fiction writing class, and people said, “Hey, this stuff is really good, you ought to submit it.” But when I got out of college, I started working as a technical writer, writing software documentation, and writing fiction was just too much like the day job. So, I didn’t write a lick of fiction for 20 years.
And then I changed careers. I moved from technical writing into software engineering because I was tired of cleaning up other people’s design messes and wanted to have a chance to build the software so it was usable from the beginning. So, once I started being a software engineer instead of a technical writer, I found that my fiction-writing energy had come back. And so, that was around ‘98. And so, I had a sabbatical from my job coming up in 2000, so I had told my wife, to her surprise, that I wanted to go to Clarion for my sabbatical. So, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I started publishing almost immediately thereafter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a technical writer for 20 years as a path to fiction writing, but what it did for me is, I was able to spend 20 years focusing on the craft of writing, writing nonfiction. with all of the…I mean, simple things like. not just the grammar and the punctuation, but the work habits: outlining, scheduling, my time, ergonomics, all of the things…I mean, writing is a really complicated business, and I was able to focus on everything except for the fiction craft parts of it for 20 years. So then, when I went to Clarion in 2000, Clarion West, I was able to add the fiction disciplines to the general writing disciplines I already had, which explains why I was able to hit the ground running so hard, I think. And certainly…I mean, you know, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I was on the Campbell ballot in 2003. I don’t think most people can do that. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going to Clarion at age 38, 39, which is what I did, but, you know, everybody has their own path. There’s a…I’m a member of Book View Cafe, which is a writers’ co-operative.
Yeah. I’m familiar with that.
Yeah. And we produced a book called The Usual Path to Publication, which is, you know, the title is a joke. It’s a collection of essays where each of the 20 or so people in the book discusses their path to publication. And, of course, the joke is there is no useful path to publication. And I called mine, “How to Sell a Novel in Only 15 Years,” because everybody’s path to publication is different.
Yeah, I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library here in Saskatchewan, and one of the things that I…one reason for this podcast, and one reason I recommend all the want-to-be writers who come in to see me, and I’ve seen 40 or 50 individuals at this point, is by listening to these podcasts, you discover that there is no one right way to do this stuff, that everybody brings a different style and a different approach and gets into it in a different way. There are some similarities with you and what…I started in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, and I was in communications for five years, and I was writing fiction at the same time and selling, you know, here and there, minor things. But I do believe that just the very act of sitting down and having to write thousands and thousands of words every week is quite invaluable. It’s like anything else. You have to exercise those muscles.
Yeah. When I was, like, a student, writing research papers, I hated outlining. And then, as a professional technical writer, outlining is absolutely an unavoidable part of the process. You have to do an outline before you can figure out how much time you need to budget to do the work. So, I was a really, really heavy outliner when I started, and I discovered in my personal path, and I think this is true of many other people, that I started out as a plotter and become more and more of a pantser as I become more experienced. And I’ve also noticed that pantsers actually realize the value of outlining and become rather more plotters as they become more experienced. So, I think the more experience you get, the plotter/pantser distinction becomes a lot fuzzier.
Now, this…your first few stories.,..”1992: the WorldCon that Wasn’t.” I’m just curious about the title. What was that about?
So, this was…it started out…so, as you mentioned, I co-edited a fanzine with my wife for 25 years or so. And so, this started out as an essay in the fanzine. So, the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention was held in Orlando. And it just so happened that there was a hurricane that basically just missed slamming into Orlando like a week before the convention. So, we wrote an essay, my wife and I collaborated, we wrote an essay, kind of an alternate-universe con report of what happened when we went to the convention, despite the fact that the convention center had been wiped out by a hurricane the week before, basically riffing on the idea that fans will get together and put on a convention under any circumstances.
And so…I was going to say that fans love stories about fandom.
Yes. Well, but the thing is, is that this was in a fannish publication. It was explicitly…basically it was an alternate-universe con report. So, a couple of years later, Mike Resnick, who has recently passed on, he did a lot of anthologies. He did a lot of alternate-universe anthologies, beginning with Alternate Presidents. And so, he decided that he was going to do a fan project called Alternate WorldCons. So, he opened the floor, and this was explicitly a fannish project, they did not pay professional rates, he was very clear about that up front, but he opened for contributions, and so I said, “Hey, I’ve got this essay. Would you be interested in it?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, he paid me some something less than pro rates, like maybe a penny a word. And so, that on appeared in the second volume, Again, Alternate WorldCons. So it’s basically…it was based on something that almost happened, but that makes it an alternate-history thing and therefore was perfect for Again, Alternate WorldCons. So that was my first publication in a science-fiction market, although it was not my first professional publication.
But it was a few years after that when you really started publishing regularly.
And you focused on short stories to start with.
Why were you drawn to that first? I mean, that also varies some author to authors., Some leap right into novels and some seem to gravitate to the shorter forms.
I was…as…when Humphrey Bogart was asked in Casablanca why he had come to Casablanca, he said, “For the waters.” “Monsieur, we are in the middle of a desert.” And he said, “I was misinformed.” So, that’s why I wrote short stories, because I was misinformed. At the time, I thought that…like I said, my father was a reader during the pulps. So, I had a bunch of anthologies and magazines from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that I grew up reading. And so, reading the essays in there, I got the impression that the way to make a career as a science-fiction writer is, you begin by making your name with short stories and then you do a fix-up novel and then you begin writing novels. That wasn’t even true then, and is even less true now, but nonetheless, that’s what I believed.
And also, when you go to Clarion West or Odyssey or any of several other workshops for beginning writers, they use short stories because it’s a much better pedagogical technique. When you write a short story, you can write the whole thing in a week, you can do beginning, middle, and plot, characters, setting, all the pieces in an easy-to-critique and easy-to-understand chunk. If you wanted to workshop a novel, you couldn’t possibly do that in six weeks. And the Taos Toolbox workshop that Walter John Williams does is focused on novels and does two weeks, but even in two weeks, all you can do is you can talk about novels and you can read excerpts, but you can’t write and critique a whole novel in two weeks. That’s physically impossible.
So, by going to Clarion West, I discovered that I enjoyed short fiction and I was good at it, so I kept writing short fiction for a long time. I find that most writers are either natural novelists or natural short-story people. And I found myself to be a natural short-story writer. I’d say that most people are natural novelists because most of what people read these days is novels and you are what you eat. You tend to write what you like to read. And so, most science fiction and fantasy these days is published and consumed in the form of novels.
Novels get a lot more attention. Novels get a lot more critical interest. If you just Google on, you know, “best science fiction of 2019,” you’ll probably find nine or 19 pages talking about nothing but novels for every one page you find that even mentions a short story. Novels are where the action is. And so, I did spend a long time in the short-story mines and I learned an awful lot, but I always felt that novels got more attention. It certainly is the case that even a mid-list novel gets more attention than even an award-winning short story. So, I always wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote…Arabella of Mars was the fourth novel I wrote, but the first one to sell.
What did you start with? What was the first one that didn’t sell?
So, the first novel I wrote had the working title of Epixemic, with an X, which was changed to Remembrance Day for submission. It takes place on an Earth where the aliens have come, and…my model was the British in India, that there were not very many of them and they didn’t conquer. They just came in and offered us a really good deal and took over. So, they had…they gave us a worldwide rapid-transportation system and cured disease and stuff like that. And all they wanted was to, you know, to make use of our raw materials and special craft. So, they really were dominating the planet, but only economically, not militarily. And so, this was a world where the aliens were…they were the elite. They were the classy ones. And basically, all of humanity was relegated to a subsidiary role. And most people were reasonably happy with it, but there were a few people who didn’t like it.
So my main character was somebody who fell in with a group of rebels— or terrorists, as they were described by people outside the group—who had managed to seize an alien biocomputer. And he was a computer hacker and he hacked it, and for reasons that he didn’t understand at the time, the hack resulted in a plague, an “epixemic,” an alien plague, and so all the aliens on Earth started coming down with this horrible disease that was spreading like wildfire. And the connection between the two wasn’t even clear at first. And to make things more complicated, he was the ex-lover of the daughter of the alien’s leader. Who was also, not coincidentally, the first person to fall to the virus.
So, I did something incredibly ambitious. I said, “Well, if Iain Banks can write a novel that bops back and backward and forward in time simultaneously, I can, too.” So, I didn’t have…in Iain Banks’s, I believe it’s Use of Weapons, you’ve got alternating points of view, one of them going forward in time, the other one backward, to a mutual conclusion. I didn’t do that, but I did have one of the two point-of-view threads begin, say, in January, and the other one began in September of the same year, and bopping back and forth between them. One of them is catching up to the other and they both finish up in December. So you’ve got, one thread is offering you previews and foreshadowing for what’s happening in the other thread. And the other thread is explaining what’s happening in later one. So, anyway, it was ridiculously complicated. And I believe I pulled it off, but nobody was willing to risk it for a first novel.
Also, there was polyamory and my main character slept with men, women, and aliens, and…and it was a first novel, you know? I think it was really good, but it didn’t sell. You know, I came close. I got an offer from a major publisher, but the editor…I did not get an offer from a major publisher. I got an editor who wanted to buy it, but he couldn’t convince his boss to put up the money. And one of the other publishers were interested. And so, the second novel was a similar thing. Again, I thought it worked. I learned from the first novel that I needed to be a little bit less ambitious. So, instead of having alternating points of view bopping back and forth in time and a complicated polyamorous bisexual alien fucking love story…I’m sorry, did I say that word?…I, in the second novel, I had only two points of view. And it was strictly going one direction in time. But I still had an underage lesbian romance at the heart of it. And that one also did not sell.
OK, OK, so, that one didn’t sell. And the third one was a was young adult, one point of view, strict chronological, and still had a possible lesbian love affair in there, but not inter-generational. And at the time I was finishing up book three, the rejections that I was getting on book two, people were telling me “Science fiction just isn’t selling these days.
I remember that.
I don’t know if it was actually true at the time, but was certainly the message that I was getting from both editors and agents. So, for my fourth project…so, after I finished that third book, the young-adult one, I did not even submit it. I set it aside because it was science fiction. And I said, “What can I write that’s fantasy enough to meet the needs of the market, but science fiction enough to satisfy my science fiction writer heart?” And so, of the huge pile of ideas that I have—because I don’t know about anybody else, but it certainly is a truism in this field that ideas are the easy part. I mean, you know, that thing about somebody will come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a science fiction story. You know, I’ll give you the idea. You write it, we’ll split the profits.” And no, no, ideas or easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
So, I had this huge pile of science-fiction story ideas. And there was this one that involved an alternate Regency…or. at least. an alternate Enlightenment period, where the sky was full of air and the European powers had colonized Mars and Venus, which are, of course, inhabited. And so, I had this idea and I thought, “You know, this kind of feels like fantasy, with the flying sailing ships, but I’m going to I’m gonna approach it as science fiction.” And so, I wrote it, and…and this is one of those things where, when you mention, “Well, I’ve got I’ve got these three or four novel ideas,” this was the one that everybody pointed at and said, “Yeah. Yeah, that one sounds fascinating.”
And really, that’s, you know, the basic idea of Arabella, with the flying sailing ships and the girl who dresses as a boy and Martians and pirates and privateers, it’s got a lot of jazz to it. People really like the raw idea. And that helped propel me through the writing of it and it really helped sell it.
One thing that is really important when you are submitting a book to either an agent or an editor is, you’ve got to have your comps, your comparable titles. And for my first couple of novels, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like Larry Niven,” or “It’s kind of like Jack Vance.” You know, I was comparing myself to writers who were already 20 or 30 years out of date. But on this one, I could say it’s Patrick O’Brian in space. You know, that’s my comp title. I could also compare it with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency magic series. So, if you can realistically compare your book to things which are highly regarded, critical successes and current bestsellers, it dramatically increases the chances of success, versus saying, “Well, it’s kind of like this obscure thing that you might not have heard of or was 40 years ago.”
So, and that’s something that you’ve got to do…that has to be baked into the core of the book. It’s not something…you can’t come up with comp titles after it’s written. You have to understand as you’re beginning to write it, “I’m going for a C.J. Cherryh feel,” or, “It’s going to be like N.K. Jemisin,” or, “I want something like Captain Nemo.” You have to have your comp titles in mind from the very beginning, and it’s best if those comp titles are things that people will go, “Yeah. Cool. I love that. I want more of it.”
All right. Well, let’s get a synopsis of Arabella of Mars first for those who, for some inexplicable reason, have not read the book.
OK. So, Arabella of Mars takes place in 1813 in an alternate universe in which the sky is full of air and the European powers have colonized Mars and Venus. Arabella is a girl who was raised on a plantation on Mars, but her mother, fearing that she was turning into a wild colonial child, hauled her back to England. She hated it in England. Everything was too heavy, too wet, too warm, and the people were dull. She wanted excitement in her life. She had grown up basically completely on her own. She and her brother would run around in the desert with their Martian nanny and have all kinds of adventures. And in England, it was just balls and cards and horses and incredibly dull. So then, they get a letter discovering that Dad, who had remained back on Mars, had passed away of a fever. And Arabella discovers that her cousin is planning to travel to Mars and do in her brother so that he can inherit the family fortune. She is, for a variety of contrived reasons, the only person who is in a position to do anything about this. So, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on to a fast interplanetary freighter to attempt to beat her cousin to Mars so she can warn her brother and save the family fortune. Naturally, hijinx ensue. She winds up…there’s a mutiny, the ship is attacked by pirates, they land on Mars to discover there’s an alien rebellion in progress. Eventually, there’s a confrontation and Arabella does indeed get the boy, save the fortune, and calm the Martian rebellion.
It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Now, going back to the initial idea, you have a lot of ideas, but do you remember what kind of made you think of this in the first place? And is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?
I say of ideas that ideas are like neutrinos. They come sleeting down in space by the billions, but you have to be dense enough to stop one. So if you just keep your eyes open, ideas are coming to you constantly. I was talking with somebody at Clarion, one of my fellow students. She said, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there was a bird in the tree nearby, we were outdoors, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bird. You know, let’s talk about birds. You know, what if, what if, I don’t know, what if birds were spaceships? What if you could build a spaceship out of a bird brain? And I just sort of sketched out an idea right then. And that idea became “Tail of the Golden Eagle,” which was my first Hugo nominee.
So, in this particular case, I know exactly where the seed of Arabella was. It was 1987. It was Gene Wolfe’s book, Earth of the New Sun. Earth of the New Sun takes place in a far, far, far future, which is almost medieval. And at one point, our hero boards a ship to take him to another planet, and he’s given a necklace which holds the air around himself. And he discovers that when he goes out on deck, in order to talk to somebody else, you have to move up close to them so that your envelopes of air intersect, because there is no there is no sound in space. And he asks, “Why is this so?” And he is told, “Well, the philosophers believe that if there were sound in space, the roaring of the stars would define the universe.”
And that note about space is full of vacuum, because otherwise the roaring of the stars would deafen the universe, stuck with me for over 20 years. And I had this idea for…first it was gonna be a short story about, it was going to be an alternate 1700s where humanity discovers that the sky is indeed full of air, that the universe is full of air. And this was gonna be, I figured, “When would people discover this? When and how would people discover that the universe was full of air?” And I figured they’d probably do it, it would probably be, you know, Ben Franklin or Isaac Newton or something like that, and they would discover it by actually hearing that vibration, which, you know, people would have evolved to not hear it, but there would be this peculiar low-level hum that’s everywhere.
And so, I started out thinking about it as being the discovery of the phenomenon. But then I started thinking about, “What would people do after they discovered it?” So I had this idea about the flying sailing ships in the 1700s, I think probably because I started out with the idea of the Enlightenment? And then, as the plot evolved, it moved from the 1700s up to the Regency, because I do dearly love Patrick O’Brian, and so the Napoleonic wars in space. But I like having a young-adult main character, I like having a female main character, because life is harder for women, especially in the past of our cultures, and so, putting your main character in a situation that is difficult is a way to make their story more interesting. So, basically, making her female just made her life harder. And so, that’s how I came up with my main character and my setting. And then the rest of it kind of evolved through discussions with other writers and mostly just kind of pulling things out of my tail because, you know, that’s what fiction is, is pulling stuff out of your tail and putting it on the page.
There’s a Canadian writer…who’s been mentioned a few times by Canadian writers who actually studied with him…Candas Jane Dorsey had actually met him and I think worked with him a bit. Not a science fiction writer. His name is W.O. Mitchell, but he used to have a TV show which dramatized some of his fiction, and the name of the TV show was The Magic Lie, which I thought is a great expression to describe fiction. And I was glad you talked about ideas being everywhere, because when I do workshops and things, I did one not too long ago, in fact, and I was talking about this, and I said, “Well, look around the room. There are coat hangers over there. And I looked at the coat hangers and I asked questions and I came up with a story idea based on coat hangers. So, yeah, it’s just…again, it’s kind of that muscle that you exercise, I think.
Yeah, I do a workshop called “Idea to Story in an Hour” and I usually do start off with something like that.
Now, you had your idea. You had a character. Now, what does your planning process look like? How do you take that and turn it into your novel? You said you’re more of a pantser than an outliner now, but you also said you were an outliner, so what does it look like for you?
So, yeah, at the time I wrote Arabella I was a pretty strict outliner. So, my writing process is, I always have two files, or in Scrivener, I have one file outside of the manuscript. And so, I have my notes file and I have my draft file. And so, I start off in the notes file and my notes file, I only ever add onto the end of it. So it’s a combination of writing journal and process notes. So, I start off, every writing session, I sit down and I write the date and where I am. And then I start typing in the notes file about, “OK, so here’s where we are and here’s what I’m gonna do next.” And so, for the first, maybe, you know, for the first hour or two on a short story or for the first weeks or months on a novel, I’ll just type in the notes file and I’ll think, “OK, well, this is what I want to do, and this is some ideas for the story and the setting.” And I may go off and do some research and copy and paste stuff out of Web pages into the notes file I may write a couple of paragraphs about the character and where they’re coming from. The notes file is full of lots of “maybe” and “what if” and “oh, well, then if I, then I could.” And so, I just talk on paper. I just talk it out. And then every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll write a bullet list of, OK, this is the outline so far. And I will actually, like, copy and paste bullet lists down further into the notes file so that I can refer back to previous versions. So, generally, the notes file is as big or bigger than the actual project.
And eventually, at some point, I actually start drafting in the other file. And so, the notes file will contain my notes about, “What did I write today and where do I think this is going next and what are the problems I need to keep an eye out for in the future and how many words did I write today?” And sometimes my notes file just says, you know, “Writing at so-and-so coffeeshop with so-and-so, did 1,500 words on X.” You know, sometimes it’s just that. And sometimes my entry for a notes file will be pages and pages and pages and pages of. “Oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner, what can I do now?”
So, I find that my process is generally, I will outline the whole book before I begin writing. And then I have to stop about halfway through and re-outline the second half based on what I’ve learned about the characters and situation in the first half, because the second half that I had in mind is no longer viable, or I discover…many, many times I discovered that my outline, I outline the first half in considerable detail and then the second half is then is something along the lines of, “And then hijinx ensue and everybody comes out happy.” So, I have to…so, not only because I didn’t think it through in detail, but also because what I had in mind isn’t going to work anymore, based on where I’ve gone up until this point, so I stop and re-outline at the halfway point, and then again at like the three-quarter point, I stop and re-outline the back quarter of the book.
Yes, that sounds very familiar to me, too, because I do something similar. In fact, I just did it for…not that long ago for the one I’m working on now, which is my next DAW novel. I had to replot to the end because it just wasn’t going to work the way I originally thought it was going to work.
Yep, yep. I find that I’m…my particular process is, I can’t begin writing until I have an ending in mind. I may not wind up with that ending, but I have to have an ending in mind or I can’t start moving.
Now, you mentioned a little bit about your writing, the actual physical act of writing. You write in coffee shops some. Is that typical? Do you write out of your home or your home office or how does it work for you?
I have a comfortable writing chair in my living room, but I do find that it’s much easier for me to write if I can get away from my home environment with all of its chores and distractions. And so, I find that writing with one or two other people in a coffee shop is the most motivating, because when you’ve got somebody on the other side of the table typing diligently away, you don’t pay attention to the fact that they may just be, you know, they may just be on Facebook. You…they give the impression of productivity and therefore, that compels me to be productive. Also, there’s something about the noise of a coffee shop that is very…it helps people to focus. And I’m far from the only person to have discovered that. And, of course, there’s coffee.
So, interestingly, I did, when I first started…and I don’t write full time. I am retired from the day job. But people say, “Oh, you retired to write full time?” No, I’m not spending any more time writing than I did before, but I don’t have a day job. So, when I first retired and started thinking about putting more attention to my writing, I considered renting space in a co-working space. And basically the choice was, I could rent a co-working space for, like, $300 a month with free coffee, or I could pay for the coffee at, you know, like three bucks a shot, and get free working space. So it was just, it was just cheaper to work in a coffee shop than a co-working space. I’d love to be able to have regular co-working partners. I know people who are software engineers and people…a lot of cartoonists. In Portland, we have this amazing studio called Periscope, which is a co-working space for cartoonists and comics illustrators, and I’d love to have that sort of working environment, but it just…I just can’t justify the expense.
I like to work in coffee shops, too, but here’s another question about working in that kind of a space. Do you find that you occasionally are overhearing conversations that interfere with your writing? Because that’s what happens to me and then I have to put on headphones and listen to music.
I used to write to music and I found that I just sort of stopped doing that. I guess I don’t find those conversations too distracting. The one thing that will be distracting is if there’s music at the coffee shop and the music has words.
And if that starts happening, then I have to go someplace else. But the conversations don’t impinge too badly.
Once you have a draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer? A slow writer? How do you typify yourself?
I am an extremely slow writer. I have been working…with the exception of the third Arabella book, which because of various life factors, I had to finish in six months. I’ve never written a novel in less than two years, and my current project, which again, due to various life circumstances, I’ve been working on for over two years now, I could easily see it extending out to three. And I’m trying to be kind to myself. I have a real tendency to beat myself up for not being more productive. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and let the process flow as it does.
So, once you do have a draft, what’s your revision process before it gets submitted anywhere? Do you have beta readers? Do you do it all yourself? How does that work for you?
After I finish a draft, I generally will go through and do a revision based on what I’ve learned about the book during the process of it. I generally…my first drafts come out extremely consistent because I’m really good at keeping details clear in my head and so I don’t have to go back and revise to make sure that my heroine’s eyes didn’t change color or anything like that.
Clothes are what get me. What people are wearing.
Yeah. But I have a really strong sense of where everything is in the room. I don’t have difficulty with blocking. I never have people across the room and then find themselves back at the door. So, the problems that I have are larger problems, like, the character isn’t sympathetic enough or there’s not enough tension. And I wish there was like a knob on the outside of a story that you could just turn, you know, make the character more sympathetic or what have you. So. Okay. But anyway, so, by the time I get to the end of it, in my notes file, I have a whole bunch of notes of things I want to take care of in the first revision. And so, I go through and I do a revision pass on my own. Then, if possible, I have workshopped a couple of novels using a process where you get together with a bunch of other novelist friends, you rent a beach house for a long weekend, and you trade off critiques. A technique which has worked really well in the past is, you get, say, a dozen people together, and everybody has a completed novel, and you have to have a draft done by a certain date, maybe two months before. And so, then you share. You put your novels up on a shared drive so that everybody can access them. Everybody reads everybody else’s synopsis and first 50 pages. And then, two people read your complete novel and you read two complete novels. And the person who’s organizing the thing has to figure out who does which. It’s a little bit complicated, but I’d never done that part myself. And then you go and you spend a weekend at a beach house with, you know, cooking together and eating together, and exchanging critiques during the day, and just talking shop and chewing the fat for the rest of the time. So, in this way you get at a bunch of people looking at your premise and opening, which is really important. And then, a couple of people look at the whole thing. And likewise, you learn an awful lot from critiquing other people’s work. So, this is the best way that I have found to get feedback on a novel.
I also, for my first two novels I was working with a critique group that met regularly in person. And so, I was writing a chapter for every meeting. And I promised them that if I did not have a chapter for them, I would buy everyone drinks. And I never had to do that. So, it was very motivating for me to keep drafting, and I was getting feedback on the thing as it went along. Now, I remember Dean Wesley Smith telling me that nobody’s ever written a good novel that way, but he said this right after he’d praised my novel, which was written that way. So he said, “Well, I suppose there’s an exception to everything.” But, so, I do like to get feedback. I don’t have…sadly, at the moment, I do not have a writing group. I do not have trusted beta readers. The people that I was working with, many of them have stopped being productive for a variety of reasons. And those that have been productive are too busy with their writing careers to take time to critique other people’s stuff. So, putting together a good writing group is important and it’s also difficult.
Yeah, I’ve never had one, living in small-town Saskatchewan growing up. There was a writing group, but it was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so…
Yeah. We have to two writers’ organizations here in Portland. We’ve got Willamette Writers and the Oregon Writers Colony, and they’re both very good. But the majority of people in them are retired people, mostly women who are writing their memoirs. We do have quite a few fiction writers and quite a few screenwriters and playwrights, but the numerical majority of members of these writers’ organizations are people writing memoir.
I did find a good…this is, you know…as I said, I’m pretty much your age. I’m a couple of years older than you. And there used to be a group called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, which was a by-mail critique thing, because we didn’t have e-mail yet, and it worked well, and I found a couple of really great critiquers who went on to have careers of their own. And that was nice, but critiquing by mail is a very slow process. So it just didn’t work once, you know, you started trying to get books turned around in any kind of reasonable amount of time.
Yeah. So, here’s something that I say. I’ve led a lot of critique sessions at science-fiction workshops. I started out attending them and gradually shifted over into leading them. And what I say about critiquing in groups is that the benefit to a writer of critiquing in groups is that you take the time to read a work with a critical eye. And this is a draft, so everybody involved agrees that this is not finished, perfect work. It’s not like a literature class, where you’re reading something that has already been published and has probably received a lot of critical acclaim. You’re reading something which is definitely rough, definitely a draft. And so, you’re looking for ways that it can be improved. So, you look at it with a critical eye, and then you get together and you share your opinions in a circle with other people who have also read that same work with a critical eye. And from listening to the other reactions to a piece that you have just read with that critical eye, you can hear, for example, “Other people found that this thing here was a problem, and I didn’t even notice that,” or, “I thought that this was a problem and other people didn’t.” And so, by hearing what other people thought of the same story that you just critiqued, you can improve your own critical faculties. You can figure out, “What am I missing that other people are spotting?”, or vice versa. And so that, I think is one…I mean, in addition to the critique that you receive and the things that you learn from reading other people’s drafts, you also learn from other people’s critiques. And so, that’s something that you cannot duplicate by mail. You could duplicate it with, like, you know, like a group video chat. I have not tried doing critique by group video chat, but I can imagine that it would work as well.
So once you have your polished draft, and it goes into your editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get? You’re with Tor, so…
Yes. The first book had been through many rounds of critique, and so the editorial letter was quite short. The second book, I did get a rather extensive editorial letter. And the third book, both because it was written so fast and because of critiques…I mean, not critiques, reviews, that I’d read of the second book. I got a really…okay, so this is a Tor book, and it got a really scathing review on Tor.com, the second Arabella book. And that really set me back on my heels. And I made substantial changes to the third book to address the problems that this reviewer found with the second book. And I really wish she had reviewed the third book so I could find out what she thought of the changes, but she did not. So, whether the third book is better on those issues of colonialism and racism than the second book was, I haven’t received a lot of feedback indicating whether or not it did a good job. Because books, you know, books in a series are like children. You know, you look at somebody’s photo album and there’ll be, you know, a dozen photos of the first child and a couple of photos of the second child and the third child is, “Oh, wait, here they are at seven.”
That was me.
Yeah. Books in a series are the same. The first book gets a lot more critical attention. Like, I mean, look at the number of reviews of the three books on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll plainly see…like, the first book has, I don’t know how many reviews, certainly well over 50, the second more like a couple dozen and the third, maybe a dozen. You know that…readers and publishers like series because it answers the question of, “I enjoyed this. Give me something that’s just like this, only different.” But, in general, only the people that read the first book will read the second…only some of the people that read the first book will read the second…and only some of the people that read the second book will read the third. So, the number of readers always goes down over the length of the series. Even, you know, even George R.R. Martin is not getting as many sales of the last book in his series, even though it’s a huge national bestseller, as he did for the first book, because every book in the series acts as an ad for the first book. So, a successful series, as it goes on, every new book that comes out at the end is going to cause more people to start at the beginning. But many of those people who start will not, will read either just the first book or just the first couple and not go on. So, there’s this big descending curve of readership over the course of a series, even the really successful ones.
Yeah, when I wrote my first trilogy, as E.C. Blake, it was under a pseudonym , and the first book…by far, my most popular book, but as the trilogy went along, I certainly noticed that, that each book had fewer readers, which is disturbing in a way. That’s just the way it works.
It is just the way it works. There’s a death spiral that can occur, where…it’s called ordering to the net. When, back in the days when brick-and-mortar booksellers were the top of the food chain, they would, you know, if they ordered 20,000 copies of some book and only sold 15,000 of them, then they would only order 15,000 copies of book two and they’d probably only sell 12,000 copies of that. So they would only order 12,000 copies of Book 3, which meant it was almost physically impossible to increase sales from one book to the next. So, you know, so there’s ordering to the net, it can turn into a death spiral where you don’t where you no longer have the opportunity of selling more because they just aren’t in the stores.
Did you know that Arabella was going to be…you say Ah-rabella, don’t you? How do you...
I say Ah-rabella. I believe that I am pronouncing the name of my main character incorrectly. So, I will not…I will never, ever correct anybody else’s pronunciation. I think I’m wrong, but I’m not…and people say, “Well, that’s the way you pronounce it, it must be correct.” No, not necessarily. I mean, I had a story that was set in China. And I had all these Chinese words in it, which I had looked up. But when I went to read it, when I went to do the audiobook of it, I discovered that I had no idea how to pronounce those words that I put on the page.
Funny story, I asked a friend of mine who does speak Mandarin how these words were pronounced, and he e-mailed me back saying, of this one particular word, was pronounced with the like the a in can, not the a in can’t. And I went, “What?” But I forgot he was a Brit. So it’s can and cahn’t, but anyway…so, just because I wrote something doesn’t mean I know how to pronounce it. And a lot of people have trouble with the name of the story “Tk’ Tk’ Tk’,” and that’s just how I say it. I just say tick, tick, tick. So you got it fine.
So anyway, so Arabella, I wrote it as a standalone, but during that novel-critique weekend, I was talking with my writer friends and everybody says, “You know, if you go to a publisher, if a publisher comes back to you with an offer, they’re gonna say, you know, ‘What else do you have in mind?” And if you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got two more books planned in this series,’ they’ll offer you a three-book contract.” And so, we…I just basically sat around with some friends in the evening and we BS-ed out a second and a third book. So, I wrote it as a standalone, but when…by the time I came to present it to the publishers, I had a one-page outline for a book two and a one-paragraph sketch of a book three in my hip pocket. So, when the publisher did indeed come back and say, “We like this, what else do you have?” I could say, “Well, here’s a sketch for book two and a sketch for book three. And so I got a three-book contract.”
All right. Well, we’re getting within about 10 minutes of when I need to cut this short…well, not that short, it’s still an hour. So, I want to ask my big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction? And why do you think any of us do?”
Why do I write? I write because I enjoy making things. And this is something that that I really enjoyed about software engineering is basically, you know, I wiggle my fingers and stuff to appear, stuff that actually does a job. In this case, the job is entertaining people. But I enjoy the process of creating. I enjoy the, “Ooh, what happens next?” thing. Storytelling is a basic human thing. And I happened to find myself with this skill set. I think some of it’s innate and some of it’s trained. And I definitely have some innate skills, and I’ve also done a lot of, I’ve taken a lot of workshops., I’ve taken a lot of courses, I’ve chewed the fat many a late hour talking about how do we do this thing on. And so, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set and I enjoy exercising that skill set.
And, you know, and the ego boost when somebody says, “Ooh, I read that book, I loved it,” is just, you know, that’s one of the best things in life, is when somebody says, “Hey, I saw that thing you did, it was great.” So really…I mean, people write for all sorts of reasons. They write for money. They write for fame. They write for critical acclaim. I really do write for the reviews and the awards. That is the thing that I am hoping to achieve. And why does anybody do it? Everybody’s got their own reasons. And if you’re going to pursue a career in writing, you really have to understand what you want out of it and how you’re going to prioritize the things that you do in order to align your particular skills with your goals. You’ve got to understand what your goals are before you can determine how to achieve success. You know, if I had, like, if I had twice as many readers and was making less money, I would go, “Great trade-off!” I would happily do that.
I know other people that are trying to, you know, trying to put food on the table. They wouldn’t take that. They would say, I would much rather sell a thousand copies with 50-percent royalty than…sorry, they’d say I’d rather sell 500 copies with a 50 percent royalty than 2,000 copies at a 25-percent royalty. Even though the money might be the same, that means that…if you self-publish, you get more money per copy. But most self-publishers can’t sell, can’t move as many copies as a traditional publisher with all of their marketing resources can. So, I would much rather have a smaller slice of a bigger pie, even if I get less money out of the deal, because you get more exposure, more visibility, more readers and more critical attention. If my book appears in brick-and-mortar bookstores, in libraries, and, you know, gets reviewed, you know, these are all things that are more available to me as a traditionally published writer. And they matter to me. It really matters to me to find my book in the library. And that to me is worth giving up a big chunk of the royalties. For a self-published writer, they would rather have a bigger chunk of the royalties of each book, which means that they make more money, even if they put fewer copies in front of people’s eyeballs. So, you have to understand what’s important to you and then choose your tactics based on achieving your goals.
And why science fiction?
I always say, “What’s the point of reading a book where it’s limited to things that could happen in the real world?”
That’s what I say, too!
I mean, oh, okay, yeah, yeah. So I’m reading How the West was Won or Gone with the Wind, you know. And Gone with the Wind, you know, nothing really interesting is going to happen. No Martians will descend. There are no ghosts. I think fiction’s all made up, and you should have the ability to make up whatever you want. And so, I really do find stories with the element of the fantastic to be a lot more interesting than stories that are limited to what could actually happen.
Yes. When people ask me, “Why do you write science fiction?” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”
You know, it’s just more interesting to me. All right. Well, what are you working on now?
I am working on what I describe as a space-opera caper picture. It’s a cross between Leverage and Firefly in the universe of The Expanse. A group of…a criminal gang, basically, they had what they thought was going to be the job that would set them up for their lifetimes. It didn’t go well. Several gang members were killed and they split up. Ten years later, the son of the leader of the gang shows up and says, “Dad’s in jail. I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.” And it turns out to be more complicated than that.
Sounds fun. Is there a release date on that or is that still some way off in the future?
No, it’s some ways off in the future. I’m at…let’s see., I think I just crossed 78,000 words or thereabouts, shooting for 100,000. But that’s on first draft. So, it’s gonna be a while before it’s even ready to submit, never mind having a publication date. And, as I said, I’m trying to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for not being as productive.
And anybody that wants to follow you and find out what you’re up to, where can they find you online?
My Web site is daviddlevine.com. You can find me on Twitter as DavidDLevine. You can find me on Facebook as David.D.Levine. But I use that David D. Levine identifier…I’m also on Instagram as David D. Levine. I use my middle initial because the name David Levine is quite common. There’s a New Yorkercaricaturist, David Levine. There’s an Indy car driver named David Levine. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dentists and lawyers named David Levine. So I just I, you know, I never had a hope of getting my unadorned name to be near anywhere near visible on Google. But if you Google on David D Levine, you should follow me.
I’ve been pretty lucky with Edward Willett. There’s a professional golfer, I think, and there’s a guy who plays the cello. He played on the theme music for Northern Exposure with a group called Chance, and his name is Ed Willett. But if you Google Edward Willett, I get like most of the first two pages of hits. So that’s pretty good.
All right. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. Thank you very much. I’m glad you were a guest on The Worldshapers.
OK. Best of luck to you.
OK. Bye for now.