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An hour-long chat with Cory Doctorow, science-fiction author, activist, and journalist, about his creative process.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist. His latest book is Attack Surface, a standalone adult sequel to Little Brother. He is also the author How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, nonfiction about conspiracies and monopolies; and of Radicalized and Walkaway, science fiction for adults, a YA graphic novel called In Real Life; and young adult novels like Homeland, Pirate Cinema, and Little Brother. His first picture book was Poesy the Monster Slayer (August 2020).
He maintains a daily blog at Pluralistic.net. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Corey, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you. Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to talk to you.
Yeah. We met a long time ago, with the Canadian connection . . . I think it might have been in Edmonton, at ConSpec, about 2000 or something? Were you there?
Maybe Saskatchewan, I wasn’t at that, but I think . . . or Winnipeg, at the WorldCon.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I think I said hi to you at a WorldCon somewhere else at some point or another.
That also sounds possible.
So, thanks so much for doing this. We’re going to talk about the Little Brother series in particular as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I always take my guests back into the mists of time. And so, I’d like to take you back into the mists of time and find out, you know, all that biographical stuff. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in writing and, in particular, science fiction and fantasy? Well, science fiction. I don’t think you wr9te a lot of fantasy, perhaps.
I’ve written some. I’ve got one fantasy novel, although it’s a fantasy novel about WiFi, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, and I’ve written some fantasy stories, so, yeah, a little bit. So, my dad was a comics and fantasy fan, Conan fan, and when I was little, he used to tell me modified Conan stories. He was a Trotskyists, so he was telling me modified Conan stories in which Conan was replaced by a trio called Harry, Larry, and Mary, and in which their end game was after, you know, felling the grand vizier, was not to install themselves on the throne, but rather to create, like, a socialist cooperative.
And when my mom was in grad school, my dad used to turn on the TV, and we would watch Judith Merrill introduce Doctor Who on TV Ontario. And I was very excited to watch Doctor Who. My dad knew Judy through radical political circles, and when I was about nine or ten years old, my school went on a trip to the Spaced-Out Library, which is the science-fiction reference library that she founded in Toronto, where she was the writer in residence. And she came out and said, “You know, kids, if you write a story, you can bring it to me, and I’ll critique it for you,” which is, you know, really a remarkable thing. I mean, the closest Canadian analogy I came up with is it’s like Wayne Gretzky coming out and going like, “Look, kids, if you’re ever having a pickup game and you want some tips, just give me a call and I’ll come by and help you out with it.” So, you know—except Judy wasn’t a Tory, and Gretzky is. But that was, like, very inspiring. And I knew Judy from TV and recognized her, and so it was, like, doubly exciting to have her invite us down to the library to give her manuscripts.
And then, you know, within a year or two, we also went down to Bakka Science Fiction Bookstore, the oldest science-fiction bookstore in the world. And I get on a school trip, and the woman behind the counter was a writer who was just about to sell her first story, named Tanya Huff. And I was, you know, maybe ten or maybe 11, and I had a dollar, and Tanya asked me what kind of books I liked to read. And I told her, and she took me back to the U.S., and she found me a copy of Little Fuzzy that was a dollar, by H. Beam Piper, and was the first book I ever spent my own money on.
And I started bringing manuscripts to Judy and to Tonya. I had started writing a few years before. The first thing I remember writing was after seeing Star Wars at the University Theater on Bloor Street and, you know, having a really exciting time, not because it’s, like, the greatest movie ever written, but because kids’ audiovisual material was so poor. You know, it was like David and Goliath and a few other terrible shows. And then, just having a complex narrative was very exciting for me, really chimed with me. And I went home, and I just started writing out the Star Wars story over and over again like a kid practicing scales on the piano. And so, I started writing stories and start ed bringing them to Judy and to Tanya, who, you know, bless her socks, would actually, like, while working in the bookstore, allow, you know, a callow fourteen-year-old to bring her stories and would critique them for me and give me writing advice. And Judy, what she would do is use these workshops, or these one-on-one sessions, as a way to start workshops. So, she would find writers who were writing about the same level and get them to start meeting together, you know, the library had a spare room and so on.
So that’s how I started workshopping eventually with the Cecil Street Irregulars, which, you know, it’s Karl Schroeder and David Nickel and Peter Watts from time to time and Madeline Ashby and Hugh Spencer and many other writers over the years, a really exciting group of people. And I also started writing, going to a writing workshop at my high school, this kind of groovy alternative school in downtown Toronto. And it was run exactly like all these other workshops I’d been to, and I couldn’t figure it out until I learned that Judy had actually started that workshop, too, as part of a writer-in-the-schools program. And so, and then, you know, when I started selling stories, I sold my first story to OnSpec when I was seventeen to their youth issue. And when I started selling stories, I joined SF Canada, and I started going to the Hydra meetings. And these were again a thing that Judy started. They were potluck dinners that would be a moveable feast from one house to another every six or eight weeks. And that’s how I met the Prisoners of Gravity people and got involved with TV Ontario and helped out on the show. And so, you know, really, like, there are a lot of people in the story, but the one name that comes up over and over again is Judy Merrill. And while Judy was, like, hugely important to my life, I mean, she liked me just fine, but it wasn’t like I was her protege, right? She did this for so many people. She basically created a formal science fiction writers’ apprenticeship in Toronto that I lucked into.
You know, there were other factors, too, like, it was the early days of online writerdom and fandom, and for a time, there was a dial-up service called GEnie that General Electric ran. It was very expensive to use during the day. They used it to absorb their excess capacity at night, so it was a flat rate to use it from six p.m. to eight a.m., and then it was like twenty dollars an hour during the day. But they gave free, unlimited access to Science Fiction Writers of America members, and every SFWA member who had a modem was on Genie. So every famous writer in the world was on GEnie, and it’s like, as a seventeen-year-old, I joined this BBS and was, like, trading quips with, you know, Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin and, you know, hanging out with Damon Knight. And that’s how I ended up going to Clarion, that’s how I met my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, you know, people, they all pitched in, like, fifteen bucks each to send me to Clarion, all the writers there. And so, it was really, it was a remarkable time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like it for becoming a writer. I mean, there are other things that are that writers today have going for them, like Archive of our Own and Wattpad and other ways of forming communities and so on. But that was a fabulous moment.
Unfortunately, I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I didn’t have any of that stuff. I never got on GEnie.
You needed to do what Karl did, which is move from Saskatchewan to Toronto.
Tanya was actually my second or third guest on here, so I had her on . . .
And Rob Sawyer. So, you know, I had the Canadian connection, Julie Czerneda, I had that Canadian thing going on very early on here on the podcast.
Well, Tanya likes to embarrass me by telling a story about when we were at the London WorldCon and chatting, and someone came up to her after and said, “Do you know Cory Doctorow?” And she was like, “Yeah, I know him. I’ve known him since ye was, you know, wetting his pants.”
Well, just looking at your bio, you said you attended four universities without obtaining a degree.
So, how did your career evolve from all of that?
Well, you know, I kept writing and selling, and I went to Clarion and then had a drought after that. I sold some stories beforehand, but it took me a long time to integrate the really excellent stuff that I learned there and then, you know, eventually figured it out. And university was not really for me. I had gone to an amazing alternative school where, you know, really we’d been in charge of designing our own curriculum. And I’d spent seven years in this four-year program, you know, taking a year out to write and taking a year to organize street demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq under the first George Bush, and doing just all kinds of stuff that was highly educational but not formally recognized, until I finally got a diploma and went to university. And the university was far more regimented and really felt like a giant step backwards. And so, I got a job in the burgeoning tech industry doing hypertext for Voyager, which was the best CD-ROM publisher the world had ever seen, really an amazing, you know, dream-come-true job. And from there, I got into the Web and sort of never looked back. But I kept on writing and kept on selling stories and then eventually books and novels.
What was your first novel?
It was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So, it was a short novel, and it was in part inspired by Bob Wilson. So, I went to his signing for Spin at Bakka, and Spin is a great book, but the first thing I noticed about it was that it was only 200 pages long. And I was like, you know, “Bob, this book is 200 pages long. Is it even a novel?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, 50,000 words is a novel,” and I was like, “Rally?” And he’s like, “Yeah, totally, 50,000 words is novel.” And I was like, “Well, finally I figured out how I’m going to finish a book. I’m only going to write one that’s 50,000 words long,” and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a 50,000-word novel. And you know, I was writing on it, and I went to New York, we took the Amtrak to New York for Christmas and stayed with my cousin in Midtown and had lunch with the Neilson Haydens who were at Tor, and now Patrick Nielsen Hayden is vice president there, but he was the senior editor there. And I had gone and read slush at Tor before and hung out with Patrick and, you know, knew him from GEnie. And, you know, over lunch, he said, like, “When are you going to write me a novel?” And I said, “Well, I have a book that I’m working on now.” And he said, “Well, how’s it coming?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got you, know, I’ve gotten quite a ways into it.” And he said, “Have you got three chapters and an outline?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, then, you better send it to me. And that was December. And he bought it in June.”
And that was what year?
That was . . . I want to say it was, like, 2000, but it didn’t come out till 2003. That was my second book. I had written a book with Karl Schroeder beforehand. Someone I knew from The Well, which was another online service started by the people who did The Whole Earth Catalog, had seen that I was selling a lot of short stories. And she said, “Do you want to write a book on how to publish science fiction?” And I said, “Yes, but I’ve never published a novel. I need to a novelist.” And she said, “Oh, go find a novelist.” So, I asked Karl if he would write the novel chapters, and I would write the short-story chapters. And we wrote this, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, together.
I have a copy of it somewhere. I was just looking at my bookshelf here to see if I could spot it. I remember getting it when it came out.
Yeah, that was very . . . it was a good first-book project because it’s super structured. They had a real verse, verse, chorus formula, you know, like down to, like, each chapter has so many sections, each section has so many paragraphs, here is what, you know, makes a complete section and so on. If you could tick all the boxes, you would have a functional book at the end.
I never did a Complete Idiot’s. I did write Genetics Demystified, which is pretty funny considering I had to teach myself genetics to write. I always worry about that just a little bit.
I have a friend who writes very good books about genomics, Adam Rutherford, whose latest book is a brilliant genomics book called How to Argue With a Racist, which is a terrific title.
Yeah, it is. You moved from short stories to novels. What do you find the difference between the two is for you? Do you think you’re more of a short story writer by temperament or a novelist, or do you think there’s a difference?
I mean, there’s definitely a difference. I mean, at this point, in terms of, like, how much work I put into one versus the other, I’m definitely a novelist. I have probably written more words of novel than of short story, although I’ve written a lot more short stories than novels. But in terms of overall volume. And I’ve won prizes for both. And I think the major difference is how much ornamentation you get. You know, I liken it to packing for a trip, which is a thing we used to do before the plague. And, you know, there’ll be some trips where you just take a carry-on bag, and that’s a short story, and you’ve got to be pretty ruthless with what goes in that bag. And then somewhere you take, like, a suitcase, and that’s like a novella. And you can, you know, you can carry some comfort items maybe, like, you know, when I go on tour, I always bring a big suitcase, and it’s got an air press and a collapsible kettle and some coffee and a nice flask of whiskey in it. You can add some comfort items. You can have some ornamentation. You can have a nice jacket to wear if you’re, in case you go to a good dinner. And then, with a novel, it’s like getting a shipping container, and you get to put everything in it.
We’ve written a lot of nonfiction as well, with all of your interest in electronic rights and freedom of information and all that stuff. Do you find that the nonfiction writing feeds into your fiction writing both on the skill side and on . . . I mean, obviously, you tend to have the same kind of overall philosophy, I guess, going through your nonfiction and your fiction. Is that safe to say?
Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it really depends on what you mean by the nonfiction. I wouldn’t divide it so rigorously into fiction and nonfiction or short- and long-form pieces. I would divide it into what’s sometimes called stalk and flow. So, stalk is the longer synthetic pieces that are really significant and that kind of stand on their own, and flow is the stuff that you do from moment to moment. And so, for me, flow is blogging. And blogging is a thing that I have done for now almost twenty years, in fact, more than twenty years if you count a bunch of things that I did that were indistinguishable from blogging, except the word blogging hadn’t been invented yet. And for me, blogging is the process of taking the thing that a writer might jot in a commonplace book to remind themselves of it later, and instead publishing it along with enough context that a notional stranger can understand why you’re taking notes on it, what it is that snagged your attention about it.
And that process of writing that material for strangers is powerfully mnemonic. It makes you think through why this is important to you, why this has caught your interest, and it makes you be rigorous, and you can’t cheat the way that you do with your own notes, where you make these notes that you think are very clear, and then you go back, and they’re very cryptic, and they don’t make any sense to you. And that creates a kind of supersaturated solution, fragmentary story ideas or fragmentary ideas overall, that can be synthesized into fiction and nonfiction and so on. And what happens is over time, this solution has these little fragments in it, and they bump together, and they kind of nucleate and they crystallize into a speech or a story or a novel or an essay or a book-length work of nonfiction or what have you. And, you know, that stock represents a synthesis. It represents a kind of dialectic where two things that are in dialogue with one another, maybe in opposition to each other, get together and kind of duke it out in your imagination and in your critical analysis. And what comes out is something that is recognizably descended from both, but not obviously latent in either.
Well, I think this is tying into talking about your process for creating novels, which always starts with where do you get your ideas, which you kind of just explained in a way.
We’re going to talk about Attack Surface, which is the new one in the Little Brother series, but maybe give a quick overview of Little Brother, Homeland, and Attack Surface, for those who have not, unimaginably, read any of them.
Hmm. Well, so Little Brother and Homeland are YA novels, and they’re books about kids who use technology to resist technology, right? Kids who find themselves in circumstances of dire personal and social peril because of technology that is being wielded against them and who fashion their own counterattacks out of the technology that they figure out how to master and wield on their own behalf. And Little Brother is a book about the war on terror. So, it opens with this young man, Marcus Gallo, and his friends being caught in a terrorist attack on San Francisco, which is traumatic enough. But what’s far more traumatic is the immediate transformation of the city into an armed police state with mass surveillance checkpoints and so on. And they are so appalled by this that they build a resistance movement. They used hacked Xboxes with cryptographically secured wireless communications to communicate with one another and build a network that the NSA can’t wiretap. And they conspire together to kick the Department of Homeland Security out of the city and restore their constitutional rights.
In Homeland, the sequel, the reputation they have ends up with them inheriting a collection of really sensitive government leaks that reveal a lot of government wrongdoing. And they set about trying to release these leaks in a way that will hold the powerful to account. And they do this in a way where they try to be as careful as they can, and they’re doing it in the midst of an election campaign that they’re running, but they’re beset on the one hand by mercenaries from private military contractors who want to suppress these leaks, who’ve been paid to suppress the leaks, and on the other hand by hacktivists who want the leaks released as soon as possible with no redactions and no selectivity. And they’re in the middle of this pincer.
And the third book, the one that’s just come out, is Attack Surface, and it’s not exactly a sequel. It’s the third Little Brother book, but it’s a standalone book, and it’s intended for adults, not because it has sex in it—speaking as a fifty-year-old, I’m here to tell you that being an adult doesn’t mean that you have more sex than a teenager—rather because it is about confronting your life’s work and having a moral reckoning with what you have done, which I think is a thing that mostly adults do. And it involves this young woman, Masha, who appears in the other two books. She’s something of the antagonist of the other two books. In the first book, she works for the Department of Homeland Security, trying to catch the heroes, and in the second book, she moves to Iraq, where she is a military contractor, hunting insurgents, using technology, and in the third book, in this new book, she has moved on to the private sector and is supplying cyber weapons to post-Soviet dictators in Eastern Europe who want to crush pro-democracy movements by hacking people’s phones and figuring out who to arrest and torture. Basically, sort of the Belarus situation that we’re living through as we record this now. And she has, through her whole career, compartmentalized. She’s found ways to rationalize what she’s doing and to not think too hard about the negative consequences of it. And she’s finally reached a point where she can’t rationalize it anymore, where the tactics that she engages in to convince herself that she’s one of the good guys have reached a breaking point.
So, you know, by the time we meet her, her day job is installing surveillance equipment in the National Telco’s Main Data Center, and her hobby is teaching the activists she’s supposed to be catching with it how to evade it. And her bosses, who are not exactly the forgiving type, figure out what she’s doing, and she has to flee the country. And when she gets back to San Francisco, she realizes to her horror that her childhood best friend, who she’s been relishing the prospect of being reacquainted with, is now a Black Lives Matter activist who’s being targeted by the same cyber weapons that she herself spent her whole career building. And that’s when she has to have this reckoning.
And the Little Brother books are interesting as artifacts in the world because of the impact that they had. There are a lot of technologists and cyber lawyers and cryptographers and human rights workers and activists who started off by reading Little Brother and Homeland. And it convinced them, on the one hand, that technology could be abused in terrible ways and, on the other hand, that the liberatory power of technology is real. If you watch the documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, you can see that as he’s fleeing Hong Kong, he grabs a copy of Homeland off his bedside table and sticks it in his go-bag. And that is, you know, really one of my proudest accomplishments, right? That you have these people who have acquired these rare and important technical skills for the express purpose of using them to help people and not hurt people and to defend people from corporate power and state power. And this third one is addressed to a different cohort, a cohort who got in for other reasons, you know, just because of their passion for the field and because it looked like a good job, but who’ve grown increasingly discontented with the compromises that they had to make along the way. You know, the 20,000 Googlers who walked out last year, or the workers at Amazon and at Facebook and at Microsoft and at Salesforce and at Apple who have voiced their concerns or quit their jobs or walked off the job over surveillance, over censorship, over manipulation, and over sexual harassment and impunity in their workplaces. And, you know, that group of people really is waiting to be radicalized. And this is a book, in some ways, for them. It’s a book to show them what redemption looks like when you’ve spent your career rationalizing your way into doing things that you know in your heart you shouldn’t be doing.
Was there a specific impetus for this, a specific group of ideas that came together to inspire you to write this third book? Because you talked about how ideas will bounce around, synthesize.
Yeah, no, no one instigating incident, really more like there was a critical mass of fragments, right? You know, one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning on is transparency, modifiability, interoperability, and user control over smart devices, that as computers infiltrate our cars and our medical implants and our tractors and our homes, rather than these computers being designed to be responsive to the people who own them and who trust their lives to them, these computers have been increasingly designed to extract revenue from those people by subjugating them and by surveilling them and by putting their interests behind the interests of the shareholders, the companies that made them. And not only does this expose us to risk from the companies themselves, but a device that’s designed to be treacherous, to hide its workings from you, to prevent you from reconfiguring it to work how you need it to work, is a device that, if it’s never compromised by a bad guy, whether that’s the state or whether that’s a criminal or a rival company or what have you, that device by design is not going to let you reconfigure it so that it listens to you. It’s designed to hide its workings from you. And so, I really wanted to illustrate the way in which a world of devices designed to control their users presents a kind of endless playground for the worst impulses in our species and to show what that would mean for human rights in a digital era.
What did your planning/outlining process look like? And what does it look like generally when you set out to write a novel? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do a sketchy outline, and then it evolves as you write? How does that work for you?
It’s really a different book by book. Mostly, what I have done is written a sort of treatment that explains what kind of thing will go on in the book and then written the book. I use a kind of heuristic where at every turn, I ask myself, “What problem is the character trying to solve? How are they going to fail through no fault of their own? How will things get worse and raise the stakes? And what will that new problem look like, and how will they try to solve that?” And if you do that enough times, you reach a climax because eventually, things can’t get any worse, and then that’s the climax. I ran into trouble with this one because it went really long. I had a really hard time bringing it in for a landing, and it came in at over 170,000 words. And I knew that I wanted a book of about 130,000 to 140,000 words.
So, I actually hired an external editor for this book, a woman named Juliette Ollman, and Juliette was a Random House editor who now works for the New York Transit Authority. And she gave me some really good suggestions for tightening up the book. We eliminated the love interest and replaced him with the sidekick, basically. And that was a pretty major piece of surgery on the book, and it was somewhat traumatic to undergo, but it made the book much better. It also got the book down to about 134,000 words, which is perfect. And it convinced me that I needed to be more outline oriented for the next book, that whatever I would lose in the spontaneity I would gain in the lack of a need for that kind of dramatic rewrite. And so, the book that I’m working on now, I wrote a very detailed outline, and I’m keeping it updated as I go because obviously, the first casualty of every battle is the plan of attack. So, I’m changing the outline as I go so that I have a kind of as-built drawing when I’m done. And I found it to be quite relieving. Like, I mean, every book in my experience feels like you’re cheating, right? It feels like . . . because there’s no way you can hold all the pieces of a book in your head. And so, at a certain point, there’s a lot of kind of unconscious work being done to keep the book consistent. And it always comes, there always comes a time writing a book where you feel like Wile E. Coyote having run off the cliff, and knowing that if you look down that there’s just empty air below you. And a lot of finishing a book is down to not looking down. It’s trusting that you’ll get to the other side if you just keep running. And this feels like cheating, too, but in a different way, in that I’m following this recipe I wrote, and the part of my brain that writes the recipe is not the part of my brain that does the writing. And it kind of feels like, almost hacky, like I got an outline from someone, and now I’m just following their instructions, except that someone is me.
What does your actual writing process look like? I mean, you have a lot of things that you do. Do you write . . . when you’re working on fiction, do you work a certain time every day, or how does that work for you?
No, I long ago lost the luxury of being able to set aside a certain time every day. I really just squeeze it in. And what I do is, I have a word count I hit every day. And the book that I’m working on right now, it’s a 500-word-a day word count. It’s two pages generally, takes about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a little easier with the outline, I have to say. And I just sit down, and I write it. And the thing that freed me up to do that kind of daily work was the realization that although there were days when I felt like my writing was very good and days when I felt like my writing was terrible, and although there were days, or there were parts of the work that were very good and parts that needed revision, that they were unconnected, right? That the quality of the work was completely unrelated to how I felt about the quality of the work. Some of the stuff I felt great about was garbage, and some of the stuff I felt was garbage was great. And that the thing that the feeling related to was not the objective quality of the work, but rather to, like, my blood sugar and my anxiety and stress levels and how much sleep I’d gotten. And once I realized that the quality of words was unrelated to my feeling in the words, then I could just write whatever words there were, even if they were stupid-sounding words. And later on, I could go back and fix them if it turned out that the way I felt about them was true. And, you know, that was liberating. But it’s also somewhat depressing over time because it is anhedonic, right? That the joy that you feel when you feel like you’re writing really, really well kind of gets leached out of the thing once you acknowledge that how you feel about the work is not connected to the objective quality of the work. And you start to realize, oh, I feel great about this, maybe it’s crap.
Well, maybe the operative word is work because it is, of course, work sometimes. Sometimes it feels like play, but a lot of the time, it feels like work. I at least I find.
Much as I, you know, I enjoy having written, but yeah. So, do you write sequentially? Like, you start at the beginning, you write to the end?
That’s exactly it. Yep.
You’re not one of these people that strings scenes together along the way.
Nothing of the sort, I do write, like, TK, for to come, which is a journalistic convention, if there’s a thing that I need to go look up later, like, you know, the name of a minor character that I didn’t bother to make a note of it. And I do write FCK for a fact check if there’s a thing that I think I might have gotten wrong. That’s mostly to stop, like, getting into a Wikipedia click trance. And I just write with a plain old text editor, you know, like, not even a word processor.
Do you find that you have to do a lot of research on these books? I mean, you’re dealing with, you know, cutting-edge technology and that sort of thing. And I know you’ve got to kind of deal with that all the time, but do you find things that you have to research as you’re writing?
It’s really the other way around. I mean, there are sometimes a detail or two that will come up like that, but mostly what’s going on is this process of taking everything that seems significant and turning it into a blog post gives you a wealth of material that you have already researched. So, you’re doing research for a book you don’t know you’re writing. And the book you write comes out of the research you do instead of the other way around. I did write a book that was set in China and India and spent some time there. In Homeland, there’s a sequence where they propose an alternative way of running an insurgent election campaign. And I canvassed a bunch of people I knew who worked in netroots politics and a young man named Aaron Swartz, who was one of the Reddit founders, who very tragically killed himself the year the book came out, gave me a really, really good sequence for it. And, you know, that was just like, there was just a TK, like, I will figure out what goes in the scene later. And then, when the book was done, I wrote to Aaron for advice, and he just sent me a couple of paragraphs I dropped in.
Once you have your completed draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers or people like that? Or how does that work for you?
I use my editor and my agent, and in the case of the last book, I used this outside editor, but I don’t tend to use a lot of beta readers. I did have some sensitivity readers for Walkaway, particularly for the sequences in which there’s a trans character. And I did have a sensitivity reader for Radicalized, where it’s a story about African-American relations with the US police, but for the most part, it’s editor, agent, and sometimes outside editor.
And what does your actual revision process look like personally? Do you go through it line by line, are you making big changes, or more just cleaning up the language? Or what sort of things do you find yourself working on?
Well, it’s strongly varied by book. Obviously, with Attack Surface there was this major surgery. With Walkaway, I decided that I wanted that book to be shorter as well, and I went through it line by line. I just basically took 5,000 words out of the book every morning and put them in a new file, and just tinkered with it until I was 4,000 words. And what I found was that in doing this, I started to identify tics of bad habits of my own, where I would be needlessly verbose. And it got really fast. I got really good at doing it. And both fortunately and unfortunately, the practice of doing that with the whole book meant that by the time I wrote my next one, I wasn’t making those mistakes anymore. So, when I wanted to cut down in Attack Surface, I didn’t have twenty percent fat at the sentence level that I could just trim out because I taught myself a better habit. And, you know, often what I’ll do is read the book aloud. I find that that’s a really powerful way to revise. I know Bruce Sterling told me once that when he did a residency out here in L.A. at Art Center in Pasadena, he drove a trailer of stuff from Texas to L.A. for his residency. And he had a new book out, I think it was The Caryatids, and he strapped his laptop into the passenger seat and had it do text to speech for the entire book while he drove cross-country. And he would just pull over whenever he heard a line that sounded wrong and fix it.
There’d be a lot of pulling over if I were doing that. Yeah, reading out loud is a great way . . . well, it forces you to read every line, of course, every word. You don’t skip over anything in your head. And if you don’t find the mistakes while you’re reading it out loud, doing revision, you will totally find them when you’re doing a public reading later on when it’s too late to change.
Yeah, you certainly do. Very true. Or f you’re producing an audiobook when the reader gets to them.
Yeah, I actually have a copy of the first edition of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And of course, he lives in Saskatchewan, he lives in Saskatoon. And he was at the Saskatchewan Book Awards a few years ago as the speaker, and he opened it up and went to one particular place and made a correction that had made it all the way through into publication. So now we have this hand-corrected copy, autographed copy, of Life of Pi. And I put it in a plastic bag and put it away somewhere.
Yeah, Damon Knight used to do this. . . there was a book that I think John Campbell had retitled The Rithian Terror that originally had a title like, you know, A Happy Story About Space or something. And every time someone would bring in a copy of the book, he would open it to the title page and cross out Campbell’s title and write in his own.
Well, you talked about, in this particular case, having an editor before it went to the editor. Once it gets to the publication level, with the publisher’s editor, what kind of feedback do you typically get?
So, my editor, Patrick, whom I’ve known since I was seventeen, he tends to be pretty macro. He usually will have one or two things where he’s like, “This thing really needs a fix,” but mostly he, you know, the way that he approaches I think is that science fiction is a story in which you have a kind of a micro and a macrocosm. And the microcosm is the character, and the macrocosm is the world. And they need to be parallel to one another. They need to have they need to be sort of an as-above-so-below, powers-of-ten kind of relationship to one another. And, you know, the character is like a little cogwheel that spins around and around interfacing with this very big wheel that is the world, and the character spins and spins and spins until the world makes a full revolution and you see it in the round. And a lot of the times when the books falter, it’s because the teeth aren’t meshing, because there’s some way in which the world and the character are not matched for each other. So, a lot of the time, his suggestions will be sort of thematic. He’ll be like, “If you do this with a character and or this with the world, you’ll get a much better mesh.”
Does he work with, like, an editorial letter that you get, or is it a conversation or . . .?
Yeah, oftentimes it’s a conversation, but we notionally . . . well, I mean, what actually usually happens is he says, “I will get you an editorial letter,” and then time will go by, and he’ll go like, “Actually, let’s just talk on the phone.”
Well, that’s what I’m used to. Sheila Gilbert at DAW is my editor. And it’s always phone conversations. So, when people talk about getting these massive editorial letters, I’ve never actually had one of those. So, I always wonder what they’re like.
Well, and Juliet gave me a proper editorial letter, but, you know, that was a separate process.
Now, I also wanted to mention you’re doing something interesting with a Kickstarter for the audiobook version of this. So, that has funded, it’ll be over, so, you can’t, you know, people hearing this can’t contribute. But tell me about that and how that came about and why you did it.
Yeah, sure. So, I will not make my work available under DRM, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, you know, from an author’s perspective, the most important one is that under the revisions to the Canadian Copyright Act in 2011 and under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we as creators, as the owners of those copyrights, cannot authorize our readers to remove the DRM. And so, if we sell work that’s locked to Amazon with Amazon’s DRM and then Amazon and we have a dispute, and we walk away from Amazon and find another publisher for our work or another retailer for our work, those books are locked into Amazon’s silo. It’s like, if every time you sold a book at Wal-Mart, they got to decide which light bulbs and bookcases and chairs you could read them in. And yes, if you wanted to, you could get another chair and another light bulb and another bookcase for, you know, the Indigo books that you’re going to go buy now, but you could see that that switching cost would really lock in the suppliers, that is, us, to this monopoly platform. And so, Amazon will thankfully allow you to sell e-books without DRM, but not audiobooks. And they completely dominate the audiobook market. They have more than 90 percent of it through their Audible division, which, when they bought it in 2008, they promised they would remove the DRM from and then reneged. And I won’t allow my books to be sold, which means that I’m cutting myself off from more than 90 percent of the market. And understandably, MacMillan is not all that interested in acquiring the rights to a book that they can’t sell in the place where 90 percent of the shoppers are. And I don’t blame them. And so, I retain those rights.
And I live in Southern California, which means that I’m a fifty-minute drive from one of the powerhouse audiobook studios, Skyboat Media, and I’m only a few minutes away from my friend Amber Benson’s house. She’s a writer, a DAW writer, but she’s also an actor, she played Tara on Buffy, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful voice actor and audiobook reader. And so, I had Amber read the book, paid her SAG actor rates and paid the director Cassandra De Cuir, and paid my editor, John Taylor Williams, who’s been editing my podcast for more than a decade. And we produced a really kickass audiobook, and I’ve done this before with other books, but this time I really wanted to make a statement, in part because there’s finally this pro-competitive anti-monopoly energy in the world. And I decided I would pre-sell the audiobook on Kickstarter along with the e-books. I’m my publisher’s e-book retailer so that you can buy my e-books at all the major retail platforms, you know, Kobo and B.N. and Indigo and Amazon and so on, but you can also just buy them from me, and I get the 30 percent that would otherwise be taken by one of those companies when you buy for me, and I take the 70 percent that remains, and I send it to my publisher, and they take the 25 percent that would be my royalty and send it back to me. So, it comes out to like 47 1/2 percent. So, I’m selling the e-book, pre-selling the audiobook, I’m selling the backlist titles, the first two books all on Kickstarter, and I’ve discounted the audiobook. It’s going to sell for twenty-five bucks, but I’m selling it for fifteen. And, as I speak, the Kickstarter is sitting at $238,883, and that’s a really good sum of money.
What was your goal?
Well, seven thousand bucks was the goal, but that’s just like the amount of money that it would sort of cost me to do the listing and the fulfillment and whatever. It’s just an opportunity cost. I wasn’t really . . . I wanted about this much. This was kind of where I was shooting. In fact, I’m hoping to get significantly more because the last four or five days of the campaign are when you get a whole lot of pledges. What I really want is to sell 10,000 audiobooks. And I think that if I sell 10,000 audiobooks to 10,000 customers, that it will tempt McMillan into buying the audio rights to my next book and into helping me produce it and market it this way with another crowdfunder. And that if we can do that, we can probably tempt other bestselling writers into eschewing Amazon Audible, and we can start creating a new kind of Audible exclusive, the book that’s exclusive of Audible, that’s available in all the places. You know, it’s first life is as a discount title on Kickstarter for pre-order and then all the major retailers except Amazon. And I think that will bring Amazon to the table. I think that gets Amazon where it hurts. That is what they care about. And not being able to sell your bestsellers, the best sellers in the field, is a big deal for them. And then maybe we can get a more equitable proposition, one where we get to decide as the copyright owners whether we want their so-called protection.
Well, a lot of your activity is as an activist as well as a writer. And that does probably kind of tie into my big philosophical questions that I always ask at the end, which is, why do you write? Why do you write, and do you consider the writing or the other things that you do . . . are they all one piece or they are two separate things? Are you an activist and a writer? Are you an activist first and then a writer? How do you put all those pieces together? But at the core of that, why do you write, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy particularly?
Yeah, well, so I think that in terms of rhetoric and politics, writing is a way to carry on the argument. It puts a lot of blood and sinew on what could otherwise be a very dry academic kind of argument about tech policy questions. But, you know, more importantly, or just as importantly, I write for the reason anyone who makes art makes art, right? Because we have this like important, difficult-to-stop need to make art. You know, one of the reasons that artistic markets are so dysfunctional is because people make art even when they don’t have a reasonable expectation of a return, right? When people are traumatized by, you know, war and torture and so on, we give them art therapy, you know, like, art’s important, and I make art because I’m an artist and artists make art and all humans make art, and it’s really important to the human condition. In terms of, like, what happens when you write, there’s . . . it is a weird question, right? You know, the more I think about writing, the weirder writing gets. Because when you read fiction, you have a limbic involuntary emotional response to the plight of imaginary people who you know to be inconsequential, like, by definition, like, things that happen to imaginary people have no consequences. Right? Like, the yogurt you ate with your breakfast this morning had a more tragic death than Romeo and Juliet because they were never alive. And so, they didn’t die, whereas that yogurt was once alive and then you killed it, right?
And I think what’s going on is that we have an automatic and voluntary process by which we learn to model other people in order to empathize with them, that, you know, from the models you build up of people you’ve never met, you know, whether that’s someone, you know, on the Internet or someone that you hear about second hand, like a celebrity or like the new kid at school, you haven’t met yet, but the other kids are talking about them. And it gives you . . . you create a kind of picture of who they are and what they would do under certain circumstances. And that’s how you predict what they’ll do and how you empathize with them. And this process, it’s very naive and automatic. There’s no conscious intervention needed to do it. And it can be tricked into spending time building and maintaining models of people that you can’t encounter, like imaginary people, like strangers and like dead people. Like, you can probably imagine what your grandma would say if she could see you now. And that’s drawing on that model. And I think when you read, you experience the empathic cognitive version of an optical illusion where the writer tricks your model maker into modeling the imaginary person that is the subject of the story, and then you experience empathy for them.
And I think that when you write a similar thing happens. That when we start writing it can feel masturbatory, right, like you’re putting on a puppet show for yourself, because you know you’re making it up and you’re like, you know, “Hey, let’s all go on a quest!” “Sure, that sounds great to me!”, right? But over time, that same part of your brain that readers use to experience empathy and have the aesthetic experience of reading a novel builds up the model of your characters, and they start to tell you what they want to do. You’re kind of inhaling your own farts, basically, right? You’ve got the exhaust of your very regimented planning, of your specific imaginative process, in which you say, “What imaginary thing can my characters do?”, becomes the source of a bunch of intuition about what these imaginary people would do that arrives in exactly the same way that your intuition about what real people would do arrives. And that’s a pretty cool thing. And then, as to why science fiction, well, you know, it’s kind of in my DNA. It’s, you know, between Judy and living in the 21st century and being so engaged with technological subjects, science fiction really is the natural genre for me.
Well, and I think you’ve kind of answered the next question, too, which is, do you hope that your fiction has some impact on the real world? I think very clearly, you do.
Yeah, I really do. I mean, I would do it, you know, even if I didn’t have that. But, you know, one of the things that keeps me going when, you know, things are low, and I don’t feel like working, and it’s not very satisfying and everything’s terrible, is the thought that I’m making a difference in the world, that this thing has meaning in the world and will make the world a better place.
And you’ve mentioned that you’re working on something, what are you working on now?
I’m writing a utopian post-Green NewDeal novel called The Lost Cause that is in many ways indistinguishable from a dystopian environmental novel in that it is full of floods and fires, zoonotic plagues, refugees, and so on. But the difference is that the people in the book have met the crisis head-on, and they have begun a multi-century-long process of addressing it. So, there’re like . . . a bunch of them are working on relocating all the coastal cities in the world twenty kilometres inland. You know, they have high-density living plans to accommodate refugees as ever-larger parts of the world become uninhabitable. They are replacing major aviation routes with high-speed rail links. They’re just, they’re doing the work. And they call themselves the first generation in two hundred years not to fear the future. And they start with something called the Canadian miracle that starts after a hung Parliament triggers, or a no-confidence vote triggers, a snap election in Canada. And election surprises mire the Tory and Liberal candidates in scandal, and (a) Metis woman becomes the PM, and she ushers in what they call the Canadian miracle, the first Green New Deal, the first Leap Manifesto, implementation after Calgary is basically washed away. And she, they relocate all of the parts of Calgary that are in the flood plain and create a new way of thinking about climate work and care work. And after the Canadian miracle is well underway, there’s this practice of what they call the blue helmets, who are exchange workers, who go all around the world to learn methods and to teach methods from their home countries. And this large circulating population of blue helmets are really at the center of this story. And so the story, I should mention, turns on truth and reconciliation with the white nationalist militias who think that they’re not living in a utopia, but rather a dystopia going on there.
A lot going on there.
Well, glad to hear there’s still some Canadian content.
Oh, yes, very much so.
And when will that come out?
Oh, I haven’t sold it. I never sell my books before I write them. I always sell them after they’re done. So, it doesn’t have a publication date. But my editor is really excited about it. I sent it to him.
I suspect it will find a home.
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
And where can people find you online? You are online, I presume?
Oh yes. So you can find all my work at pluralistic.net.
Pluralistic is available, If you go there, you’ll find out how to get it as a Twitter feed. So, I post several essays a day as Twitter threads, or you can read them on the web or full-text RSS. I podcast a lot of them. They’re also available as a daily email newsletter, and they’re also available on Mastadon and Tumblr. Everything except Tumblr and Twitter is is surveillance-free. There’s no analytics, no tracking, no cookies set. It’s licensed Creative Commons attribution only.
Okay, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the chat. Hope you did, too.
And best of luck with Attack Surface.
Thank you very much. Thanks for the chat. It’s been really nice.