Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
Firstly, many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. And many congratulations for topping the Amazon.com Bestseller list this week! (Amazon Charts Top 20 Books) How does your journey as a writer feel so far?
Dennis: Like one of those daydream fantasies you have while waiting for the bus. Before Legion was published, my wife and I were talking about what we’d do if the books started bringing in even a few thousand a month. Pay things off, maybe go on a vacation… Now we’ve both quit our day jobs. It’s still sinking in.
As I understand, your agency, Ethan Ellenberg, struggled to get publishers interested in We Are Leigon (We Are Bob) and so published it via their own in-house publishing arm - Worldbuilders Press - and through that, managed to get a rights deal with Audible. What were your feelings as you were going through each stage of that process?
Dennis: Hmm, yeah, that was not great. I suppose I’d been conditioned to the idea that if you got an agent, you got published. When Ethan started talking about the possibility of going through ASP (Agent-supported Publishing) and getting started on the next book, I saw it as not really a lot different from self-pubbing. Which, based on my experience with Outland, wasn’t going to change my life. What made the difference was the offer from Audible.
I should also mention that the inability to get a trad-pub contract turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If you can get traction in terms of book sales, self or hybrid publishing is far more lucrative. In fact, I got an offer from a Big Five publisher for Singularity Trap and a couple of future books, and turned it down. I simply couldn’t see how they could sell so many more books to make up for the smaller per-unit royalty.
It’s mildly disappointing that this means I’m not in brick-and-mortar bookstores, but from a purely economics point of view, I don’t think they’re a large segment of most authors’ revenues anymore.
And I have far more control, and more access to other revenue streams. For instance, my agent has negotiated a half-dozen or so foreign-language contracts, and continues to find more.
The Audible deal turned out to be especially important, with We Are Legion (We Are Bob) winning Best Science Fiction book at Audible last year. How much did Audible help on the marketing side, and how much Word Of Mouth do you think was involved?
Dennis: I don’t know that Audible did a lot of overt marketing for the first book, other than initially putting the book on their “upcoming” and “new this week” lists. However, that was enough, as it turned out. Audible is a different type of environment from Amazon.
First, it’s much smaller. There are literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of SF books on Amazon. Audible is not so saturated. I think that’s probably because there’s a cost to get onto Audible if you’re attempting to self-pub (you have to pay for your narrator in that case).
Second, the “free monthly credit” makes it psychologically easier to just slap a credit down and take a chance, especially if you’ve accumulated a couple of extra.
And third, Ray Porter came with a built-in fan-base, and he was absolutely the perfect narrator for the series. This combination generated what I think was a critical initial batch of good reviews, after which it just self-reinforced. Once it became apparent that WAL(WAB) was going to be a money-maker, Audible started giving it more of a boost.
One of the biggest appeals for me about the Bobiverse books is that you somehow manage to bring together so many of the big issues in science fiction into a single story. Is this something you always intended to do, or did it naturally evolve that way? Additionally, did you ever worry that you were aiming to cover too much?
Dennis: The whole series really grew organically. I had the basic idea of an uploaded mind as a Von Neumann probe. Once I started writing, though, all these side issues kept coming up, either to answer a need for conflict, or to supply motivations.
One of my pet peeves with fiction (science or otherwise) is when the characters act like idiots for no good reason. I’ve stopped reading books because someone did something abysmally moronic just to advance the plot.
So I wanted my MC and my other characters to act in reasonable ways, given their backgrounds and situations. That required things to get complex. For instance, FAITH couldn’t just be totalitarian—they had to be religious in order to justify treating a replicant as soulless and therefore just a piece of technology to be used as they saw fit. Bob, as an intelligent person, would naturally have trouble with his status as a sentient being. The ethics of given situations would be ambiguous rather than conveniently black and white. And so on.
Writing is an iterative process. With each edit pass, you seek to end up with an internally consistent narrative. If something sounds hokey or out of place or needlessly arbitrary, you go back and make another pass as it. Along the way, motivations grow, events become more nuanced, characters become more complex.
From one of your most recent blog posts, you mention that you hope to publish a new novel, Singularity Trap, sometime in 2018. Plus you want to return to your debut novel, Outland, and rewrite that, then add a sequel to that, Earthside. Can you tell us a little of what we might expect from those books, and why they may particularly appeal to Bobiverse fans?
Dennis: ST will probably appeal to Bobiverse fans because A) it’s also space opera, although confined to the Solar System, and B) because it also deals with the question of identity and personal continuity, although from a different angle.
But on a more general basis, I’ve always felt a particular sense of wonder when I’ve read a book that I truly enjoyed. I’m trying to inject that same sense of wonder into the stories that I write. I’m not interested in just writing a stock plot that happens to have a SF backdrop. I think there’s a large segment of the SF readership that are looking for just that element, and I hope to be able to deliver.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Bobiverse books I can think of is that there are only three books! I'm hungry for more Bobs, and I think many other readers are, too. You've mentioned that you plan to write more Bob books in future. Is this something you think you might just dip into, or might there be more Bob trilogies in future?
Dennis: Well, never say never, but my current plan is to stick to standalone novels in the Bobiverse. There might be a duology or a trilogy if I run into a storyline that’s just too big, but I’m not specifically planning for it. But I already have a number of story ideas for future Bobiverse books, and some readers have made excellent suggestions.
And carrying on from that, do you think there's ever going to be a danger of feeling too pressured to keep writing about Bobs? Can you see yourself one day struggling to enjoy writing these? Or do you feel that you've found your place and your story, and can just keep writing and writing it?
Dennis: To be honest, my biggest concern right now is producing a follow-up that won’t tank. The Bobiverse has set up an expectation, both in me and in readers. There’s always that “one-hit-wonder” epithet hovering behind you when you hit it big too early. On the other hand, I had the same case of nerves just before books 2 and 3 came out, so I guess that’s unavoidable.
I’m planning on alternating Bobiverse books with other books or series, but I’ll adjust as necessary based on reader feedback and book sales.
Inevitably, I'm going to have to ask about your influences. I know you've cited some of the classic SF writers and books in other interviews, but I'm also interested in what you're reading now. Are there any modern books and authors you particular enjoy, especially in the science fiction genre? And which are your all-time must reads?
Dennis: I like reading Scalzi, although I’ve only read a couple of his books so far. People have commented that our styles are similar, and I can see that. Heavy on dialog, sparse on description, with a good dose of snark. The best book I’ve read lately, though, has been READY PLAYER ONE. It helped that I recognized a lot of the references. I’m currently reading BOWL OF HEAVEN by Benford and Niven, and I have THE LOST ISLAND by Preston and Child waiting.
There are very few authors that I can point to and say that I like everything they’ve written. Even Heinlein, as sacrilegious as it may be to say, didn’t bat every single pitch out of the park. The only author that I can think of at the moment for whom I could make that claim is Jack McDevitt. I can’t think of a single thing he’s written that I didn’t enjoy.
Niven is probably my biggest influence overall, though, simply because of the grand scope of his stories and his universe. Again, it’s that “sense of wonder” thing.
And now, of course, back to writing. Is there a particular routine you follow, or method? Do you just let all the ideas build up and them write them out, or are you carefully plotting everything as you go along? And do you ever find yourself struggling at all, or have you got your writing system smoothed out by now?
Dennis: I’m still working things out. I started writing without much of a plan, and never really expected it to become more than a weekend hobby.
I have the advantage that I can type fast (I learned to touch-type in order to help my programming productivity), and when I get on a roll I really do stream-of-consciousness stuff. I’ll generally write what I call a skeleton draft of a novel in less than two weeks. After that, it’s all fleshing out and editing. Of course, there’s a lot of that, possibly a few months’ worth.
I start out with a pretty solid outline, but it’s a ten-thousand-foot view. I don’t have it plotted out down to the chapter. But I know where I’m starting, how I want to end, and what should happen in the middle in the broadest terms.
This continues to be a learning experience for me, though. I’ll adjust my style and methods after each novel. I don’t think I’ve arrived at my version of Best Practices yet.
To finish, the obligatory advice question - if there's one piece of advice you've really learned from, or wished you could have known earlier, which would it be?
Dennis: There’s some question about who made the comment about writing a million words before you're an accomplished author. It’s generally ascribed to King, but who knows? The takeaway, though, is not to be too quick to jump in and publish. Writing is something that really has to be learned. How-to books help; websites and forums help; crit groups REALLY help; but the bottom line is, as my brother-in-law says, “write more words.” Practice. Find a crit group or beta trades. Listen, edit, resubmit.
On my journey, I was lucky enough to have a few people who were willing and able to point out my weaknesses to me, and I listened. Do that.
Many thanks for the interview, Dennis.
Dennis E Taylor blog:
Dennis E. Taylor – The journey from irate reader to nervous author
Dennis E Taylor on Amazon UK:
Amazon.co.uk: Dennis Taylor: Books, Biogs, Audiobooks, Discussions
Dennis E Taylor on Amazon.com: Amazon.com: Dennis Taylor: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle