You have a new book, the Silence of Six, coming out this month. It sounds like a big departure from your earlier novels Fair Coin and Quantum Coin. Can you tell us a little about the book and the process of writing it?
The Silence of Six is a contemporary YA thriller about a group of teenage hackers who combine their skills to answer an intriguing question: “What is the silence of six?” As they investigate, they dig deep into a high level conspiracy that not only endangers the privacy of individuals, but their lives. And they have to work quickly because they’re being pursued by shady operatives online and in the real world, and the truth could affect the outcome of the presidential election just a few weeks away.
My first two books were fantasy and science fiction, and while some of The Silence of Six seems fantastic, it is actually shockingly close to what is happening in the world around us. In fact, it was challenging to stay ahead of headlines and almost daily revelations about widespread surveillance and limitations on our personal freedom. It was also a challenge for me to write a fast-paced thriller like this, but I worked closely with my great editors at Adaptive Books to make it as action packed, mysterious, and engaging as possible.
It was important for me to ground the book in reality and write interesting, believable characters that readers will care about. I did a lot of research into hacking, internet activism, and information leaks like Edward Snowden and Wikileaks to make it plausible, and I had friends vet the technology and what hackers do with it in the book; I wanted to represent computer hacking more truthfully than you typically see on television or in Hollywood films.
You’ve had a rather prolific career so far, starting with short stories and building to novels. Did you have a plan when you began your career or was your path more serendipitous?
A little bit of both. I think no matter how talented you are as a writer, it takes a certain amount of serendipity to reach the right agent or editor with the right work at the right time—and to meet people who will encourage and support you along the way. You can plan all you like, but publishing and life will usually surprise you.
I originally wanted to write screenplays or for television, but I didn’t want to move to LA so I figured I could work on short stories from anywhere and they would sell if they were good. They didn’t sell. At least, not for a while.
I wrote and submitted science fiction and fantasy stories for about four years, but it wasn’t until I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop (an intensive six-week workshop in Seattle) that I finally started selling them. Not to big markets, but to anthologies and semipro magazines in print and online. I also joined a professional writing group in New York, Altered Fluid. Through the workshop and the group, my writing improved drastically in a short period of time.
I didn’t start writing Fair Coin for another couple of years. I had often heard that I had a “natural YA voice,” but that didn’t seem like an asset in trying to sell to pro SFF markets. Then I told my wife my idea for a book about a coin that could change reality with a wish and she said it sounded like a great YA premise. I still didn’t feel “ready” to write a novel—I hadn’t sold many stories professionally yet, and how do you write a novel anyway?—but I decided to just start it and see how far I could get with it.
I guess that’s my only real career plan at this point: to see how far I can get.
On that note, which do you prefer: short or long fiction? Why?
Overall, I think I prefer long fiction because I tend to write long anyway. As a writer and a reader, I enjoy living with characters in their world for an extended period of time and getting fully immersed in their story. Of course, short stories can be just as immersive, even at a fraction of the length of a novel; a skilled writer can pack a lot into a short story. The very best of them manage to have a strong, lasting impact on a reader — and I love experiencing those. It’s sort of like comparing a film to an episode of a television series; both can tell great stories, but sometimes you’re just in the mood for one over the other.
As a writer, I also appreciate that for the most part, a novel is probably going to be read more widely than a short story, it may live on bookstore shelves and in libraries longer, and it is likely to get more attention and reviews than a short story. (One exception is placing your story in a webzine, which allows your story to reach people for as long as it’s online.) On the other hand, when I have time to write a short story, it’s really great that I can finish a draft in a couple of days and revision takes a matter of weeks, not months, not years. It can be very satisfying to tell a good story in 5,000 words and have it appear in print only a short time after you sell it.
You have been pretty vocal about diversity in YA. Why is this issue so important to you?
Recent discussions about the importance of diversity opened my eyes about my own assumptions in what I read and write. I realized that in most of the stories I wrote, I had defaulted to white, able-bodied, heterosexual characters, and I began to question why that was the case.
Basically, over a lifetime of being exposed to a limited range of characters in the vast numbers of books, movies, and television shows I had consumed, my brain had been programmed with similarly limited expectations — despite the fact that I am half-Korean, can’t see much without glasses, and grew up with a noticeable scar on my right arm, which are all things that made me stand out from my peers. I recall how rare it was to see anyone remotely like myself in fiction, and especially not as a protagonist.
I think that as one of a small number of diverse YA authors, I have a responsibility to push for more diverse authors to write and publish, and for more books to have diverse characters and settings. It’s important for young readers to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and know that they can write books, too. I am especially trying harder with every story to question my default assumptions and find ways to make my own stories richer in diversity of all kinds.
This is my new favorite question to ask authors. What is the strangest thing that you’ve had to do or research in order to write your novels?
My novel that’s currently on submission with publishers is set in Bayport, New York, and I decided that I really wanted to visit the high school where it’s set. I convinced a friend to drive me out to Long Island so I could walk around and take pictures of the school on a Saturday, because I couldn’t find much information online. There were lots of signs telling me that what I was doing was prohibited, but I did it anyway… And actually, as we were leaving, a concerned neighbor walking his dog asked us what we were doing there. Apparently, he was concerned about terrorism! I know that the job of a writer is to make stuff up, but I usually need a certain baseline of fact in order to feel comfortable enough to write about something. Getting the lay of the land in person did help me imagine it from the viewpoints of my characters.
Any final advance for all of the NaNoWriMos or other final words?
My advice, which applies to any writer, is: Don’t worry about the first draft of your book being good, because it almost certainly won’t be. The most important part of writing is revision; write the book as quickly as you can, but then slow down and take the time to make it the best book it can be, whether you need to do one more draft or another five. Two vital qualities writers need to have to succeed in publishing are persistence and patience.
Thanks for having me!
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**Leave a comment at the end to win a copy of The Silence of Six eBook and a copy of the Skinless or Interlopers eBook. Winner announced 12/1/14.**