Inside the Mind of Cory Doctorow

Science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist Cory Doctorow is used to being criticized. Some write to the prolific author to say he’s foolish for giving away his books online at the same time they come out in print. Others write to say he’s foolish for working with traditional publishers in the first place. But thousands of Doctorow’s fans write to say they discovered his books through a free download in only a few clicks online. And as long as some of those readers go on to become book buyers, Doctorow says he and his publisher, Tor Books, will keep coming out ahead.

So much for being foolish. The Canadian-born author doesn’t shy away from experimenting in new forms: He’s authored five novels, including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, bestseller Little Brother and the forthcoming Makers; as well as two co-written nonfiction books; two short-story collections; and an essay collection—while also co-editing the popular blog Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and writing for publications ranging from The New York Times to Wired and Popular Science.

And Doctorow won’t even think about signing a book contract without Creative Commons licensing, which grants a nonexclusive right to create free online versions of his works, even though this stipulation caused a delay in his titles becoming available on shelves in the United Kingdom, where he now lives.

But while he’s blazing a trail for the rest of us, can Doctorow take a little heat from the critics?

Not only can he take it, he’s not above responding to their skepticism with a few theories of his own. Don’t miss Doctorow’s next experiment this holiday season: a self-published short-story collection sure to have fans and critics alike buzzing about his progressive approach.

WHEN YOU WAKE UP, WHAT ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT?

Mornings tend to be motivated by sheer inertia. Maybe slight panic. They are the most ritualized part of the day for me. I have a little tick-list I try to get through before we leave the house around 8 a.m. That’s after getting up at 5 a.m. and reading through all the e-mail and the first round of blog posts that have come in overnight, often getting those 500 words done that I do every day on the novel I’m working on, and doing the household chores. I’m the early riser, so I make the breakfast and then get the baby dressed.

YOU’VE SAID THAT WHEN YOU WERE WORKING FULL TIME, YOU HAD A SIMILAR SCHEDULE. DO YOU WRITE MORE NOW THAT YOU CAN?

Each project seems to find its own rhythm and its own daily word count. There was one where I worked very, very long hours, and that was Little Brother. That whole book came together in eight weeks for the first draft. And there were days when I was typing so long that my wrists made me stop, where I just couldn’t keep working.

Although I was writing really hard, I was working as well, since it was during my Fulbright at the University of Southern California. I was teaching a couple of courses, advising undergrads, I was the faculty adviser for the Students for Free Culture club, and working as an adviser for Electronic Frontier Foundation. I was also traveling; I remember writing a big chunk of Little Brother while attending and speaking at the iCommons conference in Rio.

HAS BECOMING A FATHER CHANGED THINGS FOR YOU?

One thing fatherhood does is it forces you to be a lot more diligent about how you organize your time. So I’m a lot less apt to take on stuff that is of low value. For example, if I’m going to relax these days, I’ll never turn on the TV. The books I’m not reading are always more interesting than the shows I’m not watching. When you start to think of your time as packing a knapsack for an adventure in the woods—not wanting to overpack and not wanting to leave anything out, either—and really treat it as a survival kit, you start to get to what matters.

MANY OF YOUR BOOKS HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR—AND WON—AWARDS. ARE LITERARY AWARD EVENTS GOOD OPPORTUNITIES TO CONNECT WITH READERS?

[What I call] “performative authorship” creates more economic opportunities for writers, but I think that that performance isn’t always literally standing up in front of a group of people. Blogging is inherently performative. Tweeting is performative. Podcasting is extremely performative. Not only are you performing your work, but there is an immediacy where your voice is right there in your reader’s ear. I feel a personal connection with the podcasters I listen to. And that performance makes your readers into people who participate in your economic success not just because they have to in order to consume your work, but because they want to see you succeed.

YOU’VE SAID YOU LEARNED AT THE CLARION SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY WRITERS’ WORKSHOP HOW TO SIT DOWN AT THE KEYBOARD AND “OPEN A VEIN.” HOW DID THAT CHANGE YOUR WRITING?

That’s a variation on a famous old writing aphorism, something like: “Writing is easy—all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein.” I was 21 when I went to Clarion. Before, when I would sit down at a keyboard, I would feel “the magic”—that feeling that you’re putting down words that are entertaining and witty and sometimes very vivid. I would feel the cleverness—that feeling you get if you happen to be the guy who tells the funniest joke in the room at the lull in the conversation. Everybody laughs and for a moment you kind of bask in their adulation.

But what I didn’t feel was that kind of heart-tugging feeling—that feeling you get when you’re in dangerous territory. The feeling I had before was the feeling of having successfully told a joke; the feeling I try to get now is that feeling you get just before you try the joke, when you don’t know if it will succeed. That feeling of trepidation, of being slightly out of control, of taking a risk, of not knowing whether you are going to crash and burn—that feeling.

YOU’VE WRITTEN POLITICAL THRILLERS, SCI-FI, FANTASY, NONFICTION AND YOUNG ADULT—AND IN MANY FORMS, INCLUDING BOOKS, SHORT STORIES AND COMIC SCRIPTS. HOW DO YOU MOVE FROM GENRE TO GENRE?

I think of myself as a science fiction writer first and foremost. Partly that’s because the job of science fiction writer has always been so politicized and so variegated and so broad. Science fiction writers have historically been polemicists, scientists, technicians, engineers, researchers, public speakers and agitators.

In terms of the genres, I find it hard to tease them apart. If the science fiction writer’s job is to discuss how technology is changing society using fiction, and if the activist’s job is to try to influence the way that society changes using technology, then those two jobs seem to me to be pretty closely related. So a blog post might end up being themes in a novel, and the themes in a novel might become part of a speech, and the speech might become part of an op-ed, the op-ed might trigger a short story. And none of those are in a distinct genre.

Genres are useful for marketing; they are a great way to help readers find the material they might want to consume or acquire. But they don’t have clean lines you can use to distinguish one type of literature from another. Rather, they describe what kind of audience might be interested in them.

SO, WHICH OF YOUR OWN BOOKS IS YOUR FAVORITE?

It’s always the book I’m working on. So the next one coming out is Makers and I really, really like how it turned out. It’s a big, fat book, 180,000 words. I wrote Little Brother as a break from Makers. I started it about a year before I started Little Brother and I finished Makers a couple of months after I finished Little Brother.

But my publisher decided Little Brother should come out first because it was so timely. Makers happened to be about something that seemed a little implausible at the time: total global economic collapse. My publisher thought, “Oh, well, that’s just purely fictional, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, so we can put that book out anytime.” So they rescheduled it [for November 2009], which turns out to have been a really good time. I don’t think writers predict the future, but I think they’re pretty good at looking at the present.

ALL OF YOUR BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE FOR FREE THROUGH A CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY THE STRATEGY MAKES GOOD SENSE TO BOTH YOU AND YOUR PUBLISHER?

The Internet has lots of stuff that’s pretty much as fun to do as reading a book, so you’re not really competing with theft; you’re competing with being ignored. Given that I hope people will pay attention, I would rather take the attention they want to pay to me and channel it toward telling other people how great my books are than encourage them to slice the binding off one of my books and lay it on a scanner. The books are born digital; they might as well stay digital.

Economically, I might lose some sales, but I will gain more sales than I lose. If more people buy it because they found out about it electronically than [do not buy it] because they got an electronic copy, then I’m up. Since it doesn’t cost anything to do free electronic distribution, there’s no reason not to do it, provided you believe you’re going to end up ahead.

WHAT DO YOU MOST OFTEN TELL WRITERS WHO ASK FOR ADVICE ABOUT GETTING PUBLISHED?

I often get e-mails from writers who say, “I’m working on a novel and I’m really worried that the publisher won’t let me have a Creative Commons license and I’m going to have to have this difficult negotiation.” And I write back and say, “Well, how’s the novel going?” And they write back, “Well, I’m a few chapters in.” And I write back and say, “Well, you need to finish the novel first. You can’t sell that novel until it’s written.”

So, there is a lot of potchking—which is a Yiddish word that means fiddling around—that writers do. I think one of the ways you keep on writing is by pausing every once in a while and daydreaming about how nice it will be when the book is finished and published. That’s totally legitimate. It’s just like daydreaming about what the marathon will be like when you’re finished running it. It’s one of the things that keeps you running, right?

But it’s easy to tip over from daydreaming to making the daydream the main activity. Once you are taking the time you should be spending writing and using it researching technical questions about negotiating the fine details of your contract with your publisher—who as of yet doesn’t exist because the book isn’t written—you are no longer writing. You are potchking.

This is no different than Robert Heinlein’s advice to writers: Write, finish what you write, send what you write to an editor. Almost every writer who approaches me for advice is not doing at least one of those three things. And if you are not doing those three things, you are not on a trajectory to publishing work. If you are doing those three things, you may not ever publish your work, but you need to do those things, otherwise what you are doing is writing-related activity. You are no longer writing.

So write, finish what you write and send what you write to an editor. Everything else is gravy.

 

Want more on how to write a good Science Fiction or Fantasy novel? Consider:
The Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy
by
Orson Scott Card

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