Author Alexander Jablokov, who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey workshop, writes science fiction for readers who won’t give up literate writing or vivid characters to get the thrills they demand. He is a natural transition for non-SF readers interested in taking a stroll with a dangerous AI or a neurosurgeon/jazz musician turned detective, while still giving hardcore SF fans speculative flash, incomprehensible aliens, and kitchen appliances with insect wing cases. From his well-regarded first novel, Carve the Sky, an interplanetary espionage novel set in a culturally complex 25th century, through the obscenely articulate dolphins with military modifications of a Deeper Sea, the hardboiled post-cyberpunk of Nimbus, the subterranean Martian repression of River of Dust, and the perverse space opera of Deepdrive, his last book was Brain Thief, a contemporary high-tech thriller with a class clown attitude. He has recently written a YA alternate universe adventure novel.
His day job is as a marketing manager. He does his writing during the mornings, and on weekends. It took him several years to figure out how to get any writing done at all, particularly since he hates getting up early and hates working on weekends, but has somehow managed it. Visit www.ajablokov.com to learn more about the author and his books.
On your blog you say that, “writing is rewriting.” How do you maintain excitement for that original idea as you work through various drafts?
Sometimes I don’t and have to let it rest for a while. But I consider the first draft as something akin to ore. Smelting and refinement are the next steps. Now, that’s just me—my initial drafts are tangled, full of blind alleys, notes to myself, and repeated sentences where I try to get something right. I’ve learned that attempting to revise while I write stops me dead. That kind of revision can be like cleaning your desk or doing your laundry—a useful task that has wandered into the wrong place.
As a science fiction writer, how much research do you do for your stories, and what sort of research have you done? Do you tend to research before writing the story, or do you research as the need arises?
Depending on the story, I do a fair amount of research, sometimes for fact, and sometimes for a voice or an attitude, in the form of letters or a diary. As I imply in my remark about revision stopping me if I try to do it while writing, the same is true of research. I am easily distracted, and trying to chase down a fact is almost too easy as a distraction. I put a note in to research something later and forge on.
You’re a member of the Cambridge SF Workshop and have found members’ critiques useful for revising your work. What is your advice for writers who are looking for a few trusted readers to critique their work?
I got lucky with CSFW. They were looking for writers, and I had had a couple of stories come out, and someone noticed I lived in the area. I have been a member ever since. The Boston metro area has a lot of writers, and there are a number of groups. Some people I know are in more than one. Most areas are probably less oversupplied with would-be writers. And it does help to have another writer to provide critiques, because you often discuss mechanics, how to achieve a particular effect, how to convey character, that kind of technical stuff that lies underneath the surface of the story. So I would keep an eye out for new SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) members in your area, writers doing readings at bookstores and libraries, literary events, the kind of thing that sometimes brings writers out of their cubbies. Some genre experience does help, but it might be interesting to work with writers with other approaches as well.
You’ve written several novels and multiple short stories. Do you use different methods for writing longer pieces versus shorter? Do you find it easy switching between them? What have you learned from writing short stories that you’ve applied to writing novels?
I outline a lot, and it takes me a long time, and I rewrite a lot, which takes me even more time. So I like to do stories because I can sell one or two in a year. I don’t really have a different process for them, which is probably why they turn out kind of long. The last couple I sold were novellas. Though, in some ways, the novella is a perfect length for SFF, long enough to get into things, but not long enough to become a major investment by either the writer or the reader. That said, I do find most SFF stories too long. We do go on. So what I try for (usually unsuccessfully) is concision, leaving things out, getting into the scene as late as possible, and getting out of it as soon as possible. Think of a scene as a visit to a somewhat tedious relative. Eat the stale cookies, admire the out-of-focus pictures of the graduation, and get out. Almost anyone becomes more interesting if you edit them properly.
You’ve written about aliens as well as cybernetic war dolphins. What is your process for coming up with alien characters? Do you fit them into the plot, or do you come up with your alien characters first and then fit the plot around them?
I am better at creating flashy technology, mordant observations, weird gizmos, and, yes, oddball aliens than I am at certain other, more fundamental things. It is a strength that becomes a weakness. The aliens and the plot modify each other, because I always have more aliens and more plot than I need. Much of my working process is generating a lot of alternatives and then winnowing them down. In other words, I edit all the time, even before writing a word. For example, I’m writing a series of stories about a young woman detective in a city packed with dozens of species from various planets. Some of the stories turn on the character or skills of a particular alien species, some on differing motivations, or cultural features, or physiology. So sometimes the alien demands a plot, and sometimes the plot demands an alien. And sometimes there is just something cool I can’t resist sticking in.
What is one of your favorite books, and how has it influenced your own writing?
I never even wanted to be a writer. I don’t have much imagination; I just fake it. I read mysteries and never figure out who did it. I hated sitcoms as a kid because I was always afraid someone in the story would be hideously embarrassed. I am both overinvolved and unobservant in my literary consumption. Which is to say, I love some books, and would love to really be influenced by them, but am too blunt and dull for it to work. For example, there is a book, Big If, by a writer named Mark Costello. It’s a subtly structured book without a strong plot about a bunch of Secret Service agents and their lives, but has a David Foster Wallace/Jonathan Franzen sarcastic cultural criticism vibe (Costello was friends with both of them). I’d love to write a book like it and stop getting mired in complicated plot points that never lead to anything.
Of course, Costello is so below the radar that the “Mark Costello” entry in Wikipedia (at least as I write this) is about another writer with the same name, ending with a brief note that mentions that the entry is not about my Mark Costello, but does not mention Big If or the other books he wrote under the pseudonym John Flood. I feel like I am in a Vladimir Nabokov short story—but don’t get me started on him.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I had a fantasy novella (see my observations on novellas, above) in Asimov’s in October 2016. I don’t usually write fantasy. An idea came to me that wouldn’t work any other way. I saw it as a one-off, something I would never return to. But something about my main characters, a practical middle-aged woman named Tromvi and a fierce girl named Oppi, kept me interested after I finished it, and now their stories are feeding into a novel. Given my writing speed, it will be a while before it gets anywhere.