Yoon Ha Lee will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. His debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards. Its sequels, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun, were Hugo finalists. Lee’s middle grade space opera, Dragon Pearl, was a New York Times bestseller. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
Keep trying. Nobody is born knowing how to write. Like math, or ice-skating, or putting on eyeliner, it’s something you learn by practice.
You recently completed the Hugo Award-nominated Machineries of Empire trilogy. Did you know how the trilogy would end when you began writing the first book? Are you more of a planner, or more of a pantser?
I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy! I originally intended Ninefox Gambit to be a standalone. But after I finished drafting it, I had an idea for a sequel. And after I committed to Raven Stratagem, I had another idea, and that became Revenant Gun. I plan individual novels because I’m not smart enough to figure out the plots on the fly. But on the series level…well, I didn’t plan to write a trilogy. It just happened.
“The Second-Last Client” came out in Lightspeed in November 2019. How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
My short fiction only goes through a couple of drafts—rough draft, out to beta readers, then maybe one or two revisions beyond that. With novels I’m capable of going through more if I have time—Ninefox Gambit went through seven drafts.
My sustainable rate of writing is 2,000 words per work day, and I take weekends off. I’m much faster at revising. Usually my rough drafts are ugly because I’m more concerned with getting the ideas down than making everything pretty.
You’ve written or co-authored numerous novels, short stories, poems, and interactive games. Do you work on multiple projects at once, or do you work on one project at a time? How do you manage your time in order to create as much as you have?
I’m usually juggling a couple things at once. I’d rather be working on one project at a time, but I like money, and sometimes an opportunity is too intriguing to pass up. I use a planner to schedule my time—not hour by hour but by prioritizing what I need to get done every day.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I started submitting to science fiction and fantasy zines and anthologies in sixth grade. I didn’t make my first sale until I was eighteen: “The Hundredth Question” to Gordon Van Gelder at Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I’ve committed every writing sin possible. My philosophy is that you learn by doing, and I hate rules, so when people tell me not to write in the second person, my instinct is to do it to find out why.
My first sale was a second person POV story, so it’s possible I learned the wrong lesson.
One of your latest releases is Dragon Pearl, a middle grade novel you’ve described as a “fantasy space opera with Korean mythology sprinkled in.” What were some of the challenges unique in writing a middle grade novel?
You’re not allowed to use the F word three times per page (very disappointing), you can’t gorily kill people on-page, and I got told to make the vocabulary more accessible.
I normally write 4,000-word chapters—I work off chapter outlines and having a consistent chapter length means I can predict the length of the final product. However, I was told by my editor to write 3,000-word chapters for Dragon Pearl because they’d determined that was optimal for their audience. So I kept getting toward the end of a chapter and then rushing to cram the rest of the plot in because I wasn’t used to the rhythm of writing in 3,000-word chunks.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
I have been struggling with characterization my entire life. If you know of a cure, please tell me. I rely on a trusted cadre of beta readers to help me with that.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m wrapping up a fantasy novel for Solaris Books, Phoenix Extravagant. It’s loosely based on the Japanese occupation of Korea and involves magical pigments with sinister origins, a painter down on their luck, and a rogue mecha dragon. After that, I’ll be working on a sequel to Dragon Pearl.