Interview: Guest Lecturer David Brin

David Brin will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. David is a scientist, inventor, and New York Times bestselling author. With books translated into 25 languages, he has won multiple Hugo, Nebula, and other awards. A film directed by Kevin Costner was based on David’s novel The Postman. David’s science-fictional Uplift Saga explores genetic engineering of higher animals, like dolphins, to speak. His near-future novels Earth and Existence explore possible consequences of onrushing technologies on people’s lives. As a scientist/futurist, David is seen frequently on television shows such as The ArchiTechs, Universe, and Life After People (most popular show ever on the History Channel)—with many appearances on PBS, BBC, and NPR. An inventor with many patents, he is in-demand to speak about future trends, keynoting for IBM, Google, Procter & Gamble, SAP, Microsoft, Qualcomm, the Mauldin Group, and Casey Research, all the way to think tanks, Homeland Security, and the CIA. With degrees from Caltech and the University of California-San Diego, Dr. Brin serves on advisory panels ranging from astronomy, NASA innovative concepts, nanotech, and SETI to national defense and technological ethics. His nonfiction book The Transparent Society explores the dangers of secrecy and loss of privacy in our modern world. It garnered the prestigious Freedom of Speech Prize from the American Library Association. His next nonfiction work (May 2021) is Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood.


You’ll be a guest at Odyssey this year, participating in a Q&A and providing critiques. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Humans reflexively dislike and avoid the one thing that can help them to get better at anything—criticism. Workshopping helps you get it. In person is good. Even community college “writing classes” at least provide a captive audience of readers to say “I didn’t get that” or “I had to read that passage three times.” I offer more advice at http://www.davidbrin.com/advice.htm.


You’ve written a number of stories in the Uplift universe, which is a science fiction series about biological uplift. How much planning for the series did you do ahead of time? Do you tend to be more of an outliner, or do you tend to write by the seat of your pants?

I’ve written two novels from strict outline and that went very well. Why do I do it so seldom, then? Starting a novel is hard for me because I don’t know the characters yet and I haven’t yet had multiple “aha!” moments when I discover what the story is really about. I end books really, really well. For more on the great idea of uplift, which could be done very badly and likely has already begun, see http://www.davidbrin.com/uplift.html.


For your Uplift series, how did you go about your worldbuilding? Did you do most of it prior to writing your first draft, or did you do some as you went along?

The Uplift universe evolved, incorporating bits of insights from science or from talking to experts in dolphin or simian psychology, along the way.


You have been publishing novels since the early 1980s. What advice do you have for writers looking to achieve a long career?

Mix it up!  Don’t do or write just one thing. It will help you stay fresh and creative. On the other hand, what do I know? Look at King and Rowling and all that. Clearly you make more money if you play the same tune, over and over again.


In addition to being an author, you are an adviser on future social, political, and scientific trends. As someone so steeped in science and ideas of the future, when it comes to writing novels or short stories, do you often come up with the idea first and then the characters, or do you think of characters first and then figure out the problems they should have?

I view all the science and social observations—and especially human history, the greatest and saddest story of all—as fertilized soil, waiting for the seed—interesting characters—to grow into and take off. All that the reader gets is the flower. And yes, half of writing success comes from learning which weeds to pull!


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?

I took my time developing craft through workshops, so that when my first manuscript went to the first publisher, they rushed to take it. Most other authors I know learned by drafting then submitting stories and persevering through rejection. There are many paths and I’ll talk more about that at the Odyssey workshop this summer.


What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

The last four months were the busiest in my professional life, completing TWELVE book projects all with January 30 deadlines.  See the image below for my sci-fi comedy, my fourth nonfiction book Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction & Hollywood (about how SF and film have influenced each other and society)two series for young adults (calling new authors!), and revised/updated re-issues of The Postman, The Practice Effect, and five Uplift novels, all with new introductions and covers. 

I have two Uplift novels in the future queue: one continuing the story of Planet Jijo and its nine united races, and the one folks have asked for, getting those poor folks off Kithrup! But these will take a while. I hope for more news in my coming newsletter.

Good luck all, and we’ll talk soon at Odyssey about the one and only TRU form of magic! 😉

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