Lee Denning is the pen name of not one author but two–Denning Powell and his daughter Lee, who apparently make an awesome science fiction writing team. In this interview Powell talks about how they went about writing the first novel in the series, Monkey Trap, as well as other aspects of writing and publishing. The sequel to Monkey Trap, Hiding Hand, is scheduled to be released by Twilight Times Books this August.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author? Do you have another job besides writing?
After 30 years of science and engineering and starting/running a consulting business, I decided to go back to my inner child. I Decided I needed a retirement job I could go to naked, so I picked writing. Not being totally wacky, I still do engineering work part-time to pay the bills. My daughter Leanne, poor dear, got sucked into the creative process and we write together, but she works full-time in the psych/marketing area.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Read everything from comic books to the Bible (well, a little). The earliest was Edgar Rice Burroughs, his Tarzan and Mars books, and Heinlein/Clark/Asimov was the next phase, I think.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
I conceived Monkey Trap in 1971 while I was in the Air Force, in a boring staff job at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon, and actually wrote about 100 pages longhand. Then I got an opportunity to go upcountry with an Army Special Forces unit and life got interesting and I later got busy building a career after the Air Force so I put the thing down for 30 years. In 2001 I dug those 100 pages out of the attic and read them. The writing was crap, and I threw it all out, but the ideas were good: humanity is on the cusp of an evolutionary development that could bring great good or great evil, and a test has to be run to decide whether to let the development progress or pull the plug (i.e., are the human monkeys smart enough to avoid their internal traps?).
How did you and your daughter go about writing the book? Did you take each a subsequent chapter?
Our approach wasn't particularly organized or specified to begin with, but has evolved as we progress…
I can do stream-of-consciousness for maybe five pages, after that it’s hopelessly inefficient — way too much total rework afterwards. Our novels are longish (180,000 words), and with two authors you have to be very structured, otherwise you run off into the weeds pretty quickly. So we structure, and draw diagrams (yeah, anal-retentive, but hell, I’m an engineer), and outline, and re-structure, and consider specifically the point of each chapter and each scene therein and how they feed into the story. It’s painful.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
About three years for Monkey Trap. In terms of time commitment over those three years? Between Leanne and myself we spent 242 hours structuring, 1305 hours writing, and 2466 hours editing/reworking. Yes… exactly… we now know what not to do. The second novel went more smoothly, and the third is going pretty smoothly too. It’s a learning curve…
Describe your working environment.
Small office, all resources at finger-tip reach. Few distractions except the cat demanding an occasional rub.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Totally disciplined as to good intent and sitting down to write. Once seated, though, I tend to fritter time away trying to actually start writing — I do a bunch of meaningless little chores to avoid plunging in. It’s like the water’s too cold and I have to dunk my tootsies multiple times. Anybody with a mental vaccine for that I’d love a shot of it…
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Never had the displeasure, or at least not long enough that I found it problematic. Lucky, I guess.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle with the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
Deepening characters by their actions or words (or sometimes lack thereof) rather than using exposition. That requires a fair amount of subtlety and usually multiple re-works.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
I dropped the manuscript for Monkey Trap (unagented) on the major sci-fi publishing houses. The general response was thanks, we put it in our slush pile, you may hear from us in a couple of years. So I pulled it back. My advice is to do what I did next — look over all the small houses, see if their niche matches your story, and send it to those (complying with what their submission process is, of course). If there’s no interest, consider the self-publishing route.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Wish I had a magic bullet for this one. The best approach is to write something really good and then try to get some word-of-mouth buzz going (along with the internet equivalent thereof).
What is(are) your favorite book/author(s)? Why?
Lately… Greg Iles for his varied innovative plots, Lee Childs for his protagonist development, Orson Scott Card for his original ideas.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Same as in life — just be persistent, keep plugging, try to get better.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yep, it's www.monkeytrap.us. It has the first chapter of Monkey Trap, a couple of PowerPoint synopses of the story, and a full-length screenplay (the story was designed from the ground up to be a movie). The first chapter of Hiding Hand also is on the website. No blog as yet, Lee and I currently are trying to figure out the most effective/efficient method.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Monkey Trap is the first of a trilogy about evolution of a new human species. Book 2 — Hiding Hand — is scheduled for publication in August 2008. Book 3 — Splintered Light — is in draft.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
There’s an incredible amount of good writing out there these days in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, much more than 20 or 30 years ago. So it’s a tougher market to break into… but on the other hand, the creative process has always been its own reward and one that’s worth pursuing.
When you read SF novels today, what are the plots/themes which seem to come up again and again?
Less emphasis on outer space and more on inner space — how the protagonist deals with the challenge, fails, grows, overcomes. Also, I think there’s much more of a (blurry) crossover between sci-fi and fantasy… you see it in mystical/spiritual themes that are either explicit to many stories or serve as their underpinnings.
What is the greatest challenge when writing science fiction?
Deepening characters is by far the toughest nut for me to crack. On the science side, it’s sometimes difficult to judge how much hard science detail to put into a story to get to that suspension-of-disbelief point where you’ve got the readers sucked in — too much tech set up and you lose certain readers, not enough and other readers will get irritated by the lack of plausibility. Lee and I go back and forth on that issue a fair amount.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!