Delilah S. Dawson: Making the magic happen

An interview with the best-selling, genre-hopping author.

Delilah S. Dawson
Delilah S. Dawson. Photo by Allan Amato

She’s authored hit novels such as Phasma, Kill the Farm Boy, and the Blud series. She’s written comics for series like Rick and Morty, Star Wars, Adventure Time, and The X-Files. She’s a hilarious guest blogger at Chuck Wendig’s TERRIBLEMINDS website. And she’s got a social media presence that’s the envy of most writers.

Perhaps more important for our purposes, Delilah S. Dawson is the sharer of useful writing advice, which I witnessed firsthand when she recently came to Ringling College of Art and Design to work with our creative writing students. Here are some of the best insights that she had to offer.

I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so let’s start there. You’ve written “The Perfect Weapon” (a short story), various Star Wars comics, and the New York Times best-selling novel Phasma. How did you first get involved with the Star Wars franchise?

It started when my buddy Chuck Wendig got to write a Star Wars book, and I was like, “Oh, I can do that!”

Here’s what Chuck did. He tweeted that he wanted to write a Star Wars book, and within a year, he’d written one. I then tweeted that I wanted to write a Star Wars book, too, but I knew that wasn’t enough, so I asked my agent to send my books to a Del Rey [the imprint that publishes Star Wars books] editor she knew. I asked Chuck and other writer friends who’d written for them to put in a good word with their editors, too.

It helped that I had a solid career under me for about five years, building a reputation of being easy to work with, fast, getting things done on time, and not being a diva.

Plus, my whole life is Star Wars. Always has been Star Wars. So it felt like it wasn’t something I had to change about my online or real-world personality.

All of those factors went into it, as well as the fact that Jen Huddle was the editor who originally bought my first books when she was at Simon & Schuster, so she knew me and liked my writing from years before.

And I guess there was magic, too, of some sort. Perhaps the Force?

Thanks to Phasma, you’re a New York Times best-selling novelist. Describe the moment from 2017 where you learned the great news.

My agent called and said, “Did you see it?”

Me: “Nope.”

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Her: “Number 10.”

Me: “Of what?”

That was a weird time. We’d just moved into a new house and had a lot of stuff going on. I didn’t enjoy that moment as I should have, which is a shame because it’s something I’d wanted for a long while.

To counter that, I had many moments with Phasma that were amazing. The moment I got the email saying I could write the book, I remember making this high-pitched noise where my husband thought I was having a seizure. Getting to fly out to SF to see the Yoda statue in front of the Lucasfilm building. Getting to sit in front of a crowd of 1,000 people and have [Lucasfilm Publishing creative director] Michael Siglain ask me what I was working on, and I put on a Phasma mask as the crowd freaked out.

To answer your question, though, the actual moment was anticlimactic. My life didn’t change.

But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

What are some of the key differences between working on an existing property like Star Wars versus creating your own story from scratch?

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They’re two completely different skill sets. When I work on my own writing – especially first books in a new series – I’m on my own timeline. I can write anything I want. I can sell it to anyone I want.

When you write for Star Wars, you have to know the world intimately and be able to work fast. You have to be able to take well-known, well-loved characters and speak in their voices in a way that the reader and editors will find believable.

And the time constraints are crazy. I usually take three months to finish a first draft, and with Star Wars, you don’t get that long. Chuck only got 30 days to write Aftermath. I had six weeks for Phasma and 10 days for The Perfect Weapon. You have to be able to hammer a full draft out super fast. And then when you get the first big edit letter telling you how many things are wrong with it, you can’t let yourself dissolve into tears, and instead go, “OK, I can fix this.”

It’s definitely more grueling and demanding to work for a big franchise. And you have an audience for every single step of it versus first drafts that are kind of born at home in your pajamas.

Whether aspiring writers are working at home in their pajamas or not, many continue to struggle. Why?

Fear. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of criticism. I know people who have 300-page world bibles with family trees and maps and drawings, and they can’t take the next step to take that into a story. It’s more that they want to play house or play school, where you pretend to be the teacher. You want to make the world. You want to be a god.

Actually telling stories is far different than worldbuilding. I have a lot of students who start their book at the wrong moment, and the first two or three chapters are basically them telling the reader “I’m a god, and this is here and this is here and this is here!” instead of saying “Here’s the story that started in this moment about this one person.” They’re telling you about 600 years of the elf wars.

In today’s world especially, your reader has such a short attention span. Unless you’re a very established writer or you’re a complete master of the genre, you want to avoid prologues and avoid “John lived a very normal day for an elf,” and then tell me every single thing about an elf’s day and everything that’s ever happened to his family. Just tell me about John right this moment.

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You’ve got to start your first chapter with a scene that shows character through action and dialogue. Immediately.

Not getting there fast enough is an issue. Not knowing you should cut the first two or three chapters to get to the part where they say, “Oh, it’s really good in the third chapter.”

Great. Start in the third chapter.

What about books like The Hobbit or other classics that seem to defy the advice you just gave?

If your competing titles are further out than five or 10 years, you’re doing yourself a disservice. A book written before the internet is going to have a vastly different pace because your reader had a very different attention span. God help you if it’s a book written before television! You can’t be like, “I’m going to write the next Moby Dick.” Sorry, nobody liked it then! So don’t do that.

Another thing that I hear a lot is “I’m not changing my writing to suit the business.” Well, the business isn’t going to change to suit you. You have to make a choice there.

Still, some people say, “You say I can’t use prologues, but Brandon Sanderson…” Yeah, but Brandon Sanderson can write an 800-page book with a prologue because people will buy it. Nobody’s lining up to buy yours. Nobody’s lining up to buy mine!

You’ve got to get them fast and hold them by the neck, as opposed to slowly leading them along on a leash.

Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson
Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

Students sometimes ask me about using a pseudonym or not. You write as both “Delilah S. Dawson” and “Lila Bowen.” Why do you do it?

When I started out, I was writing under my name. I added the S because there’s a Delilah Dawson – a nice lady and a great writer – who writes romance fiction for St. Martin’s, so I added my middle initial to differentiate myself.

Then I wrote Wake of Vultures, and we sold that to Orbit. Publishers can be very snippy with each other sometimes. They didn’t want to contribute to marketing a name that was being built by S&S, so they asked if I wanted a pseudonym.

I always assumed I’d have to have one since I write so many different things, so I already had one picked out. Dick Manly. I wanted to show up with a hat, a big beard, and a cocker spaniel, and be like, “I’m going to read my serious book now.” They didn’t go for that.

So I simply do it for marketing purposes. It’s an open secret, though. You can see it on my Instagram, my Twitter, and my website.

How do you stay so productive?

The problem is more the opposite – I don’t know how to chill out. I’m not good at NOT doing work. About the only place I don’t do work is at the beach, or if I’m at Disney World or Busch Gardens or something. Otherwise, I’m pretty much always working, and my mind is always chewing on a story.

When I look back on it, it’s always been that way. It just used to be anxiety for the stories I told myself – this is much better. My mind needs to chew on something constantly like a rat, so at least now I have my stories to do that with versus, “Oh god, did I leave the oven on?”

What’s your creative process like? Is it different when you’re working on comics than other projects?

Comics have made it super interesting because they don’t work like books at all. When I’m working on a book, I try not to do anything else that’s creative when I’m first drafting, so I try to only work on one first draft at a time. If I do have to interrupt it, I’m never going to stop on a cliffhanger. I’m going to get to a place of rest.

First drafting is a very different kind of energy. When I’m first drafting, I don’t sleep as much. I forget to eat. I live in pajamas. I don’t pay attention to anything going on outside the book. First drafting is a state of mind.

But then editing is work. It’s time on task.

First drafting is mania, and editing is more like depression. It’s more like a thing I have to slog through. I don’t enjoy it as much, but I understand the necessity of it. With a book, you have so many edits – you usually have a developmental edit, a copy edit, a line edit, and first-pass pages. By the time a book gets published, I’ve looked through it like 20 times, and I’m done with it.

Now, a 22-page comic takes me two days to write. But then there are layers when they come back. There might be revisions from editors or smaller edits. Or I’ll see the early pencils for the comic, and I’ll have to comment on those, or I’ll see the lettering, and I’ll have to comment. With anything that small, I immediately get it off my plate, otherwise I forget things in my email. I dash them off as fast as I can.

Another thing that I hear a lot is “I’m not changing my writing to suit the business.” Well, the business isn’t going to change to suit you. You have to make a choice there.

How do you keep track of it all?

I have a to-do list that lives by my computer. I write down the things I have to do, and then I “X” them off as they happen. If they don’t happen, I move them to the next day. Then I have a big calendar with all the dates on it, and so far, the system seems to work pretty well.

What’s the best compliment someone could give you about your writing?

Gushing about it to a friend.

Spreading the word helps so much because the hardest part of being an author is discoverability. Publishers put a lot of the marketing on authors, but we all know that social media does not sell books. The only thing that sells books is your friend that you know and trust who says, “Oh my god, you have to read this.” That’s the biggest compliment.

Any writing resolutions for 2019?

I tweeted “10 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers” in late December. Here are two that garnered a lot of retweets:

#3 I resolve to ignore the dreamkillers in my life. If someone makes you feel like you don’t deserve to reach your goals or like writing is a cute little hobby, you don’t owe them your time. You deserve to have passions. You don’t need permission to make art.

#6 I resolve to find my people. Y’all, if I hadn’t used Twitter to connect with other writers and follow agents and editors, I would not have this career. You cannot write alone. You need pals, inspirations, and mentors. Look at who your heroes follow here.

 

Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Visit him at ryangvancleave.com & onlypicturebooks.com.