Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean-American writer of science fiction and science fantasy. YHL has a B.A. in math (maths to those of us in Australia) from Cornell University and an M.A. in math (yes, maths) education from Stanford University. Yoon loves to explore mathematics for story ideas. His fiction has appeared in several revered sci-fi & fantasy (SFF) publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, and his stories have been chosen several times for “The Year’s Best…” anthologies.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to review Yoon’s fabulous book, Hexarchate Stories, an instalment in his much-loved Machineries of Empire series. I introduced my review with this sentence:
Prepare to be amazed and captivated by this collection of science fiction delights…
Imagine my pleasure when Yoon agreed to be interviewed for the Last Word of the Week!
Welcome, Yoon, and thank you for speaking with me today. You’ve been widely published and have quite a name in SFF circles. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
YOON: There is a lot of writing advice out there. Realize that every writer is different, and that advice that works for one person may not work for another. There’s often no harm in trying something to see if it works for you, but if the advice doesn’t work, there’s likely nothing wrong with you. It’s intended for a different kind of writer, that’s all. Take what works and discard what doesn’t.
That’s very reassuring. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
First I make tea. Then I sit down to write, except my tortoiseshell cat, Cloud, jumps up and blocks the keyboard. I pet her until she decides that she’s had enough worship and wanders off. Only then do I get started. Really, worshipping a cat is one of the most pleasant ways to brainstorm anyway. She interrupts me at intervals for more petting, which is a great way for me to take typing breaks!
I think I need another blog series called ‘authors and their feline muses’! How much research is involved in your writing?
It depends on the story! In a sense I’m constantly researching, because I keep an eye out for ideas and interesting facts as I read or browse the internet or listen to conversations. Some stories are mostly invention, so they don’t require me to research anything specific. On the other hand, my forthcoming novel Phoenix Extravagant is set in a fantasy version of Korea during the Japanese occupation, and its protagonist is a painter, so I spent six months reading everything I could get my hands on about Korean archaeology and art history. Spoiler: it’s hard to find much on those topics in English; I am indebted to my mom for helping me find books!
Ah, a secret research assistant. Excellent! How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
First, I go to my husband and whine at him, usually with the words, “Joe, my novel is brokedy.” Then I make him take me to a cafe, where I explain why my story isn’t working (and probably the other patrons are giving us weird looks because we’re talking about nanomachines or undead generals or whatever). He brainstorms with me and comes up with a solution. I ask him to type it up and email it to me. I read the email. Then I ignore his suggestions and do something completely different. Strange as this method sounds, it works!
I must try it! I can’t get my husband to read my books until they arrive in paperback form. How you get feedback about your story before it’s published?
I have a trusted group of friends whom I ask to beta read for me. There’s usually a few people willing to volunteer at any given point in time. Some of them are writers, some of them aren’t. Every beta reader has different strengths and weaknesses, so I try to get a few different viewpoints. For example, my husband is a physicist, so he’s great at finding logic holes. Character arcs, not so much.
Good plan. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Right now I’m working on a science fantasy short story for the Silk & Steel anthology. I’m a novice fencer attending the Red Stick School of Fencing in Baton Rouge, so there will be dueling! My duelist character is going to be much more competent than I am–what else is wish-fulfillment for?
I’m currently under contract for a sequel to my kids’ Korean mythology space opera, Dragon Pearl, so I’m excited to be working on that after the short story’s done. I love space opera so it’s going to be fun returning to that genre. That’s due in October. And after that, who knows?
That’s quite a program! And you’re the third SFF author I’ve met who also fences… What’s your favourite genre to read?
I have two right now–nonfiction and tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). The world is full of weird and fascinating facts; my shelves have books on linguistics, military history, music theory, and other delights. As for the RPGs, I’m a gamer with an interest in game design, so I love looking both at older settings like TSR’s Planescape (a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) as well as indie RPGs like Monsterhearts 2 or Tiny Frontiers.
Are you planning to write any graphic novels?
I’d love to give it a go; I’ve experimented with one- and three-panel gag strips in the past. My current project, sort of in the nature of a warm-up, is a 22-page comic adaptation of my short story “The Battle of Candle Arc,” originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/lee_10_12/). I have a script, thumbnails, and color test, so the next step will be to do the pencils. Trying to make a story work in a visual format is extremely interesting. I’m personally looking forward to drawing exploding starships because, please, don’t we all?
What would be a dream come true for you?
This is a very long shot, but I would be thrilled if someone made an animated TV adaptation of Ninefox Gambit or even all of Machineries of Empire. I suspect that doing it as live-action would be cost-prohibitive because of all the “magical” special effects and space battles, but maybe animation would ameliorate that? It’s nice to dream, anyway!
A wonderful dream – I’d love to see that! Thank you so much for the chat. You’re an inspiration.
Phoenix Extravagant (preorder):
One thought on “‘First, I make tea’: the craft of writing with Yoon Ha Lee”
This is wonderful. Some great writing advice as well, and I love the word “brokedey” and the notion of getting advice and then doing something different. Works for me. Sometimes advice simply helps to jar you into coming up with a solution even if you end up discarding the advice. I will have to check out Yoon Ha Lee’s work.