Author Q&A: Delilah S. Dawson

Delilah S. Dawson is the New York Times-bestselling author of Star Wars: Phasma. She also writes the Blud series, the Hit series, Servants of the Storm, and a variety of short stories. Her comics bylines include Ladycastle, Adventure Time, The Jim Henson’s Labyrinth 2017 Special, Star Wars Adventures, Star Wars Forces of Destiny: Rose and Paige, and The X-Files Case Files: Florida Man. She also writes the award-winning Shadow series as Lila Bowen, starting with Wake of Vultures. Her next book, Kill the Farm Boy, was co-written with Kevin Hearne and is the first book in the Tales of Pell. Delilah lives in Tampa with her family and can be found online at whimsydark.com.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Delilah S. Dawson

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to write books. I thought authors were like nuns or surgeons, people who were born with a calling. I didn’t know what my calling was, so I pursued the visual arts since I enjoyed creating. I got an art degree and spent several years working in non-profit arts facilities and painting murals on the weekends.

When my second child was nine months old, he stopped sleeping, and so did I. I was getting maybe 3 hours of sleep a night, and… it wasn’t good. I started hallucinating. I asked my husband, a psychologist, if he could hear the rats talking in the walls, and he stepped right in, making sure I got enough sleep and was getting the self-care I needed. He also suggested I find a hobby, something I could do just for me—writing books. And the part of my brain that would’ve said no was pretty much broken. So I wrote my first book, and it was awful, but I realized that I could write an entire book and that I loved the process. I finally found my calling at 31 while covered in spit-up stains and hallucinating about talking mice.

I queried that book and shelved it after 57 rejections. I wrote the next book, and that one got an agent but didn’t sell. My third book sold at auction in a three-book series and became Wicked as They Come. Everything I know about publishing was learned at home on my couch with a sleeping baby in my lap. I don’t have an MFA, I didn’t know anyone in New York, and I didn’t go up there to rub elbows, either. I keep a list of the free resources I used to write that first book, revise it, polish it, and query it to help any new writers who might stumble on my website. (whimsydark.com)

You’ve published several books—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

First of all, I’m so grateful to my agent, Kate McKean, for shepherding me through those anxious early years. She’s been my agent since 2010, and she’s helped with everything from general publishing questions and anxiety to catching sneaky contract problems to doing the dirty work for me in regards to saying no or pushing back with editors. I’m very pro agent, provided you perform your due diligence and make sure you’re querying reputable agents with a solid reputation in the industry. As we all know, no agent is better than a bad agent, or shmagent, as they call it.

My experience in traditional publishing has been amazing. I knew from the start that I wanted to write in a variety of genres, so I only queried agents who represented a wide range of work. I started with my 3-book/4-novella Blud series, which sold as Romance, then did some YA with the Hit series and Servants of the Storm, then got into Fantasy with Wake of Vultures and recently made the jump into IP with Star Wars and comics, both creator-owned and IP. I’ve been very fortunate to have great editors and have made some of the best friends of my life at comic-cons and writing conferences. Sure, I’ve had rough patches—mostly when a publisher’s marketing didn’t match what I was promised during acquisition or the few times a book didn’t hit with my agent or get bought by editors—but for the most part, I’ve met many of my career goals.

I’m experiencing a shift now, actually, in that I’m being offered more work than I can take on. Writing Phasma for Star Wars added an extra book into an already full schedule, and it took a toll on my mood and my family life. So now I’m trying to pull back on events and projects that don’t make my heart sing. I’ve been running on 6th gear for a while, and it’s time to cruise and enjoy writing again.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

Each of my books came from a strange and random story seed, something that scratched at the door until I had to write it. Wicked as They Come came from a dream while bingeing Buffy. Hit came from the Apple TOS on my old iPod. Servants of the Storm came from a photoset of Six Flags NOLA after Katrina. Wake of Vultures came from watching Lonesome Dove, an old favorite, and chafing at the lack of positive roles for women. I never know where an idea will come from, but the seed sticks and is influenced by where I am in my life at the moment, the songs and images and places in my mind.

My process has been the same all along and includes a loose outline with tons of room for organic development. I build a playlist and condition myself to be in that book, in that world when I hear those songs. I write a fast, sloppy first draft, a thoughtful second draft, and then, after a few weeks of trying to forget the book completely, an incisive and unrelentingly cruel third draft. These days, I send that one on to my agent or editor, but in the early years, I’d often go through up to twelve drafts before I would show my work to another professional.

I’ve realized that most of my works have a theme of women breaking free from old roles or lives that didn’t suit them and forging their own paths, often with violence and/or sex thrown in. My next book, Kill the Farm Boy, was written with my best buddy Kevin Hearne because we were both exhausted by deep, serious work and by the current political situation. We wrote a lighthearted, trope-flipping Fantasy, and it was so restorative. I’ve got to shake things up or I get bored writing on the same theme.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

That depends on what I’m writing! For Kill the Farm Boy, I wanted to channel Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett with a dash of The Princess Bride. With Phasma, I wanted the violence and oppressive framing of Matthew Woodring Stover. For Wicked as They Come and the Blud series, I wanted to write something as compelling as the works of Meljean Brook, Charlaine Harris, or Gail Carriger. But if we’re talking about books that influenced me overall, my biggest influences would be Watership Down, Clan of the Cave Bear, Outlander, The Mists of Avalon, Stephen King, and Tom Robbins. I don’t know if I’d be a writer if I hadn’t read King’s On Writing. It was a complete game changer.

You’ve written a couple Star Wars novels, such as Phasma—how is being chosen to write for that series different from writing your own stories?

IP is different because you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox—you’re not the god of that world. I try to take on only the projects in a world that I already love, as it’s stressful and challenging to try to learn and absorb an entire fandom that you’re not already immersed in. I’ve turned down that sort of work in the hopes that it would fall to someone who truly loves it and will do it justice.

My first IP project was a Shadowman novella for Amazon’s first volley of Kindle Worlds shorts, so that’s how I cut my teeth. I learned early on that IP work involves a stringent outlining process, the ability to do good work quickly, a thick skin for criticism and suggestions, and the ability to be pleasant when plans change. In addition to Star Wars, I’ve also written for Hellboy, Adventure Time, Labyrinth, The X-Files, and (soon!) Rick and Morty, and it’s been a huge honor and, honestly, a major source of joy. There’s no better feeling as a writer than getting to contribute to a property that means a lot to you. But, that being said, I find I still need to keep time for my personal projects in which I get to make all the rules and write something entirely new.

You are also published under the name Lila Bowen and I was wondering how that came about. Are there any difficulties publishing under two different names?

Writing in so many genres and knowing the odds stacked against a traditionally published writer, I just assumed from the start that I would eventually write under other names. Before Wake of Vultures, all of my books were with different imprints of Simon & Schuster, so when Hachette’s Orbit imprint bought Wake, they wanted to give me the benefit of a debut while starting my own sort of brand under their umbrella. I went with Lila because if you call it, I’ll respond, and Bowen because it’s an old family name. It hasn’t caused me problems, but it was understood from the start that it would be an open secret so that I could use both names to publicize all my work. I also have two erotica shorts written under a third name, but that one’s much more secret!

Having published comics as well as novels, what would you say the main difference is, with writing especially, between the two forms?

Oh, they’re entirely different beasts. You have to think about storytelling differently—400 pages vs. a certain number of issues of 22 pages each. I find that I need to be more planful with my comics, outlining the series or arc overall and then each issue individually. My comic editors work with me closely as we develop the outline together, whereas my book editors are happy with a one-paragraph outline telling them the book’s scope. I can write a comic book in a couple of days, but books, of course, take three months or more. Comics are almost my sorbet—the tasty treats I get in between the giant books.

With books, I wrote and edited several at home before taking my work out to the world, which means I was learning and failing and leveling up on my own. But with comics, I had to learn how to pitch, outline, format, and write overnight. I sought help from friends and ended up learning a ton from Jim Zub, who gives all kinds of advice for the comics industry on his website. I also read oodles of scripts by Kelly Sue DeConnick to absorb the new language and format of a comic manuscript. I feel so fortunate that my first comic editors, Chris Rosa and Sierra Hahn at BOOM! Studios, were very generous with helping me find my feet. Let’s just say I wanted to put waaaay too many words on the page in those first few issues.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

That’s a tough one! I would say that developing a good reputation in the industry and being friendly and open has helped me the most. I do my work on time, I’m not a diva, I don’t pitch fits, and I don’t badmouth people. I want anyone who works with me to be glad they did, and I want to produce work that makes us all look good. I feel so fortunate to have made friends with many of my editors and to get to work on so many cool projects across so many genres and forms. I’ve won a few awards and I hit list, but I can’t control that. I can only control how I act and what I create.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

I try to give advice all the time, mostly on Twitter. I’m a big believer in paying it forward because there are so many weird things about publishing that no one tells you or that everyone assumes you know. I tend to do tweetstreams on publishing topics and then link to them on the For Writers page of my website so folks can find them.

It’s hard to narrow down guidance to one thing, but I feel like self-care is an area that authors tend to neglect. We’re just not great at that work-life balance—maybe because it takes so much obsession and focus to squirt out a book. Whether self-care for you means eating healthy food, being in nature, leaning on friends, getting of the internet, and taking your meds or it’s being kind to yourself when a project doesn’t sell or something rough happens, you’ve got to take care of your body, mind, and soul if you’re going to produce great art.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

My goal right now is to slow down. I’ve been burning so hard for the past couple of years that I’ve kind of forgotten how to rest or relax. I want to choose projects and events carefully and build in time to think. I want to keep writing interesting projects from novels to comics to short stories. I want to write more for Star Wars, of course, but the hard part about IP is that you don’t go to them; they have to come to you. I want to focus on kindness and lifting others up when so much of the online world right now feels aggressive and hurtful. I’ve been working on an Epic Fantasy book for a few years now, and it keeps getting set aside for more pressing deadlines, so I want to tighten it up and send it out into the world.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t control publishing. It’s like an ocean that’s always shifting, and all I can do is toss out my best net and hope for the best.

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