Jake: So we are here with Dan Levinson. Dan’s a student here at Jacob Krueger Studio. You just had a very big thing happen so tell us a little bit about that.
Dan: So I was just signed to a three-book contract with indie publishing house, Jolly Fish Press. They’re a very new house. They’re full of young, hungry people and I’m really excited to be working with them.
Jake: And this is your first contract.
Dan: Yes, this is my first sale, first contract of any kind, so it’s amazing; it’s a brand new experience for me.
Jake: So tell me a little bit about the book that you sold?
Dan: The book is Psionic Earth—that is the name of both the first book and the series as a whole. It takes place in a modern world, not unlike our own, where, unbeknownst to the general population, certain people have started to develop this ability to manipulate reality and energy with the power of the minds. They call these powers “psionic” powers. Now two countries, big super powers like America, are recruiting these people and using them in a secret war, or really like a Cold War, vying for dominance in the global sphere.
Jake: So there’s a kind of allegorical side to it as well.
Dan: Absolutely, and both of these countries, in a way, are kind of America, but not exactly. I hope it’s relevant.
Jake: Do you know what the whole series of books will be? Or do you just start with one book and hopefully figure out some good ideas from there?”
Dan: Believe it or not, I actually have a very clear picture of the entire series and what each installment entails. And, you know, something that I think actually has worked really well for me, that I learned at Jacob Krueger Studio, is this idea of focusing on the first and last image. So even when the middle is not entirely filled in, I always have a last image that I’m writing toward, and I know the first and last image of each installment. So that really sets up a good framework for me and helps me have a really clear picture of where I need to go with each book.
Jake: You started in our screenwriting classes, so that’s where this “first and last image” concept came from. Now you’re working with Linda Roberts who does our one-on-one coaching for novelists. How did you translate screenwriting information into novel information, or have your novels changed your screenplays or vice versa?
Dan: You know, it’s really funny, actually: I’ve found that it translates really well, because so much of what I’ve learned really is universal in terms of story and in terms of character, and the “first and last image” can very easily be applied to a book. Writing from the perspective of character, letting everything emerge from character—all things that I learned and really focused on during the screenwriting. So I would say, actually, so many of the principles are universal; they resonate no matter what medium within the writing you’re pursuing. So I was able to take a lot of what I learned and apply it to writing a novel, and found myself doing that very very easily.
Jake: So, a lot of my students have projects that they would like to sell. And you did this on your own, right?
Dan: I did.
Dan: No, although I did want to note that I did make sure to hire an entertainment lawyer to help me negotiate the contract, which I was really glad that I did, because he helped me get a lot of stuff that I wanted in the contract.
Jake: So how did you do it? How did you break through that impossible wall that everybody talks about?
Dan: You know, I have to say a lot of it was hard work, meeting with Linda, and spending a lot of time revising it after I completed the first draft. It wasn’t until probably three months after I finished that initial draft that I even started sending it out to agents and such. And you’re never going to know exactly what people are looking for. You’re never going to know exactly how people are going to respond to something until they start to respond to it.
I did the query blast. I assembled the list of more than 50 agents and I sent out query letters to all of them, with supplementary material, what they asked for, sample pages, synopsis, that sort of thing. And as responses started to come in, some agents gave me a very standard form rejection letter and others actually had a few things to say. So I listened very closely to the kinds of responses that I was getting, and I made sure to start to tweak different things that I had gotten certain responses about, that I had gotten some criticism about. So, as I continued to look for more avenues to pursue with it, the material that I was sending to them was continuing to improve.
Eventually, when I got around to it, I happened to find this indie publishing house, Jolly Fish, accepting unsolicited submissions, and by the time I actually got around to querying them, I had already done several iterations of my query letter, I had tweaked the prologue and the opening chapters a number of times to really make sure that it was tight and it was popping. And listened to some of the commentary that I got, about where “things were a little slow” or “it didn’t quite land,” to make sure that everything really grabbed you right from the beginning.
So, it’s a process. I was in acting when I was in college and something that I’ve always heard, whether being an actor or being a writer, is that you throw everything at the wall and you see what sticks, and if the material is good enough, if it resonates with people. If it hits people, eventually it’ll find its way. And you just have to keep going, keep persevering. I got one thing that hit and I got lucky. But, I also worked hard and I made sure that I made myself available to the opportunities that were out there. And I got a lot of rejection letters too.
Jake: One of the things that I hear you saying is that it’s so easy to take rejection letters as a personal rejection or as a sign that you should give up, or that you’re not good enough, instead of recognizing this idea that rejection letters are a part of the business, and that you can take from the best rejection letters and decide what are the notes that are actually going to make your book better.
How do you know which rejection letters you should look for opportunity in, which rejection letters you should take seriously, and which ones you should totally ignore?
Dan: Well, usually the rejection letters that hurt a little bit, that sting a little bit, that make you feel a little self conscious, and maybe make you a little upset. “I can’t believe this person said this to me! They’re not right, they can’t be right!” Usually because those are the ones that hit home so much, that on a subconscious level, you know that they’re probably true.
So the ones that don’t hit you in any way, that you read them and it’s just like, “Ah, I really have no idea what this person is talking about.” And they don’t even make you upset, it just seems totally off base: those you can probably dismiss out of hand.
But if it’s the kind that gets you, and it makes you feel like a little hurt, then it hits home. It means that it probably resonated with you on some level, and you have to reexamine that. Those are for sure the toughest ones to try and process, to try and accept because writers, myself included, I think often have very fragile egos, and it’s not easy facing rejection. When something hits home like that, listen.
Jake: How do you know when you’re done? How did you know when it was time to take your novel out, and how did you know when it was not time yet—when it was time to hold on?
Dan: Well, I would say I listened to my gut. I gave it a few months after it was done. And I guess that’s kind of a two part question, because just in the first draft I knew—like I said, I had that last image so I had a particular moment that I was working toward. And so with the first draft I knew it was done when I got to that moment, which is very rewarding. It’s a wonderful experience when you have something that you’re writing toward, an image or a scene, and you get there and it’s just, “Ah, that’s a great feeling.”
Some people say you’ve got to let it sit for a little while after you finish. I didn’t follow that advice. I think you have to find what works for you, and in this case, because I still had a passion for it and an energy for it, I just was very gung-ho and kept going with it.
The first draft clocked in about 145,000 words and right now I’ve continued throughout the entire process of querying, and even now, the manuscript is due on October 31, and I’m taking these last few weeks to do one last tightening pass at it. I’ve gotten it down now to about 125,000 words, and that’s without removing virtually anything. That I did all through just trimming, cutting, tightening it up, and making sure that everything pops as much as it can. That’s so important.
I knew that a lot of the work that I was going to have to do before I sent it anywhere was going to come from that, was going to come from cutting out all this extraneous stuff: the same kind of stuff that’s present in a screenplay. You know, all this extra dialogue, extra description, and, “Is this scene really necessary? Can we get rid of this?” You want to make sure that everything is really flowing nicely, and that every single scene or line is important and has purpose. So when I felt that I had gotten it to that place, that was when I started to send it out.
Jake: You know, it is really related to screenwriting too, this idea that editing is often about compression. Sometimes we start to think that editing is about perfection, but it’s really about compression and making sure that everything you have is doing everything it can do, and making sure that anything that is not doing something is either changed or gone.
What was your experience like working with Linda Roberts in our personal training for novelists program? You were working with her biweekly on this project?
Dan: Biweekly—twice a month.
Jake: And what was that experience like. What did you get from it, and how does it work?
Dan: I have to say that the most fun and best thing about it for me was that in a way it was almost like writing therapy. I had an opportunity with Linda to talk through story problems and to say, “Is this working? Is that working? I’m thinking about going in this direction…” and having a neutral, objective party to bounce things off of was really amazing.
I mean, everybody has their own personal readers—their family, their friends—but they can’t provide you with an objective opinion. And to have somebody who’s really coming at it from a literary perspective, from a perspective of having been in the industry for a long time and knowing what they’re talking about, really having a love for stories, was amazingly helpful and also very encouraging, because Linda is so great, and such a great encouragement. So that really let me know that the work that I was doing was good and that was very important for my confidence.
And then aside from that, doing all the editing with Linda was integral when I was finally sending out the manuscript and making sure that I had this really clean, really well edited manuscript that people are looking at and saying, “Wow, this is really nice.” There are no typos, nothing to distract from it. In terms of presentation, that is very important, and it makes your work seem a lot more saleable, because someone who’s going to represent you or publish this work is not going to have to invest the time, and ultimately the money, that it takes to fix a manuscript.
Jake: I’m always interested in process. So tell me a little bit about what your writing process is like. How does it work? When do you write? How do you write?
Dan: Let’s start with the easy one: “when do I write?” I write at different times. I don’t keep regular hours, and some people need to keep regular hours, so that’s just me. But actually, I write long hand. I love the moleskin notebooks. I just feel like, for me, my creativity flows better when I’m using a pen.
Also, I set a manageable goal—another really important thing that I learned from the screenwriting courses—which for me is five pages a day. And, generally, I try to leave off writing each day having a thread that I could just sort of pull on, that I can pick up on the next day. I already have the next page, or the next two pages already written in my mind when I leave off writing, so that the next day I can sort of pick that up and generate some momentum.
Another important thing that I learned from the screenwriting courses is not being afraid to write lousy pages. I make sure that I just write pages, and when I’m feeling blocked, when I don’t know what to do, I just try and take it one beat at a time: “What’s the next thing that happens, and what’s the very next thing that happens?” And eventually, something will start to move there. There will start to be a little bit of a ball rolling, and that’ll carry me through until I’ve gotten to my goal for the day. You can’t always expect to be on a roll. Just keep putting words on the page.
Jake: Talk about keeping words on the page. What’s next for you? What is your next project?
Dan: Well, I’m working on a young adult fantasy novel, which is almost finished, the first draft of it. It’s a much much shorter book because it’s young adult. Once that’s done, the primary focus is, of course, going to be editing Psionic Earth. That’s priority number one. I’m going to go through three edits with the publisher, but then in my other time I will be editing that manuscript. My deadline for the second book of the Psionic Earth series is due a year from Halloween. I’ve already got close to 200 pages of the second book written, and I’m going to have about a year to finish the whole thing. I wrote the first book, the first draft of it, in about eight months, so I think I can do it.
Jake: So when is Psionic Earth due to hit the presses?
Dan: Right now, it’s set for Spring 2014. So little bit of a ways away. But you know what, it’s going to go by really quickly I think.
Jake: Well, congratulations Dan, we’re incredibly proud of you, and good luck with all the future writing.
Dan: Thank you very much.
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