Fonda Lee: Five Things I Learned Writing Exo

It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.

When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son.  Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another galactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one . . .

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HOW TO FAIL AT NANOWRIMO

Exo started out as a flaming car wreck of a NaNoWriMo project. At the time, my agent was shopping around my first book, Zeroboxer, and I knew the best thing to do was distract myself with a new project so that I wouldn’t fall prey to the disease of refreshing my email like it was going out of style. “A lot of people swear by this NaNoWriMo thing,” I said to myself. “I ought to give it a try.” I’d written novel manuscripts before. I knew I could stick to a writing schedule. The idea sounded fabulously appealing: Sit down on November 1st and just let the words flow from my fingers! Get 50K of that first draft done in a month! Win a virtual medal! Piece of cake.

This is how it went: I wrote 35,000 words by November 20th or so, and stalled out. It wasn’t working. At all. I read the manuscript from the beginning and hated all of it with the nauseous loathing that writers feel when looking at their own disgusting word messes. I had a shiny story idea in my head but it was emerging as dog vomit. So I quit. I failed NaNoWriMo hard.

I trashed everything I’d written and started again. I wrote a new draft over several months, and then rewrote 50% of that one. And did it again. After the book sold, I did another major revision with my editor. I was relieved and excited by how it was getter better and better, but part of me was also surprised and disheartened. I mean, Zeroboxer was picking up accolades and awards, and whoa, I got to go to the Nebula Awards as a finalist and dance on stage, so why the hell was it so hard to write another book?! This whole writing thing ought to be easier now, right?

Wrong. In talking (griping, whining, crying) to wiser authors, I learned there was wide agreement that the second book is often a complete bitch to write. A very loud voice in your head is telling you that because you’re now a Published Author, you should be writing better and faster, plus doing author promotion stuff with an effortless grin. But the truth is that every book is different. The second, third, or fifteenth book is not easier. Just different.

“Winning” at something like NaNoWriMo is meaningless. My 35,000 garbage words eventually turned into a published novel I’m very happy with. I have to wonder how many far better 50,000 NaNo projects sit out there languishing, unrevised, unpursued. NaNo is means to an end, not an end in itself.

Elizabeth Bear said something like this to me: “It will seem like it’s getting harder and you’re taking longer, but that’s because you’re getting better. If it’s getting easier, you’re not challenging yourself.” In the end, I’m even more proud of Exo than I am of Zeroboxer because while my debut proved that I could write, this book proved that I could be a professional writer.

EVERY STORY YOU WRITE IS PERSONAL IN SOME WAY (AND SOMETIMES YOU DON’T KNOW IT)

When we started working together on Exo, my editor told me that she loved how the story was an allegory for the experience of first generation children in America. “What?” I did not say that out loud, but that was my initial reaction. “It is?!” Mental pause. “Huh. How about that.”

My editor pointed out that my main character, Donovan, and his fellow exos, are considered too alien by unaltered humans, yet still nothing but human to the aliens. Exo was already personal to me because it’s about a broken family, and as a child of divorced parents, I knew I was bringing some of my own worldview and experiences to the page. I had no idea, honestly, that as a second-generation Asian American I was also infusing elements of mixed identity into the narrative. Which goes to show that sometimes we writers can turn out to be all smart and subtextual without even trying, just by letting more of ourselves filter into the work.

IT’S FUCKING HARD TO WRITE WITHOUT PROFANITY

Exo is published by Scholastic Press, of Harry Potter and Hunger Games fame. One of Scholastic’s enormous strengths is its distribution reach into schools. Didn’t we all love getting those colorful flyers in class? In order to ensure my book got a showing in the Book Fairs and Clubs market, my editor asked me to remove the abundant amount of profanity in my novel.

“But my characters are soldiers and terrorists,” I protested.

“I’m sure there are terrorists in the world today who don’t cuss.”

“But these are American terrorists! They would cuss all the time. Teenagers in the military aren’t going to be like, ‘Aw, gosh darn it!’ Come on, tell me what I can get away with here. Like, can I have one ‘fuck’ and three ‘shits’? Two ‘shits’ and a couple ‘goddamns?’

“No, none of that. I don’t think your book even needs the cursing. Besides, it’s set in the future so make up your own swear words if you want.”

“There is no way I am pulling a Battlestar Galactica and using ‘fraking!’ I won’t do it! This is untenable! I can’t write without profanity!” (Dramatic teeth gnashing.)

(Sigh.) “Look, the school market can give you a shit ton of sales, but if you want to cling to your precious swear words for the sake of artistic integrity, it’s your fucking career funeral.”

Okay, I made up that last bit. My editor is a lovely person and didn’t say that, but you get the idea. I took out the profanity. Unless you have a really good reason, you do what your publisher tells you will help them market and sell your book. I ended up thinking of it as a professional writing challenge: how do I stay true to the tone of the novel without full and unfettered use of colorful vocabulary? Writing under constraints can be instructive and it’s what professional writers often have to do. And more kids reading my books? Well, gosh darn, I’ll fraking take it.

LIQUID ARMOR IS A THING AND IT’S REALLY COOL

In the world of Exo, certain people have adopted alien biotechnology that gives them an organic body armor that they can manipulate at will. To get an idea of how something like this might plausibly work, I did a bunch of research into current and future body armor. Naturally, military forces are investigating ways to make armor far more lightweight and flexible. Kevlar on steroids, basically. The idea of liquid body armor is based on the concept of shear thickening fluids: non-Newtonian fluids that can harden in milliseconds and act like solids when force is applied to them. Yes, much like that weird goop of cornstarch and water that you might have been introduced to in a science class. Permeating fabric with shear thickening fluid makes for something that is light and flexible like a piece of ordinary clothing but is bulletproof.

Another advanced body armor possibility is spider silk, which is one of nature’s toughest substances. Scientists have already speculated in a science fiction-y way that the protein in spider silk could conceivably be placed in human skin to create, you guessed it, armored humans.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THE GOOD VS. EVIL THING

People like their good vs. evil stories. Especially in young adult novels. I worried that writing something like Exo would go against the popular grain. I wanted to tell an alien invasion story that was different from the typical aliens-conquer-earth plotline. I wanted to get past the arrival, invasion, and war part of the narrative and explore the idea of a world post-colonization, one in which humans have both benefited and suffered from the new world order. I wanted it be filled with moral ambiguity and have no “good” or “bad” sides. We’ve seen plenty of plucky, brave, YA rebels who want to overthrow the system, but how about the story of someone who is in the system, who benefits from it and defends it despite all its flaws, yet is still heroic and tries to do the right thing? Could I make the reader root for someone who enforces alien rule over Earth? Could I write a story that would make teenage readers ponder difficult issues while entertaining them with scads of sci-fi action? I think and hope I succeeded, but regardless of how the book is received, I’m glad I followed through on that vision.

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Fonda Lee is the award-winning author of young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), which was an Andre Norton finalist, and Exo (Scholastic), a 2017 Junior Library Guild Selection. She is a recovering corporate strategist, a black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado. She loves a good Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Calgary, Fonda now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.

Fonda Lee: Website | Twitter

Exo: Excerpt | Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powells

8 comments

  • Preach —>

    “In talking (griping, whining, crying) to wiser authors, I learned there was wide agreement that the second book is often a complete bitch to write. A very loud voice in your head is telling you that because you’re now a Published Author, you should be writing better and faster, plus doing author promotion stuff with an effortless grin. But the truth is that every book is different. The second, third, or fifteenth book is not easier. Just different.”

  • This is awesome. I love the new take on a post-colonized world. I too, am so over the alien invasion thing. It’s been done to death. Can’t wait to read Exo.
    Thanks for being brutally honest about the 2nd book thing. I’ve just started my 2nd and I stupidly thought it would be easier. The same way I thought my 2nd kid would be easier. I should have known better :)

  • One thing I particularly remember enjoying about the early Pern books, which came along while I was young enough to read them, a few of them even in school: the afternote listing “Pernese Oaths.”

    I’ve not actually shouted “By the shards of my dragon’s egg!” for a long time, but it does have a certain satisfying ring.

  • I’ve been on both sides of the NaNoWriMo debacle. I’ve used it to write manuscripts that will never again see the light of day, and I’ve used it to write first drafts that became second, third, fourth, fifth, … etc. drafts, until they were finally published. It’s all in how you view it, I guess.

    And I’m glad to see you flipped the alien invasion thing on its head! Can’t wait to read Exo.

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