Interview with Fonda Lee

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT- Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Fonda Lee. Fonda writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. ZEROBOXER (from Flux/Llewellyn) is her debut novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, an avid martial artist, a fan of smart action movies, and an Eggs Benedict enthusiast.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

An unrepentant Planner. I tried Pantsing once. It was ugly. 

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

It takes me a couple of months in the beginning just to research, outline, and walk around lost in thought. The first draft takes 3-4 months. Revision takes another 2-3. Then it’s off to beta readers. More revision. Off to my agent. More revision. So 10-12 months from concept planning until submission. 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I always have one primary project, but due to the publishing process I often need to multitask. For example, I’ll be in the middle of a first draft and an email arrives and I’ll need to switch to doing edits on another manuscript for a week. 

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I had a successful career in corporate strategy going before I made it my life goal to be a novelist. Truth be told, writing had always been my life goal, but I didn’t act on it seriously until I was in my thirties. By then I wondered if it was too late for me, and if I was being foolish, dialing back on a normal, respectable, well-paying job to chase my dream. 

My fear these days is whether I can make it in the long run, writing and publishing enough good books on a consistent basis to achieve some measure of career success. 

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

One. I spent a year writing a novel that I loved but that didn’t go anywhere. 

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I did. I had an outline written up and was all ready to go. I got about 10,000 words in and suddenly thought, “I don’t want to do this.” It just wasn’t a book I felt a burning passion to write. I set it aside. Several months later I came back to it, took another look, and thought, “I still don’t want to write the book, but this would make a great short story.” I wrote it as a short story and ended up loving it. 

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

I got my agent through a cold query. However, it certainly helped speed things up when I got three competing offers out of a conference I went to. I’m represented by Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. 

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I’d been querying my previous manuscript for eight months with no success. When I started querying ZEROBOXER, everything happened very fast thanks to a conference I went to (the Willamette Writers Conference) where I pitched to agents in person. A month later, I was agented. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Don’t be surprised if your first book doesn’t land you an agent. Keep querying, but more importantly, keep writing. When you get a rejection, send out another query, shut down your email, and get back to work on the next book. I wrote ZEROBOXER during those many months of query hell when I was riddled with anxiety about ever getting an agent, much less being published. 

How much input do you have on cover art?

My editor and I brainstormed closely early on. He gave me his initial ideas, and I gave him mine, and we sent photos and other book covers back and forth as we brainstormed. After we’d figured out the general gist of what we wanted, he took it to Flux’s internal launch meeting. A few months later, my editor emailed me the cover the designer had created and the Flux team had chosen. It was so awesome I just about fell out of my chair. 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

How hard copyedits are. Really. By the time you reach the copyediting stage, you’ve read your book a dozen times at least and the words have completely lost all meaning. You’re like, “Is this even good? Is it crap? I honestly can’t tell.” 

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I think all authors these days do a lot of their own marketing. I have a website of course and I’m on Twitter. Occasionally I’m on Facebook and Tumblr. I don’t blog. I only have a certain number of words in me each day, and I’m not going to waste them on blogging when there are books to write.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

If you’re doing anything before you get an agent, it should be developing your network of fellow writers. They will be your greatest source of knowledge and support going forward. Incidentally, some of them will also like your work and spread the word when the time comes. But I would spend very little time worrying about your platform when you have no books. Your books are your platform.