Joshua S. Levy On Finding Voice & Plot Simultaneously

40915703Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Joshua S. Levy, author of Seventh Grade Vs. the Galaxy.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Broadly speaking, the origin point for the larger setting of this book—space—is just my own love of similarly set stories. I was raised by Star Wars and Star Trek (movies, TV, and so-very-many books). Firefly. Babylon 5. Battlestar Galactica. Doctor Who. I loved Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a kid. Dune, too. And I’m currently halfway through book 7 of The Expanse series.

What I most wanted to do in this book was translate the space setting into a middle grade novel intended first and foremost for kids. It’s one thing for a seventh grader to find and love Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the book (series, really) isn’t for them. Not directly, anyway.

I’m a lawyer now. But before law school, I was a middle school teacher. And at one point, I was standing in my classroom, and thought: What about this? Why can’t this—a typical school, with regular kids—be the heart of the story, even one set in space. And so Seventh Grade Vs. the Galaxy was born.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I immediately knew a few things: Seventh Grade Vs. the Galaxy would take place mostly onboard a “public school spaceship” (i.e., the “PSS 118”). The ship would have fusion engines and false-gravity generators, sure. But also classrooms and a gym and a cafeteria and a library. And the kids would have to be the ones to save the day.

Once that was set, the framework of the story became clear: The ship would be attacked by aliens. Find itself across the galaxy. And have to find its way home.

I’ll admit, I found the early worldbuilding a bit challenging. Why are kids going to school on old ships in space? Hopefully, Seventh Grade Vs. the Galaxy cracks that question open in a believable, not-too-convoluted way.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Oh, absolutely. Before I even knew the terms “pantser” and “plotter,” I instinctively understood that I was the former. I can try to plot. Outline. But I think that my best work happens when I let the story unfold as I write—then double back (and triple back and quadruple back) to smooth it over (and over and over).

Part of that, for me, is because—while I can outline/plan plot—I find it hard to outline/plan voice. Voice molds to the plot, certainly. But also sometimes, plot molds to the voice. (Or, at least, plot can facilitate moments that highlight the best of a character’s voice. And I don’t always know where those moments will live, until I find them.)

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Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Ah, story ideas. If books could write themselves, I could fill a library.

Maybe.

I’m constantly coming up with new stories in my head. Now if only I could find the time and mindspace to make them all (or even a fraction of them) happen…Time is absolutely my most acute limiting factor. Of course, whether—if time were no object—I could actually write all those half-stories in my head is another question entirely.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Great question, even though I don’t think I have all that satisfactory of an answer. Mostly, it’s practical: What do I have time right now to attend to? What does my agent think makes sense to focus on? It’s not very romantic, but hopefully it’s productive. We shall see. Seventh Grade Vs. the Galaxy is my first published book. Maybe ask me again a couple more books down the line?

*crosses all fingers and toes*

I have lots of cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

My most productive writing environment is alone, in a busy coffee shop. There’s something about the combination of solitude and crowds that I find strangely motivating.

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