Daniel Schwabauer is an award-winning author, speaker, and teacher. He is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel, Cover Story, Byline creative writing curricula, and the author of the young adult novels in The Legends of Tira-Nor series. His professional work also includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for animated TV.
His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. He graduated with honors from Kansas University’s Masters program in Creative Writing in 1995 under the guidance of science fiction writer James Gunn.
By Emily Steadman. Lightly edited for clarity.
Daniel Schwabauer was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions regarding the novel as we draw nearer to the much-anticipated release date!
What inspired you to write Operation Grendel?
When I was creating Byline, my curriculum for high school essay writing, I did a lot of research into 19th century journalism. I noticed a correlation between the yellow journalism of the end of the 19th century and what I think I see happening in journalism today. That fascinated me, so I started researching propaganda and how it works and noticing the correlation between journalism and propaganda. Almost every major propogandist in history started out as a journalist. I think it’s because the inverted pyramid structure of journalism fits really well with propaganda. If you master that structure, you can master propaganda really well.
I was also researching fairytales for a period of time while I was writing this story, and I didn’t realize until I wrote the epilogue for Enclave this May – a year and a half after I finished the rough draft – that what I was really doing was pulling from themes in Hansel and Gretel. It’s not like you’ll read it and then go, “Oh, that’s Hansel and Gretel,” but if you really study the original Hansel and Gretel, you’ll see some of the same themes in it.
Anyway, that’s a long answer to it – probably just studying journalism and propaganda and loving science fiction and reading a lot of military sci-fi is the simple answer.
Does one of the characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
That’s hard to answer. I really like these characters. I think probably the reporter (Raymin) holds the dearest place in my heart in a weird way, because I want him to come across as sympathetic even though he’s not necessarily sympathetic all the way through the novel. He wants the story and everything else is less important than the story. He’s got all these flaws and he’s compromised, and there’s a part of me that thinks that there’s kind of a noble calling to what he’s doing. Even though the book isn’t really nice to reporters. [Laughs.] Hopefully that flavor kind of gets turned on its head a little bit as the story resolves; there’s some more good vibes towards journalists there. I don’t want to make anybody out to be black and white – that’s not in the story at all; there are a lot of shades of grey.
What would you say the hardest part about writing Operation Grendel was?
For me the hard part was coming to terms with its weaknesses.
My first drafts were all basically plot-based. They were based on this idea that I had as I was outlining and writing the plot twist. And I loved the plot twist so much that I lost sight of who the characters were. So I had to set it aside and think about it and pick it up again a year after I initially finished it and start it over.
I rewrote every chapter and I added four more chapters – about twenty-five thousand words – to the story. And those words were all an exploration of the major characters. No book is perfect; certainly, no book I write will ever be perfect. But that fixed the main thing that was bugging me about it. Letting myself see it as flawed, and that I didn’t really know the characters or who they were or why they were doing stuff – that was hard, making myself confront that reality. Once I did that, it was easy to write. Those twenty-five thousand words were the hardest to get to, but they were easiest part of the story to write once I admitted I didn’t know my own characters.
What was a highlight of writing Operation Grendel?
Probably the main highlight was when I got to a certain point and realized that the plot that I’d outlined was not as good as the idea I had when I was about two-thirds of the way done with the rough draft. I had another idea, and it was so interesting to me that it made the rest of the book fun. I don’t feel like I was “inventing” the story as much as I was digging for something, and I thought I was digging a well and instead found a gold mine. But I can’t say what it is, or it’ll ruin the book. [Laughs.]
This is your first military science fiction novel – what challenges did you face when writing this genre?
The first one was just the general insecurity of “will people buy this military atmosphere that I’m setting up?” That’s partly why I wanted to write it from the perspective of a journalist. So that was the first thing; realizing that I’ve never been in the military and I don’t know if people will buy this. And then trying to figure out what details I can put in that are military-specific that I can make real to people who are in the military—that I can get past them without them saying “This author has never been in the military.” I don’t know if I succeeded or not; I think I’ll find out after it’s published.
There was a lot of research that was fun. There’s a couple of jodies in the book – a jody is like a marching song. I had fun exploring what jodies might be like in a futuristic setting in this world – because the atmosphere of AIs and everything is going to change some things, but not everything. Being a soldier is still going to be the same in many ways.
Could you describe a typical writing day?
I don’t usually have the personal ability or schedule opening to write for a whole day. Usually I write at certain times of the year; when I have more “free time,” so to speak, to do that. I will try to spend anywhere from two to five hours – generally it’s closer to three and a half or four – trying to produce one thing. So it might take me two or three days to write a novel chapter. Sometimes I can do it in one day. Then other things that are part of writing such as revision or marketing stuff – as a writer, those are part of your job, but I don’t consider them “writing.” I probably do that five to six months out of the year, and then everything else is wedged in here and there – I’ll get a few days to do a chapter or something. I can’t just write year-round because of workshops, business, and sales season.
If you had the opportunity to speak with Raymin Dahl, what would you say?
Now I just have J. K. Rowling’s answer to that question in my head: “I’d tell him I’m sorry for everything I put him through.” * I don’t know… the simple answer is probably “You’re wrong.”
* Quoting what J. K. Rowling replied to a similar question in a live TV interview Daniel watched years ago.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Read more and write more, slacker! [Laughs] Not “believe in yourself,” but “it’s going to pay off.” I would be farther along if I had done more earlier, if I had studied a little bit more. I look at my shelves and I go “Well, I’ve read a lot. But I could have three times as many shelves full of things that I’ve studied.” I could have gone to more conferences; I could have done more. I don’t live with any kind of guilt over that, it’s just if I could’ve given myself advice, it would be that.
Keep up with Daniel and his various projects by following his Instagram: @daniel.schwabauer