The Penmen Profile: Writer Colin Dodds Releases New Sci-Fi Novel

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Colin Dodds just added a sixth novel to his list of published works. This November, he brought two people with dark secrets together in “Ms. Never,” a sci-fi story that tackles a number of life’s mysteries.

Dodds is a poet, novelist and film director and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. His work has appeared in more than 320 publications, including The Penmen Review in 2014 with his poem, “Banish and Abandon the Algebra of Blame.”

In this interview, Dodds shares his inspiration for “Ms. Never,” as well as his road to publication and the challenges he faces as a writer.

Convince someone to read “Ms. Never” in 50 words or less.

  • What do we give away when we click “I AGREE” to the terms of service in our phones?
  • Why are the billionaires squirreling away all that money?
  • And why is everyone so depressed?

These are just a few mysteries that Ms. Never takes on (and possibly solves) in startling fashion.

Where did your inspiration to write “Ms. Never” come from?The book jacket of Colin Dodd's new novel, "Ms. Never."
The inspiration for “Ms. Never” started in a sports bar one Sunday afternoon, years ago. More broadly, it started with a sense of frustration that the world was mindlessly repeating a few tired forms over and over and calling it the future. As a character, Farya is an attempt to answer what it would be like to stand against that sensation of mindless repetition, and against reality itself.

Another aspect of that frustration is a creeping sensation that I’ve lent my own efforts to all the most disagreeable developments in the world. That’s where Bryan comes in – as someone who capitalizes on people’s blind spots to harness not just their money, but ultimately their immortal souls to something truly monstrous. And unlike most people, he knows exactly how his life’s work damages his fellow human beings. We see the corrosive effect this has on him, but how hard it is for him to change direction.

What’s your process in developing your poetry?
The writing of “Spokes of an Uneven Wheel,” from first word to final draft, took two and a half years. With poems, my process has been to write here and there for a year or two, and then collect everything – notebooks, paper scraps, letters, emails and notes tapped into a phone. Once it’s all typed up in one place, I print it and start sorting with a pen: Connecting, circling, crossing out the disparate pieces. I put the lines, fragments and notions into families according to theme, mood, sensibility, setting.

Then I break up those families and form new ones until I find units that feel almost like harmonious wholes. These families bicker internally and war with one another. Similar families exchange lines until they even out, or until one eats the other.

Throughout the process, I try to edit in different places, at different times – in the morning, at night, at home, on the train, in a park, at work, at a bar, sober, drunk, excited, angry, exhausted. Looking closely at the lines and the poems in different circumstances is a good way to test the material.

The winners – and sometimes the most remarkably abject losers – become poems. There are a few golden children born perfect and unchanged through the tumult, but there’s nothing to learn from them.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Time is a challenge. I work a full-time job. I have a family. When I was younger, I remember setting aside chunks of time to write – as big as five to six hours a day.

Now, it’s a matter of setting aside chunks as small as 20 minutes and going crazy when that 20 minutes shows up. But it’s also a matter of maintaining obsession – keeping a project in mind and testing it against every spare moment and every little experience so that I know what I’m doing when I can sit down and really work.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Funny you should ask, because just last night (August 6), I parted ways with my agent – the fifth one I’ve worked with in my career. It was amicable and unsurprising, but it was nonetheless a disappointment.

I mailed out my first submission almost exactly 25 years ago – a poem addressed to the moon that I sent to The New Yorkerduring the summer before my junior year of high school. It was rejected. The spring before I finished my senior year of high school, I buttonholed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco to see if he’d read the manuscript I mailed him. That didn’t work out either.

Since then, I’ve seen some successes. My shorter works have found homes in more than 320 publications. My self-published novels have received recognition, strong reviews and have even made me a little money.

My relationship with Main Street Rag goes back to 2003 when they published a pair of my poems. They published another one in 2015. Then, I submitted a book in late August of 2017, which Scott Douglass (the editor and driving force behind the press) accepted two months later.

How do you market your work?
Not very effectively, based on the pre-sales of “Spokes of an Uneven Wheel.” But selling poetry is no picnic. Overall, I’ve had some success with different tactics. I’ve done Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns. I’ve done email campaigns with MailChimp, Green Inbox and other providers. I’ve even shoved a few dollars into social media. I’ve done Goodreads giveaways and BookBub giveaways. I’ve given readings and thrown launch parties. I’ve printed t-shirts, posters and stickers.

There have been times when my heart has been in it. I’ve felt excited about the project I’m marketing and a strong sense of duty to get the word out. But it’s not my favorite thing. It’s exhausting, and the result has never been wholly satisfying.

Some of the marketing gambits I’ve tried have worked better than others, but they all require some investment of time and effort. And if you try to rush it, people can tell. And they’ll judge your literary efforts based on the thoughtfulness and production values of your collateral material. So, there’s a risk.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I’d learned how to type properly. I still do it all with two index fingers and the occasional thumb.

Who are the poets that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
There are a lot of things I don’t love about doing the laundry list. So, I’ll keep it to the generalities. I like the poets who surprise me. I like the ones who aren’t afraid to sound simple or even stupid. I don’t like the gold-star students, the crowd-pleasers, and I don’t like the tattletales.

It’s not just the brave ones that I like and it’s not just the clever ones. It’s the wild, reckless ones who know the cops are on the prowl and know how to rip and run and get away with it.

Inspiration can be small. It can be simple permission to use a voice, a grammatical device or a tactic. But it can also take some of the huge unspoken truths of our lives, drag them onto the table and raise the stakes of the moment, or of some unguarded aspect of our lives.

To find out more about Dodds, visit his website.