Jul 27th, 2020
Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!
This week we were lucky enough to sit down with Michael R. Underwood, author the upcoming novel "Annihilation Aria" from Parvus Press. Full disclosure: Kaelyn was Mike's editor on the book and so we got have an extra in-depth and behind the scenes discussion about the craft of writing and how characters, plots, and worlds can change and adapt as the story is written. Mike was a fountain of information and knowledge and we both left the conversation with some amazing insight into the process behind creating a book with such rich world building and dynamic characters. We had a great time talking with Mike and hope that you enjoy the conversation as much as we did.
We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
We Make Books is a podcast for writers and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and if you've read Annihilation Aria, let us know what you think!
You can (and should) check out Mike on social media at:
Annhiliation Aria is available everywhere awesome books are sold on July 21, 2020!
We hope you enjoy We Make Books!
Episode 39: Annihilation Aria with Michael R. Underwood
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
R: Welcome back to We Make Books, a podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between! I’m Rekka, I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.
K: And I’m Kaelyn Considine, I’m the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.
R: And today, we have to make another full disclosure-confession. We have another Parvus author on today. You recently heard us talk to Scott Warren of the Union Earth Privateers book—book series, I should say. And today we have another author of another amazing Parvus book, Michael R. Underwood of Annihilation Aria fame, or about to be fame. I hope it’s fame because this book deserves it.
K: Yeah, Annihilation Aria’s coming out a week from when this will be released, so this is July 14th, coming out July 21st. It’s a fantastic book, space opera. When I first got the manuscript and was kind of giving a it a rundown to my publisher and the other people on my team, I described it as the gender-swapped Mummy in space.
R: Yeah. With magic. Well, I guess The Mummy does have magic, too.
K: Yeah, yeah but with giant space turtles, and therefore better.
R: Yeah, yes.
K: So Mike was kind enough to take the time and sit and talk with us about the evolution of story writing and character development. This book had been something that he was working on for years. It, well, the core parts of it didn’t change too much. The book certainly underwent a lot of evolution over the years. And MIke is so smart, so talented, has a lot of really great insight and advice to offer when it comes to, you know, being about to take a look back at your own work and figuring out how it needs to change in order to serve the story. So, we had a great time talking with Mike. Hopefully you have a great time listening to him, and you should, you still have time right now to pre-order Annihilation Aria, book one of The Space Operas. Absolutely check it out. Not only because I’m the one that edited it, but because it is an excellent book.
R: I totally agree. I got the chance to read it when I was recovering in the hospital and it was a delight. It was absolutely everything that Kaelyn and Mike promised it would be.
K: So, anyway, take a listen and we hope you enjoy!
[intro music plays]
R: Of course we just used up all our small talk, we don’t recall any of it. So, I guess we’re gonna have to go straight into it.
K: Dive right into talking to Mike Underwood today!
M: Hi! I’m sorry! This is the thing about being on a podcast that I’ve listened to. I have to actively keep my brain dial on the Talk to These People mode, instead of the Listen to These People mode.
R: I mean we can just talk about you, but it seems a little rude considering you’re in the recording with us.
K: Especially because none of us are in the same space right now. Usually Rekka and I are at least sitting across from each other.
R: I have the blanket that Kaelyn usually has today.
K: Ahh, my blanket! I miss that blanket. It sheds all over me, but it’s worth it.
R: Yeah, well, stuff has to shed in my shed…
K, disappointed: Oh, Rekka.
R, unashamed: It works with the name, but it’s also because it makes me feel less lonely for my pets that are in the house because we don’t want them shedding in the shed.
K: Alright, I’m derailing this conversation now. This just goes down a road of puns that there’s no recovery from, and then we have to start over again and it’s just… it’s gonna be a thing. So, Mike, do you wanna save us here and introduce yourself?
[K and R laugh]
M: Sure. I’m Mike Underwood, I write as Michael R. Underwood. I mostly do action adventure meta-genre kinds of stuff. I like found families, I like trope-twisting, and my next book is Annihilation Aria which is coming out with Parvus Press, so I’ve had the fortune of getting to work with both of you in a professional capacity and I’m very excited to talk about the book with your audience.
K: We’re really excited to have you on here, because this book has a long and storied history. This was not a, simply, Wrote Something, Submitted It, Got It Accepted and Published. There was, even before it came to Parvus, before I started working on it, you were, what? three-ish years into this book at that point?
M: Yeah, so. This book basically starts in the movie theater as I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy.
M: And like really enjoying a lot of what it did with tone and, kind of, bold visual style with all of the high technicolor space opera bits, plus some retro nostalgia aspects. And so that informed a conversation I had with an editor, who I shall let remain nameless, that I was talking with at a world fantasy convention. In that conversation, I mentioned that I really would love to write something that would make people feel the same type of joy and smile-so-much-your-cheeks-hurt kind of vibe, that I got while watching so much of Guardians of the Galaxy. And it’s not a perfect film because there are very few perfect films, but I loved that mode of space opera that it had. Where it’s a bit more irreverent, it still has some of the found family vibes that you see in something like Firefly or Killyjoys. But it’s on the more adventure-y, epicfantasy but-make-it-space and pewpew versus space opera that’s a lot more, that leans more towards hard science like something like The Expanse. I’ve always been more of a Dune- and Star Wars-end of space opera kid versus that kind of overlap between space opera and military SF or the [radio voice] This Is What Thing Will Be Like Seven Hundred Years In the Future When We Have An Alcubierre Drive or whatever. That’s not my thing.
[K and R laugh]
M: And so what I brought to it was, you know, a lifetime of loving Star Wars, but also various roleplaying games and wanting to find in a project, a place to say what I was interested in and investigate the things I loved about space opera. So I took a play from Annie Balay, who has talked about making up a wishlist of tropes that she loves about urban fantasy, and she put those into a series. So I just kind of sketched out fun, weird things. Like, “What if giant spaceturtles?” and space magic bullshit and—
M: And finding a way to just kitchen sink a novel, in terms of things that I liked. And it kind of started to build up momentum there. But because I wrote it as a back-burner project over years and years and years, where it started and what it has become now, there’s a big gap there and there’s a lot to unpack from what the characters were really about to how the world feels to, then, into the editorial process with Kaelyn kind of repeatedly inviting me to unpack things or slow down and give a deeper view into characters.
K: It’s very generous of you to use the word “invited you to”.
R: Yeah, I was gonna say. I know Kaelyn, that’s a very interesting verb choice.
K, laughing: “Mike, I’d like to hear more about this.” “Oh, okay, here’s a sentence.” “No, Mike, I know where you live, Mike!”
That was something that I, just for clarification I’m the editor of Parvus that worked with Mike on this in case that hasn’t become apparent. One of the things that really drew me to this book and that I was wanting Mike to slow down and unpack was the characters. For all the setting and the fantastical elements of this, the characters are such a huge driving force, I think, for the story. I would absolutely read anything that is just set in this universe. As long as the characters are as engaging, compelling, and fun as the ones that you’re written in Annihilation Aria. But you had kind of a few things that you wanted to accomplish with the characters, as well.
M: Yeah, so. I’ve been in the same relationship since 2010, I’m happily married. My wife and I get along very well, and in science fiction, fantasy, adventure fiction especially there’s just not a lot of instances of happily committed couples. Let alone happily committed married couples. And I think there’s a lot of cultural reasons that go into this, that are probably several podcasts-worth of their own and would be best had in conversation with capital R, Romance writers.
But the short version was that I wanted to write the kind of story that really argues that Happily Ever After can also be really exciting. So that was one of the nexuses around which the story was built. Like, okay, well what if I do this but I have a couple that’s already together and happy at the beginning of the book. And not that they don’t face challenges and one at the start of their relationship was: these people who both have a quest that they’re trying to fulfill, if either of them gets what they want, theoretically the couple breaks up.
M: But that, when they meet, they’re like, “Oh, you can help me with my thing and I’ll help you with your thing,” except that along the way they fell in love. They’re still on this trajectory that theoretically means—that could mean the dissolution of the relationship, but they don’t really have anything else as a way of being in the world, because they can’t just be together and be happy. They have their own drives and they exist in a pretty oppressive system that requires that they have a lot of money because they both have exterior debts and things like that. The same kind of Firefly vibe.
So that tension between their attraction to each other and their individual quests that might pull them apart was one of the big engines that made the story move. So that when they run into this ancient kingdom, techno, biotech tomb that they run into early in the story, that gets a McGuffin in their hands that then becomes a big deal. And they’re each engaging with it and the things around them because they have these, sometimes competing, usually overlapping, drives that are motivating them.
And that, almost like a perpetual motion machine of character interaction, was really fascinating and I wanted to keep on working with, while trying to balance, respecting the fiction. There really is this chance that things could fall apart for them, while knowing that I wanted them to not break-up because that was part of the whole thing.
R: One thing that was notable for me, as I was reading the book, was that at no point do they not want the other one to succeed. They are so supportive of each other that even though it means that it would break them up, they exist on different planes. Yes, this fact is over here that if I got what I wanted, I would be across the galaxy from this other person.
But at the same time, same plane, they also really want the other person to be happy and to succeed at their personal character arc quest and it’s really, like you said, it builds tension but it’s just really nice to see people who support each other and, even though there’s this big divide between what’s best for their relationship versus what’s best for the individual.
K: Yeah, and along those lines—and this maybe might be a transition into talking about some of the more mechanical aspects of writing this—is that these two characters are Max and Lahra and they are two of the main POV characters, but when you started writing this, they were the only POV characters, correct?
M: I think there were a very small number of POV chapters for Wheel, who is the pilot of the two main characters, and then Arek, who is kind of their primary antagonist. So he’s an agent of this galactic empire that controls the space that they live in. I had a little bit from each of them as counterpoint or context, but it was still very much Max and Lahra’s story and the other ones were just there to give a little bit of context and color.
And only over years of doing other projects and writing and growing as a creator, did I make the moves to promote Wheel and Arek as POV characters and to treat them with more depth and groundedness, as I engaged with them. Especially into the revision process, I saw and was convinced that there was more for the novel to do and it could be richer for digging more into the emotional lives of all four of those POV characters.
R: And you really did. Especially with Arek. He’s not the prototypical space-fiction villain. He’s got a lot of complexity to him. He is still definitely a villain, but he’s the least worst villain personality? And they’re definitely—again, you’ve given each character a drive and something that they’re aiming for which might be at odds with what the organizations that they work with are aiming for. So, how did you make those decisions, as you’re developing? Especially a villain character, but also Wheel.
It’s really interesting that Wheel might have had a very tiny part just in the sense that Wheel is the owner of the ship that everyone lives on, I assume, and maybe Wheel has to help rescue at some point. Or Wheel has to support with something Wheel can witness that the other characters can’t, or something like that. I mean, I have obviously done the same thing with POVs where somebody was there because it was convenient to have another POV and then that person had to become a fully-rounded character of their own. But when you built Arek, you didn’t have to go that far. You still could have sold this book without going as far with Arek as you did. But, so why—how did you start to see Arek and how much sympathy do you, personally, have for him?
K: Well, and I’ll jump into just to add that you gave all of these characters a life outside of this story. Every single person, if they were not taking part in this story happening to them, would be doing something else. And we, the reader, are in a position where we can kind of see or imagine what they’re doing because even though you don’t have to spend a lot of time on it, but it gives us a very good sense of them.
M: Yeah, I think a lot of how I approach characterization and writing is probably informed by growing up playing table-top roleplaying games. So, table-top roleplaying was one of the main ways that I learned to tell stories and to think about what I wanted from stories. Alongside reading and watching TV and movies and reading comics and things like that. So in a lot of roleplaying, you have the characters as they are and then you’re engaging with a game master who says, “Here’s a plot!” and then you engage with the plot. And that’s one style of game mastering, and more recent roleplaying games, a lot of them are more player-driven in terms of character agenda and shared narrative authority and things like that. And the Apocalypse World tradition from that game by Vincent and Meguey Baker and all the games that come from it.
So I brought kind of one version of acting experience to writing. In terms of: okay, here’s a character and they are my character and I wanna be able to inhabit them at least a little bit to get a sense of who they are, so that when I, then, also as the writer, can throw things at them. I’m able to jump between those registers in terms of inhabiting a character and kind of providing the antagonism or the context and/or all the other stuff that goes around a character. I think it was because I was familiar with that style—so much of what my writing comes out of is that if I’m gonna be in the POV of a character, it’s hard to not spend some time with them and to linger with them and to think about their agency and their—what they want from the world.
And as much as I grew up loving Star Wars and Darth Vader, and Darth Vader is a great antagonist but he’s not a great character in a rounded fashion because he’s so much of a cypher. He is the iron fist that punches at the protagonists. You get into the prequels and you see some of the backstory and—but that’s not what I grew up with. I was sixteen or so when Episode I came out and we really start to get that backstory for him. I think I moved toward this point where, at least some of the time, I want villains or, at least the personification of villainy or the person that the team is engaging with, to feel enough like a person that they are not just a moustache-twirling for. Because I’ve written more straight-up moustache-twirling villains in other books. Like in Shield and Crocus, which is very superhero-y, the villains kind of run the gamut. Some of them are just like, “I Am Really Terrible! HAHA! Oppression!”
[K laughs quietly]
M: In Arek, I think he started out as more of Lieutenant Bad Guy and he probably grew that roundedness when I thought about like, “Why is he the one who’s out here in the Boondocks?”
M: Who is the person within this species-supremacist empire that ends up on this bad duty? And, okay, I know that, from what I know about militaries and governments, okay you get a crap duty because you piss somebody off or because you’re out of favor. Well what is it like to be out of favor in this species of supersoldier, galactic tyrants? Why would that be a thing? So I started thinking a little bit about class and caste within a species. Or is it that he has some relationship to the dominant ideology of the species? So he ended up as being more humane than most of the members of his civilization.
Because of that, he was marginalized within this very domineering, fascist civilization. It’s a little bit of getting to talk about the way that oppressive civilizations oppress even the people that have power or that not everybody is equal, even within an oligarchy. Because the lines of oppression and pressures are not all along one axis. Everything is very multiaxial in terms of where people occupy more privileged or less privileged positions or are taking actions that put them more or less in line with a dominant paradigm.
Thinking about worldbuilding in that fashion is also really important to me. So when I take a character and put them through that bouncy castle of all these different things of worldbuilding, they tend to accrete a bit more personhood.
K: So, piggybacking off of that, and we kind of touched on this a little bit before, was that you wrote this over a lengthy period of time and there were characters that evolved, obviously, and became more prominent points for, well, viewpoints in the story. How much of that, do you think, was really getting comfortable with and learning about this world you were creating and wanting to build upon, and how much was that, we’re all adults here but, three years, you grow and change and you look back at things that you did before that and go, “Oh, well I don’t like that anymore.” How much of it was organic story-building and evolution and how much of it was going back and evaluating what you’d already written?
M: I think it was definitely both, and in a really integrated circuit kind of way. That life experience and working as a writer were very intertwined. I would fold life experiences into writing or I would develop my understanding of storytelling in a more nuanced fashion because I had time. And because I had time, I could let things remain and mull and simmer over time. Well, what if not just this layer of how Lahra’s civilization operates, but what if there’s this other thing that builds on what’s already there. There’s a multi-caste system and you’ve got the nobility atop and you’ve got soldiers and the soldiers serve the nobility and, well, in a civilization you can’t just have soldiers and nobility. You’re gonna have farmers, you’re gonna have technicians, you’re gonna have all these things.
Okay, so there’s these other parts of society and I had the title Annihilation Aria way before the Genae had music magic.
M: Because the title, Annihilation Aria, was like, “Oh, that’s cool because space opera,” and I’m riffing on that, but it’s its own thing. And, you know, world killers are a big thing in space opera. How can I take these things and make them my own? And then I realized, looking back, as I was picking away at the project over years, that I’d already set a foundation upon which I could build something that would give Lahra’s civilization and, therefore her backstory, more meat to it. As I was writing parts of the story where the Genae really matter, I was able to layer on these extra things.
Having more time to layer texture and history onto the story was really valuable and because a lot of the other ways that I’ve written—I wrote my debut and I got an offer to sell it very early in the revision process because of wacky circumstances for which I’m very fortunate. From there, I had several years of, “Okay, cool. So you have a contract, write a book. Turn it in. Production. Publication.” And so I wrote books that were much more condensed in their timeline. So it’s write a book over nine months, revise it over six months, it comes out, or sometimes a little bit more. Sometimes even a little bit less.
With this one, because I didn’t sell it on spec, and I was going in a different direction, it had this opportunity to accrete depth and texture over time. But I don’t want to have a writing career where it takes five years to do every book.
R: I was just about to say, is that something you recommend?
K: Real quick, Mike, if you wouldn’t mind backtracking to kind of go on a little side tangent here. You said “write a book on spec.” For our listeners that maybe do not have as much experience in the professional writing world as you do, what are you saying here? What is writing a book on spec versus what you did with Aria?
M: Sure. So, I sold my debut having written the whole book. And then: cool, we wanna publish this and a sequel. Great. So I did that and then I went back to the same editor and I said, “I wanna write something else from these Ree Reyes books. And so I created pitches and I sold them. I sold those books without having written the whole book, which is one version of—
K: You’re selling based on the pitch that you’re giving.
M: Yeah, and that’s one degree of selling on spec. There are people who say, “Cool! I wanna write a book!” and the publisher’s like, “We love you! Please sell us this book!” That is really selling a book on spec, you know. And that’ll show up in Publisher’s Weekly or Locus as: Famous Author’s Next Book to Editor at Publisher. And it can be very vague. It takes a while for most authors to get to the point where they can just say, “I wanna write a book for you!” and the publisher says, “Yes! Here’s some money.”
K: Most authors will not get to a point where that happens in their career. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, typically—and correct me if I’m wrong—these are going to be household names either within the general populous or within genres.
K: You will know the people that are able to sell books on spec.
M: Yeah, or it’s like—I have friends who sell a book that’s already written, but it’s a standalone so they get a two book deal and the second book is: it’ll be a book.
K: Yes! Yeah.
M: That’s probably more common than, “Here’s a one book deal. I don’t know what the book is yet, but I have the track record that you just wanna buy it.” So I had tried to sell a couple of books on partials because I said, “Well, okay, I have this track record and I have this background in the professional side of publishing.” But those didn’t happen. So I just went back to writing new novels and trying to sell things and, at this point, I’d been wanting to do enough different things with my writing where it’s like, “Cool.I’ve got these adventure books and I wanna write some other stuff that’s a bit more sociological or political and try to balance all these things that I wanna do as a creator.”
But I don’t wanna spend five years for each book because, economically, it’s just not viable to be able to support the costs of a writing career in terms of conventions and things like that off of one book every five years unless I’m getting just a lot more money. And very few people get so much money from science fiction, fantasy that they can spend five years on a book. So Aria is this weird book that may be pretty singular in my career, in terms of how long it has taken to become the thing that will be published in, as of this recording, in a couple of months.
So I try to revel in that distinctiveness because it will probably be pretty singular and hope to apply the lessons that I’ve learned while writing it much more efficiently moving forward. To think about things with texture and depth from an earlier part, an earlier stage of the process and then to embrace the opportunity to make a book more rich and texture in the revision process. To try to do several years’ worth of work in maybe a year, year and a half, in strong collaboration with an agent or an editor or something like that.
R: So you’ve spent the last, you know, hand-crafting the tools themselves that you now can put in your toolbox and reach for, hopefully, and use them without having to remake them every time, going forward?
M: I sure hope so.
R: Well that would be a very efficient use of your time, I think.
M: Yeah. I just finished the rough draft for a new novel that is very different from Aria, but I think it would have been very hard for me to write it, if I had not already been through that process of pulling this book together over the course of several years while working on other things as my main deal.Like, developing and doing all the work for Born to the Blade and self-publishing stuff from Genrenauts and things like that. So I’m hoping that the messiness I can clean up a bit while still being able to reapply those tools, as you say.
K: Now, Mike, when you went back from this and I just know from our conversations and working together that, at various points, you spent a lot of time working on this. You picked it up, you put it down again. You came back and forth to it. Were there any points, when you were going through and revising this, that you knew there were changes you had to make that you weren’t happy about making? That you were reluctant to really do anything with?
R: Tell us how Kaelyn hurt you.
K, laughing: No, no we’re talking pre-editor.
R: Oh, okay. If you say so.
K: Well, what I’m trying to get at here is, and Rekka and I back in May, we will have released an episode about making hard decisions about your manuscript and changing things on recommendation, but then also doing it yourself and having that awareness of, “Hey, maybe this isn’t as strong as I want it to be,” or “Maybe this no longer serves this story.” And the reason I’m asking is because you did write this over such a long period of time, it gives you the time and perspective to go back and consider these things.
M: Yeah, so probably the biggest, hardest change was—In the first draft, the novel opens much later in the story compared to the novel as published. And, at that point, I was going for a kind of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark-style opening because that’s another touchstone for this work, as well as something like the 1999 Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz The Mummy movies.
K: It’s funny because I remember when I got this manuscript and I was talking to our publisher, Colin, he said, “What do you think?” I said, “It’s The Mummy set in space with elements of Guardians of the Galaxy,” but mostly I said it’s The Mummy in space. If that doesn’t sell a book, I don’t know what will.
M: Yeah, and that Rick and Evy relationship, especially in the second Mummy movie was another big touchstone in terms of, like, they have their own things, they are committed to each other, they’re on adventures—
R: But they have their own styles. Yeah.
M: Yeah, but I have this opening for the book. And one, the first draft came out pretty short because often will draft short and a book will grow in revision because my earlier drafts tend to be a lot more, “Okay, cool. Action, action. World, World. Action, action, action.” And then I go back and unpack things. And, moving forward, I’m hoping that my first drafts will have a little bit more character and breadth and space in them and that in revision I’ll just build on that, as opposed to having to do quite so much work to unpack it.
So there’s—In several different cultures across the world, there’s a mythology that the Universe started as two lovers embraced and that that’s the whole of physical space and that then something or some people push them apart to create the gap between the Earth and the sky. And so I’m trying to make it so that my novels are not that process so much, and that they start out with a bit more room to breathe, so that both the characters can breathe and that the reader can have the space to feel all those emotions as powerfully because they’ve taken the time to ruminate on them, versus just, “Here’s a flashy scene! And here’s some people! And they have distinctive characteristics and now they’re gonna be action figures through a space!”
I want to do more and dwell more with those characters. And part of that’s inspired by reading a lot more romance novels. Where, in romance, the best writers will do a great job of unpacking emotional reactions. So, I have this one start of the novel and I knew that I needed to set things up better, and I wanted a kind of broader story, so that involved moving the clock back within this timeline which also then gave me the opportunity to ground the characters more in their home away from home, in this colony ship that turned city in space called The Wreck. So what if you took a colony ship with a dozen species and they all loaded up this big ship and they had all of their hopes and dreams and they set off and then something goes really wrong and it crashes into some asteroid somewhere. And they absolutely cannot get going again.
I really liked that setting, I just kind of played through it in the original draft. So, in the revision, I was able to say, “Okay, here are the things I like about this, and now I wanna do more with them.” And that was also when I was able to kind of graduate Wheel into more of an equal POV character, in the way that she is tied to this place. And that they, the three of them, Max, Lahra, and Wheel are caught up in this net of relationships and factions. So it was a lot of forcing myself to kind of put my money where my mouth was about: here are things I like in writing, here are things I like in storytelling. I’m gonna push myself to dig deeper, to put the world on display more, to put my characters under pressure along several different axes that then makes it more realistic within the narrative. That they make the choices that they’re making as the story unfolds, so that at any given moment, they’re stuck between some bad options and they try to make the best opportunity for themselves.
Whereas, previously, the reason why they went and did the things that they did, in the earlier drafts, were a little bit more because it’s what I wanted from them, and less because it was the only thing that made sense for who they were as characters and what their relationships were at the time. So it was a lot of raising the stakes, but not in a grimdark fashion. Stakes and the degree to which the characters were enmeshed in the world and were both affected by it and agents effecting it.
R: I want to call attention to what you said, though, about as you expand your draft, you are not adding density to all the spots that you’re expanding, just for the sake of making it longer. But that you actually are going to this with such intent that you are actually creating space, not creating more. You didn’t double the action and then double the tension. You created a space that gave all the characters more room to become alive. So I just thought I’d draw attention to that because so often we talk about, “Oh, yes, in revision my book doubles in length,” but we don’t often say what that content is.
K: Well you can double in length and more than double in substance.
R: Oh yeah, yeah.
K: I think that’s a trap a lot of writers fall into where: I just need to add and add and add, and then at some point someone is gonna tell me, “Yes, you have enough here.” And it’s less about it being enough and more about it being efficient and effective.
M: Right, yeah, because there’s nothing about Storytelling that says, “Ah, sorry, this is only 70,000 words, it’s not a story yet.”
K: Yeah, and if somebody’s telling you that, don’t listen to that person. That’s not—
M: Yeah, and it’s—We’re in a position now, in the industry, where you can publish shorter work and there’s still a chance to find an audience. And any given publisher has their own model that they’re operating within. If you’re selling paper books, there’s kind of a minimum word count that will give you a spine that you can put text on. Those physical realities inform book publishing to a certain degree, but I was already playing within the novel space that was like, “Oh, well if I do more and I’m thoughtful—” It’s not that the book is 30 percent better because it’s 30 percent longer, that’s not the equation that we’re talking about.
There is more space for the character relationships, for those relationships to inform the action, for there to be an arc of how these people relate to each other and the ways that they are or are not invested in different things. So that, then, when I’m doing the big space opera finale, the reader feels like they’ve gone through the flow and the rise and fall of these characters, that the decisions they make there are both believable and kind of a natural catharsis for what the characters have gone through before. So that you get the reader, like, punch-the-fist-in-the-air experience when the character does the big thing.
R: So it’s not just about getting to 100,000 words and stopping.
K: I will say that, at Parvus, we have, for submissions, a 60,000 word minimum, but that’s because we publish novels and, sure, you can make an argument for some novels that are a little bit below there, but, as Mike said, there’s a certain point where you say, “I need this many words in order for this to be a book that I can have a spine and put the title on.” That said, there’s no reason to restrict yourself to a word count. If you have a great story and it’s 40,000 words, there are places that are looking for great stories that are 40,000 words.
R: Yeah. The only question is what category of the awards do you have your dreams set on, you know? But yeah, tell the story at the length that the story wants to be told. And if you want to explore more ideas, then the story gets a little longer. So, Mike, while you were expanding the story, how much of the relationship between Max and Lahra changed? I mean, you already said that you wanted them to have an established, committed relationship, but how fraught with tension did you want that to be? Like you said one of your inspirations was Guardians of the Galaxy, but Max is as far from Peter Quill as you can get, so what’s—how did that develop?
M: Yeah, I think Max as a character much more emerged from—the idea that I had was, what if you had the couple from The Mummy but you flipped the genders?
M: So you have the fighty, square-jawed character is the wife and the, kind of, not-so-useful in a fight, academic who’s not as used to jumping around in the world, is the husband. And that’s really where it starts because they diverge pretty far from just those two because I wanted to figure out how to have the fish-out-of-water character work. Like, Max is from Earth and this is Very Far from Earth.
And drawing on that tradition of John Carter or of Farscape. There was a lot. It’s portal fantasy, but science fiction. Ultimately.
M: And how much it is portal fantasy can depend on how much being from Earth matters. The amount that being from Earth mattered, for Max, kind of increased over time, especially as I was really doubling-down on who Max was. Because Max is a Black guy from Baltimore so he grew up in a specific economic and political and cultural context, but then he’s the one who gets flung into a distant galaxy. Whereas racism doesn’t work the same way there and that’s not the main thing because that’s not my story to tell, as a white writer, but I was committed to respecting who Max is, as a person, and so I was able to build some things around him.
So what that became is that Max was already used to code switching between different cultural registers, and then here we have this multicultural civilization that is multicultural and multispecies and that, as an archaeologist and linguist, that was his superpower is being able to pick up language and study and understand culture. So, already, he’s really far from Peter Quill, who’s much more like a John Carter type of character, who is almost more in the Western tradition.
R: He just shoulders his way through every situation.
K: I was gonna say like a bull in a china shop. Just, you know, dropped in and is going to behave and do the same thing no matter where they are and who’s around them.
R: Yeah, definitely no code switching from Peter Quill.
M: Yeah, and then in thinking about who each Max and Lahra were, I had to be smarter and more thorough about who the other were because I needed to have a sense of how they interacted with each other. Like, what does Lahra do when Max is at his workstation for hours and hours and hours poring through manuscripts and trying to translate things? Like, does she just leave him to do his own thing? Does she hang out with him? What would make sense? Because she’s a bodyguard, she grew up in this cultural paradigm from her mother that was very much about a dyadic relationship, but between charge and guardian. Well, how does that inform who she is as a partner in a relationship? She’s more likely to be the kind of partner who would hang out with you while you’re doing your thing to make it clear to you that she’s supporting what you’re doing, but she’s not like—
R: Invading it.
M: She’s not invading it, she’s not making it a thing that has to be about both of them. Okay, well, then how does Max react when Lahra is really upset about something? He’s more likely to be the person who wants to talk it out, but they’ve been together for long enough that he realizes that some of the things that he wants to do are not actually what Lahra needs, as a person. Because I’m writing this relationship between people who are adults and they’ve lived enough life and they’ve spent enough time with each other that they’ve come to understand one another’s rhythms. Writing that part of the relationship was really rewarding because I got to show the way that I can write in Max’s POV and characterize Lahra, while characterizing Max. Because then I can write in Lahra’s POV about Max, through her own POV and the places where how they see each other don’t exactly line up.
Then tell the reader that these are both unreliable narratives because this is tight third person, which has enough overlap with first person that you’re gonna get some of that unreliability. And you understand more of what that relationship needs by getting both of the two, each of their buy-in. In terms of where they see themselves, where they see their partner, where they have doubts and fears, and how that manifests in the way that they act and how it does and doesn’t manifest in how the other person sees them.
Because I don’t write the same scene from both POVs, but I do frequently write the sequel to a scene in the other partner’s POV. So that they’re reacting to the same stuff.
K: But, beyond even just Max and Lahra, then, we have Wheel. Who is, I won’t call her a third-party observer because that’s not the case, but is an outside perspective on a relationship and, inm any cases, the only outside perspective on a relationship.
M: Yeah, and she doesn’t have access to their interiority. Every relationship is different on the inside, even if you’re living with somebody else. You know, because maybe you overhear conversations, but you’re not having that same emotional experience. And so that was a little bit more of a place where I got to comment on the relationship from the outside, but also think about times where I have been the third wheel friend to a couple when they’re going through something. And Wheel is also very fun to write because she has a firmly developed self-image that is, to a certain degree, a protection against the way that things are. So she’s more of the curmudgeon character who makes a show of keeping people at arm’s length, but she could have kicked them out of the ship years ago and be doing something else. But she didn’t. Why is that? And she’s tied into other factions in the story and that tie also came later, because Wheel started out as more just, like, the Driver will get you from A to B.
Then it’s like, how does this technology work? Well, we’ve got these cyborgs and if they used to be an empire, why aren’t they in charge? Well, how are they still around? If you get overthrown, the people who overthrow you are going to try to keep you out of power as much as possible.
K, punny: Annihilate you, if you will.
M: Yeah, so all of those worldbuilding questions, then, informed who the Atlan, Wheel’s people, who those people were. The cybernetics gives them the ability to engage with the warp drives, which is a little bit like how the Spice works in Dune, it’s a little bit like this, it’s a little bit like that. And that every time I went back into Wheel to either talk about how she’s seeing something else, or her position in this setting, engaging with factions on the Wreck or her own history as an even older, mature adult who’s been places and had relationships, every time I tried to fold in or think about some other topic, she grew more rounded as a person. That gave her even more different ways of engaging with Max and Lahra as characters.
K: Was there any evolution to Max and Lahra’s relationship? Did anything change as the story grew? Or did you always see them as two characters who love each other and are very happily married, but also have separate lives and separate goals that they’re working towards, and they’re going to help each other do this no matter what, but the more they help each other, the more they’re driving themselves apart?
M: I think the only time when I really had doubts about Max and Lahra was while I was writing the first draft because I had this premise and, following the fiction, I wanted to honor it enough to let there be the opportunity for maybe things to go bad for them. I, as a creator, had a specific type of outcome that I was shooting for, but I didn’t want to put my thumb on the scale so hard that I’m like, “Oh well! It doesn’t matter that these things happened, actually it’s gonna be Happily Ever After no matter what. Haha, I win.” Because that wouldn’t be, it wouldn’t be as strong of a work. It would feel like there was a cop-out.
So, because I had an outcome in mind, it was more about what in the world has to be different from where things were, maybe, at the middle of my first draft so that it made sense. That the choices that they made led them to where they were at the end of the book. Probably the biggest changes there happened when the group goes to someplace that’s really important to Lahra and her heritage. I’ll stay vague for readers so that they go and buy the book and read it! Because it’s great!
K: It’s a fantastic book. Everyone should go buy it and read it.
M: And then, basically, since I believe very firmly that people are informed by their circumstances, but not always 100 percent limited by them—there’s places where agency is limited in society and so on—
K: Mhm, yep.
M: But that, because people are informed by their circumstances, if I want a different character output, I can change the circumstances to put different pressures on them and to give them different experiences that let them reflect differently on what they feel about things. So it was kind of a feedback loop between who these characters are as I’m expressing it in the writing, trying to respect who they are as people, as I understand them, and then also applying different pressures and adjusting the pressures on them so that the story stays within the trajectory that I’m thinking. Because probably the first core of the story was them and their relationship, and other things kind of grew around that. And then the thematics emerged from how they, as characters, reacted with one another and then, looking backward, how all those things operate. So that any thematic clarity that a reader gets from Aria is not something that was on page one of my notes.
M: It’s because the process of creating it as the book people will read was development rehearsal practice, re-rehearsal, changing the arrangement, practicing again, changing the blocking. I’m using music metaphors here because I’ve done music and theater. Not only is the story entertaining, but it’s also, as much as possible, saying the things that I would like to say, or inviting the reader to reflect on the same themes and ideas that were what I was hoping for them to do. Because, and this is something I’ve talked about with Kaelyn pretty early on in the process was, this could have been several different books.
K: It’s, and it’s something—I always joke that when I’m reading through books I can tell what sections of it were written at the same time. Authors, you guys aren’t always as slick as you think you are. You leave fingerprints on a lot of things. That was something coming into this, that I could tell what chunks of this book had kind of been written at the start, what parts had been revised very heavily, but we spent a lot of time in the beginning talking about the thematic elements of this. But also, as you said, this book could have gone a lot of different directions. I think it went, I will go so far as to say, the correct direction. The, one of the best possible directions it could have gone.
But I can see that in reading this, especially reading some of the earlier drafts that I got. There were a lot of different things that could have happened in this story and happened to these characters. I think that speaks very highly of your worldbuilding and your ability to create and develop believable characters, is that I can see them dropped into different scenarios and just acting on their own accord. They’re an object in motion at that point, rather than something that you’re directing to do certain things. And that’s amazing. That’s a fantastic thing to be able to do as a writer.
M: Yeah, another way of thinking about it—and this is definitely informed by a video I was watching recently, a conversation between a couple of game designers—is that some of it is just down to tone.
M: Two musicians can take the same song and go—one musician says, “Okay, cool, I’m going for the same tone but I’m gonna move the key.” Just moving the key actually changes more than you expect. It’s the moody, emo down-tempo version of a pop song?
K: I was just gonna say, actually, I just discovered a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Tori Amos which is—actually I discovered it because it was on one of Rekka’s playlists that she sent me and it’s fantastic. But it completely changes what you would maybe think the underlying context of the song would be. So yeah, I think, as I said when we started all of this, I would read anything that you set in this world. Especially if the characters are as engaging and compelling and dynamic as the ones that you’ve created for Aria because I see them as their own people rather than chess pieces being moved around on a board. They’re there to carry out actions that it doesn’t always feel like you, the author, are dictating to them. They’ve taken on a will of their own at this point.
M: And that is for the best because if they’re—on a list of writing traps that I know I can fall into, having something that feels a little bit more like action figures and choreography is definitely on that list. And so I have to respect the characters and go back and make sure that all of the circumstances and the worldbuilding acoustics, maybe?—to extend the music metaphor—that those line up so that things end up the way that I would like them to be.
K: So, along those lines, and we’re getting to the end here to start wrapping up, we like to ask our guests for advice or introspective or something you wish you could go back and tell Mike five years ago, when he was starting this whole process.
M: I’ve been working as a writer, now, long enough that 5 years ago is not the start of my career. Because it used to be, people would ask me, “What would you tell a younger self?” and it used to be about revision and what I learned about revision from the late, great Graham Joyce and Clarion West. But that was a lesson I learned 13 years ago now. So I think the lesson for 5 years ago Mike would be: start reading romance, you’re gonna really like it and it’s gonna teach you a lot about character relationships and getting drama and emotional investment for the reader out of just the very core relationships between people.
In a romance, people are also emergent from their circumstances and there’s lots of things you can do there, but that emotional action flywheel of Person A does a thing, you’re in Person B’s POV, so Person B first has a visceral, embodied reaction to what, to the emotionally-charged thing that was said, and then we’re in their perspective and their mind is racing and reflecting on something and, maybe, they’re going through an emotional journey about what’s going on. Maybe it makes them think about something, but not so long that you can’t then go back into scene and write about what they’re doing in reaction so that you’re able to kind of create this cycle of action and reaction, where it’s not just talking heads but we’re also getting all of this beat-by-beat dramatization of the emotional arc, the emotional rollercoaster of your POV character along the way.
And that approach was a lot of what I had to bring to Aria in successive drafts, especially as Kaelyn kept on poking me and saying like, “No! Unpack this more! Slow down!” Either to give the emotional rollercoaster or to paint with a finer brush the world around the characters. And that that process and that urging to slow down and unpack has been really great, it’s been fun to do. So it’s not like I’m being told I have to eat my vegetables, it’s—give yourself the situation and the platform on which you can then do these things that you really like doing, and you’re gonna be happier with the results.
K: I think, in my experience dealing with authors, there’s what I’ll call an overcorrection that writers tend to incorporate into their work, which is: I don’t wanna be the long-winded person here. I don’t wanna be the one that spends a paragraph describing the exact emotion that this character is feeling for 150 words. And there is certainly something to be said for being aware of that, but at the same time, I conversely always point out: you know how they’re feeling, you know what they’re thinking. You need to make sure that’s coming across to the reader. The reader doesn’t get access to your brain for this, they get access to the pieces of it that you’re putting in this book.
So, yeah. And part of it was very selfish. Part of this was: Well, hang on, I wanna know what’s going on here! Mike! Tell me! So it’s a—I really liked learning more about these characters as the book developed and I think you did an outstanding job.
M: That’s a very kind sentiment and I’m very grateful that you had that experience. Because that makes me feel very good as a writer.
R: What I also love about it is that you have put in all this work for character-building and worldbuilding, but the book reads as fast as any omnomnommable sci-fi book out there. It does not get burdened with—as much work as you put into it, it doesn’t show. You have seamless story going on. Even though Kaelyn can tell which spots you rewrote, no one who picks up this book—
K: I’ll never tell!
R: That’s Kaelyn’s superpower, that’s not indicative of what you’re going to feel as you read it. But it’s very fast-paced and, as you said, you worked very hard on the tension and it shows. It pulls the reader straight from the beginning to the end and it definitely leaves you wanting more, so I hope that the space opera series is going to continue for quite some time because whether it’s Max and Lahra and Wheel or, you know, Kruji getting their own book. I’d read them all.
K: Kruji absolutely needs their own book. The entire story of Annihilation Aria from the perspective of Kruji.
M: Well, I’ll write some books. And then twelve years after the series ends, I’ll come back and do the Kruji book. Because I’ve started a number of different series and the heartbreaking thing about publishing is it’s—
K, laughing: There’s only one!
M: It’s hard to justify writing something when I don’t see a market for it.
M: And so there are things that I would love to go back to, but right now the economic reality says, “Why would you do that? That’s a terrible idea!” So what I’m hoping for, with any given new series, is I hope that this finds enough of an audience that there is the demand to create the economic circumstances that will let me pursue that interest more. Because only now in the novel I just wrote, have I written something that I think actually could stay a stand alone. Everything else, I’m writing a world that I think I could do a lot more things in. I could do more things in this just finished novel’s world, but I want that novel to be able to stand on its own.
For the space operas, I would love to write more, and I will write more if the circumstances permit.
K: Yeah, it’s a very difficult thing for, not just writers but creators in general, to say: I am making this and it is a finite project that is done now.
R: Well you spend all that time living in that world!
K: Exactly, yeah.
R: And so you see all the corners where you’re like, “Oh! There’s someone down there. I gotta go follow that after I’m done with this.”
K: For instance, Kruji, who I feel like has a lot of very important stories to tell. Some perspectives and insights to offer the reader that is really going to enrich the story of the Kettle. So, uh, that’s—
M: Smart readers will be able to pick up some of the places where that could go in some chunks of the novel. And if you figure it out, email me on my website.
K: So, yes! Speaking of, Annihilation Aria is out a week from today! You still have time to pre-order the book and the audiobook, as well, is available for purchase. Mike, where can people find you online?
K: And it comes with a lot of pictures of a cute dog. Very cute dog. Highly recommend.
M: My dog, Oreo, is really the star of my Patreon and that’s fine. I know how the internet works.
R, laughing: Yeah. Give the people what they want.
M: And if you’re listening to this, you like podcasts so I am an occasional guest-co-host on the Skiffy and Fanty show which is a general fannish podcast about books and movies and TV and so on. And I am a co-host on Speculate which is an actual play podcast starring science fiction-fantasy professionals. As of this recording, we’ve started a Blades in the Dark miniseries, I’m gonna start a Star Wars miniseries using the Scum and Villainy system and, sometime in the future, there may be some roleplaying in a world that listeners of this episode will now be familiar with. But more will come on that later on.
K: That’s a nice teaser there. Okay. Well, Mike, thanks so much for talking to us. This was great! I mean, for as much as I’ve already gotten to hear about this, I never get tired of talking about this book and the characters and the process to get it to where it was.
M: Yeah, thank you very much. Because it’s written over such a long time, I am still processing all of the lessons and things. Like, “Oh! That really did take this thing!” or “This is where that actually comes from!” So that process, just by itself, is really rewarding for me and it’s fun to get to—to participate in this show that I have enjoyed as a listener.
R: Well thank you for that.
K: Thank you! Alright, well thanks again, Mike, and everyone for listening. We’ll talk to you in two weeks!
[outro music plays]
R: Thanks everyone for joining us for another episode of We Make Books. If you have any questions that you want answered in future episodes, or just have questions in general, remember you can find us on Twitter @wmbcast, same for Instagram. Or wmbcast.com!
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