Science Fiction author Michael Mammay joins Queries, Qualms, & Quirks this week to discuss diving in too soon, the book that saved his writing, the power of a one-sentence compliment, and the single quality that will guarantee a writer’s success.
Michael Mammay wrote the Planetside series, published by Harper Voyager. He is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia.
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Transcript of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks: Science Fiction Author Michael Mammay and Diving in Head First
April 15, 2021
Transcribed by Jake Nicholls
[0:00] Mike: Full speed. Just jump in the pool. I mean, close your eyes and dive in. Don’t do this, by the way! I’m not, I’m not giving this as a good example.
[Intro music: strumming guitar]
[00:14] Sarah: Welcome to Queries, Qualms & Quirks, the weekly podcast that asks published authors to share their successful query letter and discuss their journey from first spark to day of publication. I am your host, Sarah Nicolas. I hope you’re enjoying the podcasts and the stories authors are sharing with you. If you are, please consider leaving a review on your podcast app or sharing the episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive.
Today, you’re going to hear from sci-fi author Michael Mammay. Michael Mammay wrote the Planetside series, published by Harper Voyager. He is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia.
Hi, Mike, welcome to the show!
[01:04] Mike: Hey! Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
[01:06] Sarah: We’re gonna start, kind of, all the way at the beginning. Can you tell me when you first started getting interested in writing? And how long did it take before you started getting serious about pursuing publication?
[01:17] Mike: I was in college, in 1988, and I was reading a lot, and I told my mother at the time that I wanted to be an author. And then I proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it for twenty or thirty years. [Sarah: Laughs] A long time. So, I actually probably started writing in 2013, and then I started writing Planetside, my debut novel, in 2014. I wrote one novel before that, and that was really when I would say that I started to be… somewhat serious about it? In that, if you take by—to mean serious you take: I actually did write a book. Like, you know, I wrote a 150,000-word fantasy book. It was not very good. But, I didn’t know that at the time. I’m sure we’ll talk about that. So, that’s kinda when I started writing.
[02:14] Sarah: Can you tell me about the moment that you realized that you wanted to be a published author?
[02:19] Mike: Well, when I finished that first book, I was good enough, as far as I was concerned at the time! Right? That’s what, that’s what you do. I didn’t know anything. Like, I wrote a book. I didn’t have any skill set to write a book, other than I had done it. I mean, I’d read books—lots and lots of them. [Sarah: Oh, that’s important.] It was, it was important! It was very derivative of Elizabeth Moon’s work, her fantasy work, who is a huge inspiration to me. I am a huge fan. She’s the person who made me want to write, because she’s a former Marine and she wrote this military fantasy that felt real to me. And it was really the first time that I had seen somebody do a really good job of mashing up military and fantasy. Like, “I wanna do that!” So I did, and it was very derivative, and not very good. Because I did not know what I was doing. And then I just decided to jump into publishing with both feet, without knowing anything. No one had read the book besides me. Ever. No critique, no readers, nothing. “I’m just gonna join the publishing world.” So, I got online and I learned how to query and I fired off a couple of queries.
[03:31] Sarah: So, that’s actually the next question, is: once you realized you wanted to pursue publication, how did you start learning more about the industry—like, how it works, how to query, how to write a query, all that stuff?
[03:43] Mike: Full speed. Just jump in the pool. I mean, close your eyes and dive in. Don’t do this, by the way! [Sarah: Laughs] I’m not, I’m not giving this as a good example, okay? I didn’t know anything. I just got online and googled it. Like, “Hey, how do you—how do you do this?” And as it so happened, at that time, like, the day that I was getting ready to do that, and I just sent my first queries—I got a request on my first ever query, by the way. First ever query. [Sarah: Laughs] Which was the worst possible thing that could happen, because as far as I was concerned, [Sarah: Set the standard.] that was it! I’m good. I know what I’m doing—obviously, if this person is requesting a partial, you know, for me, I must be good. And it was a good agent! I mean, it was Sara Megibow! I mean, this is a legit sci-fi/fantasy agent, you know? She’s good! And I got a partial because—it was a [laughing] very, very fast rejection after that, [Sarah: Laughs] because I did not know at the time that, well, people request based on your query, and then they reject based on your words. My query was fine; my words were not. [Sarah: Laughs] And it was very quick. And I got a lot of requests on that book, and then a lot of very quick rejections.
[05:00] Sarah: It does not surprise me at all, Mike, that you just, like, jumped in [laughing] head first.
[05:04] Mike: I had no idea what I was doing. And, on top of that, it gets better. It gets better, because I discovered this thing called Pitch Wars. I discovered Pitch Wars, and they were closing that day. Didn’t know what it was, okay? And I’m like, “This is for writers! That’s me! [Sarah: Laughs] I’m just gonna send my stuff in”—no research, no research on people. So, this was 2014, and back then, we did not have a great mix of people by genre. So I just picked four people, pretty much at random, including Rebecca Yarros, who, if you know, writes YA and romance. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] Like, doesn’t even read what I write. But, you know, her husband was in the military, and I was in the military, and I’m like, “Hey, that’s a connection, I’m sending that in.” [Sarah: Laughs] She was really sweet about it. Like, she offered to critique it for me afterwards, but by that point I had learned how bad it was and I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t let her do that, you know. And I sent it to Dan Koboldt, who eventually became my mentor the next year, but he was not very nice about it. Um… Oh, he knows! We—I mean, he and I have been through this. That was back in the day when people were doing #TenQueries, [Sarah: Mm, mhm.] and he did a #TenQueries, and it was mine, and I took it very personally.
[06:17] Sarah: And now you’re, like, really great friends. [Laughs]
[06:19] Mike: Oh yeah, we are now. We still joke about that. I mean, it was 148,000 words. [Sarah: Wow.] Um, which is—honestly is not that long for an epic fantasy, but it was long for Pitch Wars at that time. And it was bad, so there was that.
[06:35] Sarah: So, then you wrote Planetside.
[06:37] Mike: Before we get there, we have to get—I think it’s important to get from that point to Planetside, because there was a lot of growth that needed to happen before I was ready to write Planetside. Like, you can’t just stop writing a bad book and then sit down and write a good one. [Sarah: Mhm.] And I think that’s something important that I wanna share with your readers, and I think we’re gonna talk about some of the questions that you showed me earlier. But something has to happen to get you from writing a bad book to writing a good book. And I’m just gonna—I mean, Planetside‘s a good book. It got published. You know… that—by definition, it must be good. [Sarah: Laughs] It’s good in my mind. Uh… it was the best book I could write at the time. The level up that I did from that book to Planetside is… I can’t explain it. From being a bad amateur to a published professional, in one book. But a lot of stuff had to happen before that could happen.
[07:30] Sarah: So what was it that happened?
[07:32] Mike: Yeah, and I think that’s the key thing I want to talk about is—so, the first thing is, um, I learned that it was bad. And that did not actually come from Pitch Wars; it came from getting critiques from other writers. So, in 2014, Michelle Hauck and Mary Ann Marlowe created a website, a forum. This is because Pitch Wars didn’t have their forums back then. So they created, basically, a beta version of what is now the Pitch Wars forums, for adult writers. And you could just put your stuff up online by genre, and trade critiques with people. Just like you can do on the Pitch Wars forums now—and people, some people do, and they get good feedback. And I just started trading first chapters with anyone who would trade. I would go on, I was critiquing every single one on there. And I wasn’t very good at it, but I was trying and giving feedback to everybody who posted, and I was taking feedback from anyone who would give it, and I probably traded with ten different people.
But the moment when I realized I was bad was when Janet Wrenn—she was a small press–published author at the time, and infinitely ahead of where I was at the time—critiqued one page for me. And I looked at it, and I was like, “Oh. [Sarah: Laughs] Oh, no. I, I made a mistake. [Laughs] I am very bad. [Both laughing] I’m a very bad writer.” And I just learned—from that one page that she gave me, I was able to see that I had written a really bad book. And then I went back, based on that feedback of hers, and I revised the whole thing. [Sarah: Mm.] Cut it down, revised it, made it not quite as bad, learned a lot along the way—but then I met a whole bunch of critique partners. And that worked out really well because I ended up meeting Colleen Halverson, Rebecca Enzor, Red Levine, and these are all fantastic authors, you know—some of them are published now, two of them are published now. And we kinda all grew together. And there were several other people that I traded with, too; they just didn’t stick. Like, it didn’t really work out, [Sarah: Mhm.] for one reason or another. Either they weren’t serious about it—but these were people who were very serious about it, obviously went on to publish books. And I just learned a lot from each of them. Mostly I learned that I didn’t know enough to be a good writer.
So, I started to study. I started to look into story structure, which I didn’t even know existed. Now I teach it, you know, I’ll give classes on story structure now. But I didn’t know any of that stuff. And then I really kinda burnt out for about six weeks. I just completely—which doesn’t sound like a long time, but for me at the time it was a long time. And I just stopped writing and I was considering maybe not writing again, and then, uh, I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. And I read the first chapter, and I was like, “Oh. This is what I was doing wrong. I need to be writing in first person.” [Sarah: Hm.] I was writing in third person at the time, and all my books are in first person, and I read that with the voice in that first chapter and—it was one chapter. I read one chapter of Gillian Flynn and I’m like, “This is how I have to tell this story.” And I stopped reading, and I went down and I sat and I wrote the first two chapters of Planetside, and I sent it off to three readers right away, just like—I drafted two chapters, didn’t revise them, just sent them off to three readers, and all three of them were like, “Yes, this is it. Give us more.” And nine weeks later, I had Planetside drafted. [Sarah: Wow.]
But I learned a lot between book one and book two that I’m not really capturing really well. I don’t think you can overstate that. And I do think that that’s something that I see from writers that they don’t necessarily do. Like, they’ll write a book, they’ll query it, and they’re already writing the next one—which is great; I wish I could do that—but at the same time, what have you learned between book one and book two, or book five and book six, that is gonna make the result different? In what way have you gotten better? And I still do that now, you know. In what way have I gotten better between book one and book two that I wrote? In what way am I getting better between Colonyside and Misfits, which is what I’m working on now? And I’m always trying to get better between books, you know, and there’s a lot of different ways you can do that. Knowing how you’re gonna do that and what you’re gonna do, I think, is kind of a really big key to getting where you want to be.
[12:00] Sarah: I love that you’re sharing this story because one of the things that I talk about a lot is, a lot of times, your first book isn’t good. Because you don’t know what you’re doing—for most people, they don’t know what they’re doing when they’re writing their first book. It can feel so pressing and so urgent to get your book published. And, so, the first book that I wrote was also terrible, and I’ve talked about this frequently, where I thought, if self-publishing was as easy then as it is now, I worry that I would have self-published that book, and then regretted it, because it was so bad.
[12:37] Mike: Yeah, ’cause you would have thought it was good. [Sarah: I did!] Because I thought mine was good. I thought mine was good, you know, and that people would want it, and there were people who read it and said that this was good—because there were things that were good in it. Like, even then, even in that book, I could write a good action scene. I’ve been able to write a good action scene since—from, almost from day one. That was the one thing that I could do. Doesn’t make a good book, doesn’t make a good story, but it made some good moments. And, in fact, that’s why people would trade books with me, is because I could critique an action scene, you know? So I had a strength, and Colleen had a strength, and Rebecca had a strength, and we traded strengths, and we learned from each other, you know? I helped them write better action scenes. That was all I could do at the time for them, but it was enough for them to teach me stuff, too, so…
[13:30] Sarah: You leveled up, and then you wrote Planetside. And what happened after that—can you break down, kind of, your journey for us with that book?
[13:37] Mike: Yeah, so with Planetside, um… So, I finished probably writing it in about April of 2015, and then I got injured very badly. I blew out a disc in my neck. Bedridden, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t work. So I kinda had a delay there, and didn’t really do anything, because—I mean, it was almost done, but it wasn’t quite polished, and I wanted to do one more polishing pass before I sent it out. So it was probably June before I could work on it again. And then Pitch Wars was coming up again that year. It started, like, the first of—I think, the first day of August, or something like that—it was in early August, and I just decided, “Hey, I’m not gonna query until after Pitch Wars.” I hung around the Pitch Wars community, traded again—traded first chapters with a lot of different new people—you know, adjusted every word, got that, got that down. And then I just entered Pitch Wars in 2015 with it. Hadn’t queried it—purposely didn’t query it—and entered Pitch Wars and got in. Got one request, only one request, from Jason Nelson. Did not query—I did not send it to Dan, because I was still pissed at him from the year before. [Sarah: Laughs] And he was by far the best fit for it, and I just was stubborn and I didn’t send it to him. And back then there were not—we were supposed to have five mentors that year. There were not five mentors taking science fiction, so I queried Kellye Garrett with my science fiction novel—because it’s a science fiction mystery!
Actually, Kellye, though, wrote one of the nicest things about me that has ever been written. It was actually the thing that kinda kept me going at the time, because she was doing, like, impressions of books, and she wrote: “I just read Spenser in a very non-Spenser environment.”—Spenser: For Hire, right? Because it has the same voice. It has a very noir—my book Planetside has a very noir mystery voice to it, but it’s set in space. So she was never gonna take it. But she said, you know—just saying that, I knew it was my book, because it couldn’t not be. Because no one else was dumb enough to send her science fiction. So I really hadn’t even learned my lesson at that point. But Jason Nelson read it, recognized it for what it is, you know, and then reached out to me and said, “Hey, you really need to let me send this to Dan.” So he did, and that’s how I got into Pitch Wars.
[15:57] Sarah: So, this is a little aside, but at what point in your relationship did you tell Dan about that first tweet upsetting you? [Laughs]
[16:04] Mike: Oh, I think he knew.
[16:06] Sarah: Oh! [Laughs]
[16:07] Mike: I don’t remember, I don’t remember. I’m not shy, so it was certainly around that time. We didn’t—like, I’m not gonna hide and sit on that for years, or anything. I haven’t been—you know, it’s not like we haven’t talked about it. I think I probably had to explain it to him then, why I didn’t send it to him. [Sarah: Hm.] Because he was clearly the best fit for the book, [Sarah: Mm-hm.] based on wish lists. I mean, it’s not even close.
[16:28] Sarah: All right, so, you got into Pitch Wars, and… [Mike: I did.] With Dan as your mentor. [Mike: Yes.] And revised the book through Pitch Wars, and then what happened?
[16:38] Mike: I really didn’t revise very much. [Sarah: Oh!] I probably edited less than twenty per cent of that book to where it is now. And a lot of that was luck, like, I lucked into it—and I’ll explain later that I know it’s luck, because when I tried to write the second book, it was not nearly as good as I thought it was. And I think a lot of authors learn that. Second-book blues is a real thing.
But I did not have any luck in Pitch Wars. So, we got through Pitch Wars, we went into the agent round, I got one request, and it was from an agent who I knew was never gonna rep my book. [Sarah: Mm.] Because they didn’t—they were the wrong agent. They didn’t rep that kind of book. I don’t know why that agent requested. They did, and it was better than having none, so, you know, [Sarah: Laughs] one is better than none. But it was not an agent I would have ever signed with, because she did not rep the kind of stuff that I write. Although I did send it to her anyway, and she ended up passing it to someone else in her agency who did rep it and that person ended up requesting—uh, offering.
But I had a really bad time coming out of Pitch Wars. First off, Dan and I knew from the start that there were no agents coming to the agent round that fit my book. Zero. So when I didn’t get requests, it was not a surprise, because Dan had already told me, “You’re not gonna get requests.” I had looked at the agents who were coming; I knew I wasn’t gonna get requests, because they don’t rep what I write. So, we had a plan right from the start: the moment that the pitches went live, I launched queries to, you know, to fifteen or twenty different sci-fi agents, and I went about over twenty. I got about, like, I went about over twenty on my first twenty queries, and it sucked. Because I knew I had written a good book, okay? Now, with that said, everyone thinks that. [Sarah: Laughs] But I had—I did have some empirical evidence. I mean, I did get into Pitch Wars, which is a significant accomplishment. [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
Yeah. It was bad. Pitch Wars ended on November 5th, and by the first of the year, I didn’t have any requests. And that kinda hurt, to the point where I was starting to think, “Okay, this book isn’t good. I thought it was, and it’s not, and, uh, we’re kinda done, you know?” And I—to the point where I remember emailing Dan in January and saying, “Hey, I’m gonna write something else. I don’t think this is it.” And he’s like, “Give it a minute.” [Sarah: Laughs] He’s like, “That was by far the best book that I saw in Pitch Wars this year, you know. Give it a minute. I think it’s gonna be okay.” So I did, and then I got a request for fifty pages from a very, very good science fiction agent, and then she rejected it. [Sarah: Laughs] But, that rejection was the thing that made me know I was gonna be okay. It was one line—I remember it to this day. I’m not gonna say the agent, but she’s very well known in our industry, great agent. It was one line, personalized, that said: “I think the tropes in this feel a little too familiar, but you’re a good writer.” [Sarah: Mm.] And just the fact that she said, “You’re a good writer,” and that was it, and she just decided to put that in that rejection, made me believe that I was a good writer, even if that book didn’t work out.
So, that was probably mid-January. And then, like, on the first of February, the entire world exploded, and all of a sudden I had offers. [Sarah: Oh!] It just happened, like, overnight. An agent got it, read the first three chapters, said, “Hey, can I have the rest?”, read the rest over the weekend, I had a call on Monday. [Sarah: Oh, wow.] So, it went really fast from there. I did have another partial from my now agent Lisa Rodgers, and when I nudged her, she asked for the full. I had a call with her two days later, and ended up signing with her. I signed with her on March 1st.
[20:20] Sarah: So, to clarify: the agent that you ended up signing with was in the same agency as the one who requested in Pitch Wars? And they had shared it?
[20:28] Mike: No, that was the other offer.
[20:29] Sarah: Oh, okay. Gotcha.
[20:30] Mike: They shared it, and that was the other offer.
[20:32] Sarah: But even so, in Pitch Wars and then also in querying, you kind of had a similar experience where someone recommended your book to someone else, and that’s how you ended up getting, whatever it is, the result that you had, right?
[20:45] Mike: Right. And in both cases, the person read the book, recognized that it was pretty good, but it wasn’t for them, and then passed it to someone who it was right for. But I went—I ended up going five for thirty-two on queries. So, I did thirty-two queries and only five requests.
[21:02] Sarah: I know that listeners will be happy to hear [laughing] all of this. So, you signed with your agent and then how did the submission process go?
[21:12] Mike: We did a couple of rounds of small edits. She had some—the reason I picked her was because when she gave me notes on the book during our call, they just resonated. There were a few things where she was like, “You should do this,” and I’m like, “Yes. That is exactly what I should do—that’s brilliant.” You know, it was just that kind of mind-meld. I’m like, “I want to do that. Yes, I want to revise.” So we did a round of revisions, and then a round of line edits, and we went on submission in June of ’16, and racked up a whole bunch of, uh, rejections. But I was in a good place for that.
First of all, getting rejections on submission… they’re a lot nicer than agent rejections, ’cause, like, editors—you’ll get a rejection from an editor, and it reads like a five-star review! [Sarah: Laughs] They’ll tell you everything they love about your book. “Unfortunately it’s not right for us,” but they clearly read it, and they’re telling you all these nice things about it, and it’s nice, but it’s—like, the first three times, it’s nice, but, like, on time eleven, it’s not as nice. [Sarah: It gets a little old.] It did get old. But the catch is, is that at the time, I truly believed that I had written the best book that I was capable of writing. Especially once Lisa edited it with me twice. When we went on submission, I was very at peace with it—because it was either gonna happen, or it wasn’t. Because I could not write a better book at the time. I can now, but I couldn’t then. So, I was kind of okay with it. It did start to wear on me, because every time I would get an email from Lisa, it was a rejection. Like, the only time I heard from my agent was when I was being rejected. So it was like Pavlov’s Dog—my agent would show up in my email box and I’d be like, “Oh, great. I’m rejected again,” you know? And before I even read it. Until one time it wasn’t.
I was living in Columbia, South Carolina, at the time, and my wife was in Savannah. And I was commuting home on the weekends. But it was just about to be Christmas break, so I was about to go home for two weeks. And so, it was that week when I got an email from Lisa saying, “Hey, David Pomerico of HarperVoyager wants to set up a call.” Of course, immediately into spin-and-panic mode like, “What does that mean?”—you know—”Is a call an offer? Is a call this? What is a call?” So, we had the call a couple days later. In fact, we had it Thursday and that was my last day of work. I’d left work, gone to my apartment, and packed up to go home to Savannah for two weeks, and did the call, and then he’s like, “Okay, well, we’re gonna get back to you. We’ll get back to you with an offer in a while.” So I got in my car, and I got a call from Lisa, like, an hour later. I was in my car, driving down I-95 to get home, and she said, “Hey, we got the offer,” and she started giving me the details of the offer. [Sarah: Oh, so real quick.] Like, that day, yeah. [Sarah: Yeah.] I think he had it lined up, probably, with his house beforehand. And it wasn’t a huge offer. I mean, we came out in mass-market paperback. For those of you who don’t know, adult science fiction—you’re not getting six-figure deals on adult science fiction books as your debut. I’m sorry. If that’s bad news for you and, you know, that hurts your feelings, um, welcome to adult science fiction, [Sarah: Laughs] where we don’t make any money.
[24:17] Sarah: Can you share your successful query letter with us?
[24:22] Mike: I stripped out the bio parts of this, because I don’t have them anymore, so:
Colonel Carl Butler has won battles throughout the galaxy, but now rides out the end of his career at a desk with a bottle of whiskey in the drawer. When an old friend and boss calls with one last mission, Carl finds himself flying across the galaxy into the Cappan war zone in search of a politician’s missing son.
He reaches the military base orbiting the planet Cappa, but before he can even start his investigation someone tampers with critical surveillance data in a secure network and a key witness disappears. The career-oriented base commander seems more interested in damage control than helping out, and everyone Butler questions repeats the same rehearsed lies. When a superhuman assailant tries to end Carl’s investigation for good, the evidence points toward his supposed allies.
Butler’s boss pushes for a quick conclusion to the investigation, and with no leads on the missing person, Butler leads a group of soldiers into the war zone planetside to find answers. There, Carl must risk his life to uncover a genetic conspiracy that could threaten the entire galaxy.
Planetside is an adult science fiction novel completed 81,000 words. This is a standalone work with a potential for other books set in the same world.
[25:36] Sarah: Thank you! How has your experience been since signing your contract? Were there any surprises along the way, anything you didn’t expect about the publication process?
[25:44] Mike: Well, first off, I learned I was writing a sequel to a book that was a standalone. And I learned that when I got my contract. I did not know that I was going to write a sequel to Planetside. I had never planned a sequel to Planetside. It was originally offered to us as a one-book deal. By the next day, my agent had turned that into a two-book offer, but I did not realize that it was for the second book in that series. [Sarah: Laughs] So, I agreed to a two-book deal for a book that I did not know. So I kinda changed the ending to Planetside just a tiny bit, to leave room for Spaceside. Planetside is still a standalone book; it can be read as a standalone book. But obviously I had to open things back up in Spaceside, and again in Colonyside, where I had learned my lesson and left book two open. So, we had a two-book deal with an option for a third book, and because Planetside did very well right out of the gate—sold through in its first five months—they actually made an offer for a third book in the series before the second book was even done. [Sarah: Hm.] Which is not normal, doesn’t happen very often, you know, and they were doing that really as a, kind of, a courtesy to me, because we had had success—and they wanted the third book. So we signed another two-book deal: one for Planetside 3, which was Colonyside, which just came out in December, and then the book that I was working on today, which is—might be—called Misfits, but it’s not looking like it’s gonna be for SEO reasons. So, we’ll see what it’s actually called! It might be The Misfit Soldier. But I was working on that today, the edits of it, and that’ll be out in February of next year.
[27:25] Sarah: So, your big surprise was that you had to write a sequel! [Laughs]
[27:28] Mike: [Laughing] That was a big surprise! Like, “All right!” It was a great surprise, though, because once someone tells you what to do—like, if you’re an author and someone tells you, “Hey, write this and we’ll pay you,” that’s, like, the easiest thing, right? That’s the part where you’re like—because the hard part is, “Which one of these twenty-seven ideas in my head do I work with?” At least for me. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] When someone says, “This one!”, well, that’s actually pretty helpful, you know? Like, I might not know exactly what that book looks like. Then I had to learn how to write it, but that was a different story and that was probably the hardest thing, is learning how to write book two. Because what I learned is that I did not know how to write a book. [Sarah: Laughs] I had written a book, but I couldn’t recreate it.
[28:09] Sarah: All right. So, do you wanna go ahead and talk about that experience, then? Learning how to write the second book?
[28:15] Mike: I’d be happy to. I wrote a really long blog post about it. ‘Cause what happened was: I wrote book two. It was horrible; I knew it was horrible. I sent it through a set of readers, I rewrote it, rewrote it, rewrote it. Thought it was okay, sent it to my agent, and got the worst edit letter. Like, the worst moment of my career was when my agent told me how bad it was. And she was very nice about it—she’s lovely, [Sarah: Mm-hm.] she’s brilliant, she was right. Let’s be very clear: [Sarah: Laughs] she was correct.
And I do write—there’s a whole long blog post. If you go through, back in… sometime in, probably, 2017 or something, through my blog, you’ll see it. And I wrote all about it: how it pretty well destroyed me. And then I figured out how to get past it. And I think that that’s the key lesson, right, is, how do you get past it? You’re gonna have low moments in your writing career, I don’t care who you are. How do you move past it? What do you do to get past it? What do you learn to make yourself better? How do you change your attitude about it? How do you cry it out until you’re okay and you can move forward? But it hurt.
[29:25] Sarah: How did you do it? How did you move past that?
[29:28] Mike: First, I accepted that she was correct. And she did a very good job of that, you know, pointing out why it wasn’t good. And then looking back at my first book and seeing where I hadn’t done those things. You know, my character was too passive. I was entering scenes too early and leaving them too late, which is—if you read my books, I do not do that. [Sarah: Laughs] That’s actually one of the hallmarks of my books is how crisp they are, and how short they are, and how quick they read, because I don’t do that. And I had done that in book two. I was worrying about how he was getting from one place to another instead of what was happening in the scene. But what I got to was… it was overwhelming. Like, the amount of stuff that I had to fix to make that book work was overwhelming.
And the way I got past that was just saying, “Well, at least I can do this,” okay? And I talk about that in the blog post. But that’s the phrase: “At least I can do this.” I had a problematic interaction with my main character and a female character. “Well, at least I could fix that. That’s easy, right? That’s just one scene—I can fix one scene. That’s easy. I know what to do. I mean, yeah, I made a mistake—I shouldn’t, he shouldn’t do that. It’s not cool. I’ll fix that.” “Well, I can at least cut out some of the transition time between scenes and enter them faster.” “Oh, here’s a spot where I could at least make my character a little bit more active here.” You know? And all of a sudden, you have a plan. “I can at least fix this,” and you start writing it down. You just, you know, fix one thing at a time until it’s not overwhelming.
And then I turned it into my editor without my agent seeing it again, because [laughing] we were on a deadline, and deadlines are deadlines. I turned it into my editor and he had almost no edits. [Sarah: Huh.] He had one chapter—he had said two chapters were redundant and I needed to cut one of them. I said, “I’m not gonna. I would like to cut the other one.” And he said, “I don’t think so,” and I said, “Let me write it for you. Let me write it for you, and then you tell me.” ‘Cause I had it in my head. And I wrote it the way I wanted to write it, gave it to him and he said, “Yes, please.” So, I was right—he was right, and if there was a problem, I was right in how to fix it. [Sarah: Mhm.] Which is something that you see in edits a lot of the time. If the editor says there’s something wrong, it’s probably wrong. They might not have the right idea how to fix it; you might have the right idea how to fix it. And that’s been my experience. The good news is, is that—so I’ve had pretty brutal edits on books three and four from my editor, and I love ’em. [Sarah: Laughs] Like, I love—now I love just getting horrific edits that say you need to rip this—the edit letter that I got for Misfits was basically, “Let’s write a different book,” and I was like, “Yes!”
[32:08] Sarah: It is time for the quick-round session, which I call ‘Author DNA’. So, these are just, kind of, classifications that we talk a lot about in the writing community. And so you just give a quick answer as to which one you are. Are you more of a pantser or a plotter?
[32:27] Mike: Both. [Sarah: Laughs] Um, sorry—can’t give a quick—I can’t say either. I plot, and then it doesn’t work, and I pants the whole thing, and then I go back and plot. So, I plot, then I pants the whole story, then I pants the draft, and then I go back and I plot it so it actually works as a story.
[32:46] Sarah: Interesting. I do something similar: I pants it and then I do a beat sheet, and it’s more like a pace correction, I guess. [Laughs]
[32:54] Mike: I don’t formally do beat sheets, but it’s very similar to that, yes. [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
[32:59] Sarah: Do you tend to be more of an overwriter or an underwriter?
[33:03] Mike: Underwriter. I add—every revision will add words.
[33:07] Sarah: Do you prefer to write in the morning or at night?
[33:10] Mike: I would prefer to write at night, but that does not fit my relationship. [Sarah: Mm.] So I now write in the afternoons. I’m a full-time writer. I usually do the business that I need to do in the morning, I’ll write in the afternoon, and then I’ll spend the evenings with my wife. [Sarah: Mm.]
[33:29] Sarah: Whenever you start writing a new idea, do you usually start with character, or plot, or concept, or something else?
[33:36] Mike: Whichever one I have. One of those. [Sarah: Yeah, okay.] I know that’s not—that’s not helpful. I mean, I started Planetside with a setting. [Sarah: Mm.] That was it. I started with a setting, and then I quickly came up with the character. Most people would probably guess that I started with a character, but I actually had the setting before I had the character. [Sarah: Mm.] And I didn’t have a plot for either of them. The plot kind of came as I went, but I had it. So, I’ll start with whatever I’ve got. But I need something that really anchors me to it. I can’t just, like, have it. Like, I really need a character. If I’m gonna go with character, I gotta really have it. Or, if it’s a plot idea, or if it’s, you know, it’s a nugget of a plot, it has to really make sense. And I’ve actually struggled most when it’s a plot idea. [Sarah: Hm.] I’m much better off having a character, you know, and a concept, than a plot. [Sarah: Hm.]
[34:28] Sarah: Do you prefer coffee or tea?
[34:31] Mike: I only drink tea. I stopped drinking coffee about two years ago for medical reasons.
[34:36] Sarah: When you’re writing, do you prefer silence or some kind of sound?
[34:39] Mike: It has to be silent.
[34:41] Sarah: When it comes to a first draft, are you more of a get-it-down kind of person or get-it-right kind of person?
[34:46] Mike: Get it down. Hundred per cent.
[34:48] Sarah: What tools or software do you use to draft?
[34:51] Mike: Microsoft Word. [Sarah: Nice.] [Both laugh] Nothing, yeah. I draft in 12-font Times New Roman. [Sarah: Laughs] Like, the same way I’m gonna turn it in, that’s how I write it.
[35:03] Sarah: Do you prefer drafting or revising more?
[35:07] Mike: Probably overall, revising. When I have a good feel—like, how to get the puzzle together. And I love revising with other people. Like, I love working on books and just pulling them apart, and saying, “Hey, this is why this doesn’t work. Here’s how the pieces fit back together.” So, when it’s going well, revising. But on a good day, where I know the scene in my head and I can picture it, I do like to draft.
[35:30] Sarah: And do you write in sequential order, or do you hop around?
[35:33] Mike: Sequential. [Sarah: All right.] Even when I revise… [Sarah: Laughs] I start from the beginning and revise it from the beginning.
[35:40] Sarah: So, the podcast is called Queries, Qualms, & Quirks. We talked a little bit about your worries before, but we’re gonna talk about that second Q a little bit more. What were some of the worries that you had on your publication journey and were they realized, or did you overcome them, or, you know, how did they shake out?
[35:58] Mike: One thing I cannot do, and I’m very bad at, is working on something when I don’t know what’s going to happen, you know. So, they’ll say, “Hey, write another book.” Your agent—the first thing you do when you go on sub—your agent’s gonna say, “Forget about it. Go write another book.” That’s not me. I just cannot do that. But, as Planetside kinda started to look like, you know—as it was piling up rejections from very key publishers, I did start to try to write another book. I got through the first act of something, and it’s called, now, Misfits, so it’s the book that will be published in February. So, never throw your stuff away, I would say that.
[36:33] Sarah: Now we’re going to talk about the third Q. Do you have any writing quirks? Is there anything about your writing process that is kind of interesting or different or unique?
[36:41] Mike: The only thing unique about my writing process is how dull it is. [Sarah: Laughs] I write on a desktop computer, in silence, on my desk, with nothing around me. Maybe a notepad, and a glass of water, but that’s it. [Sarah: So, extremely minimalist.] I’m very dull. It’s work. I’m going to work, you know? When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.
[37:07] Sarah: I’m curious: are you able to write, if you have to, in a different situation? Like, if you were traveling and you were on deadline, would you be able to write?
[37:16] Mike: I’ve never tried it. [Sarah: Laughs] I don’t think so. I don’t feel good about it. Sure, I mean, I have a laptop, I own a laptop. I mean, I write on a desktop. I do own a laptop on the off chance that I had to do that. I would prefer to be at my house. I would prefer to never leave my house, if that was possible! My extrovert wife is not pleased about that.
[37:36] Sarah: You kind of referenced this earlier, but what were some of the biggest mistakes that you made along the way that you would like to warn our listeners away from?
[37:44] Mike: For me, it was thinking that I had a book that was ready when it absolutely was not. And I think that is an extremely common thing that writers do. So, take your time. Now, with that said, it’s a very recoverable mistake. No one’s gonna hold it against you. No one cares how bad your last book was if your next one is good.
[38:01] Sarah: Can you share with listeners one of the most important lessons you learned on your journey to publication?
[38:06] Mike: I’ve talked about this, but I’d like to say it a different way. And it’s gonna be mean, and that’s it. I’m your mean Uncle Mike, and I’m gonna tell you the truth.
[38:12] Sarah: Is this the ‘tough-love’ portion of the podcast?
[38:15] Mike: This is the tough-love portion, because I think we’re not tough enough, unfortunately. Which… I get it, it’s a tough business, and it’s horrible, and it will kick you in the face, but I also think that we sugarcoat stuff for people, and I don’t want to do that. And anyone who knows me, ask Dan when I read his books and give him feedback, how fun he—how happy he is about that. He’s very happy, because it makes better books, which is why he’s a published author. He’s not happy at the moment that he gets it. [Sarah: Laughs] I’m a very tough critique partner. But that’s okay—that’s our relationship, and it works for both of us. Which is, by the way, the key to a good critique partner relationship. If it works for both of you, you should do it. If it’s only working for one of you, it’s not a good relationship.
The bottom line is, we oversell the idea that it’s subjective. Because it is—it’s a subjective industry. However, not every book just ‘didn’t find the right place’. Some books are not good enough. You have to be lucky. You can write a great book, and never have it hit. You have to be lucky. But you also have to be good. And I think we underplay that second part, sometimes. People get rejected, and we want to be nice about it. Like, your book didn’t find a home, so we say, “Well, it just didn’t find the right person, or they just didn’t see it for the market, but it was good.” It might be, for ten percent of the people out there, did write a good book, and it didn’t just find it and it is subjective. The right agent didn’t see it, they had something like it, there’s all kinds of very, very legitimate reasons why a good book doesn’t make it. But also, maybe you need to write a better book. If you’re listening to this, you’re definitely in the ten percent, okay? So, for you, I mean, you’re good, [Sarah: Laughs] but those other ninety percent of people…
We all think we’re in the ten percent, so try to write a better book. And, even if you’re in the ten percent, or the one percent, or the one tenth of one percent, try to write a better book. I try to write a better book every time I write. I don’t always succeed, but I am trying to do different things. I’m reading other authors, and taking apart what they’re doing. I’m taking apart, you know, what very good science fiction authors do, and say, “Here’s what I liked about that book, and here’s what I think they could have done better.” Are they a better author than me? Maybe. Probably, or I wouldn’t be reading them. But also, are there things that they don’t do perfect? Or are there things that they do so well that I want to steal and learn from them? Everybody can get better. Unless you’re N.K. Jemisin, okay? If you’re—Nora, if you’re listening to this, you’re good. Everybody else, you can get better, until you’re her.
[41:02] Sarah: Nora, if you are listening to this, I would be happy to have you on the podcast! [Laughs]
So, when I’m asked for tough-love advice—you know, when I feel like people are in a place to receive that kind of tough-love advice—I say something very similar, but the way that I say it is, “Not every book deserves to be published.” And the first two books that I wrote do not deserve to be published, and I know that now. But at the time, I didn’t know that, you know?
[41:29] Mike: If you ask me the one thing that I see that tells me someone’s going to be successful, it’s how do they react when they get criticism? [Sarah: Mhm.] If they’re excited, that’s a really good sign. Because if they see, “Oh wow, I can get better. I now know how to get better,” and they’re excited about that, then they tend to do well.
[41:48] Sarah: This is what I call the ‘acknowledgements’ portion of the podcast. This is not a business that most of us succeed in completely on our own, and you’ve mentioned some of them, but who are some of the people and organizations that helped you along the way?
[42:01] Mike: Yeah. My first three critique partners were really, really instrumental. Colleen Halverson, Rebecca Enzor and Red Levine were really instrumental to me. I’ve mentioned the Pitch Wars people: Jason Nelson, Kellye Garrett, Dan Koboldt. Brenda—Brenda Drake—was the first person to follow me on Twitter. [Sarah: Really?!] You can go back and look. If you look in my—because I only joined Twitter to be part of Pitch Wars.
[42:24] Sarah: [Gasps] That’s so great! [Laughs]
[42:25] Mike: And the first person I followed was Brenda Drake, and she immediately followed me back, and I was like, “That’s pretty cool!” And I love her, obviously. You know that. She knows that.
My mom. For not laughing when I was eighteen or nineteen years old and said I wanted to be a writer. And if you look at the dedication in my first book, in Planetside, the dedication that says: “To my mom, who was the first person who believed.” Because when I said that to her, she believed me, even though I didn’t do anything about it.
And, of course, my wife. Who is a remarkable woman and the most understanding partner that you could have in writing. And if you are in a relationship, and you are a writer, there is no value that you can put on that. She’s just fantastically supportive. Without that relationship it would be very hard for me to do.
[43:11] Sarah: Do you want to tell listeners about either your latest release, or what you have coming up?
[43:16] Mike: I am the author of the Planetside series. It’s a series of three novels starring Colonel Carl Butler: Planetside, Spaceside, and Colonyside. They can be read individually, but I think they probably read better as a series, just because I do continue to develop the character. And if you’re into audiobooks, I have the greatest audiobook narrator out there in R.C. Bray, who is perfect as Carl Butler. He’s got this gruff voice. He was actually the voice in my head when I was writing Carl Butler, because I was listening to The Martian at the time, which was the first audiobook I ever heard, and R.C. Bray—back then R.C. Bray narrated it. It’s been re-recorded by Will Wheaton, but R.C. Bray had narrated it. So, in my mind, when I was writing the book, Bray was Butler. And then I was able to get him to be the narrator.
[44:03] Sarah: Well, Mike, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experiences with our listeners.
[Outro music begins: strumming guitar]
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks. You can find the text of Mike’s query in the show notes, along with links to find out more about him and his books. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review on your podcast app, tell your friends, or share this episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive. And if you’re a published author interested in being a guest on the show, please click on the home base link in the description, or go to sarahnicolas.com and click on the podcast logo in the sidebar—that is Sarah with an h, and Nicolas with no h. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time!