Interview With Michael R Underwood

Michael R. Underwood grew up devouring stories in all forms to learn and prepare for a career as an author. He holds a B.A. in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon, which have been great preparation for writing speculative fiction. Michael went straight from his M.A. to the Clarion West Writers Workshop and then landed in Bloomington, Indiana, where he remains. When not writing or selling books across the Midwest as an independent book representative, Michael dances Argentine Tango and studies renaissance martial arts.

Geekomancy, Michael’s debut novel, is an urban fantasy inspired by Buffy the Vampire SlayerClerksThe Dresden Files, and The Middleman.  Geekomancy will be available as an eBook original from Pocket Books on July 10th, 2012.  You can reach him @MikeRUnderwood on Twitter or at http://www.geektheory.wordpress.com

1.     Have you ever found a gym with greatsword training as part of their available services?

None that I’ve attended, though Forteza Fitness in Chicago seems like they might be the first.  Given the chance, I’d strongly lean towards the historical combat/classes/workshop kind of model – right now, the gym I visit serves only the ‘has the devices I use’ function, where I think a place like Forteza would be the kind of place I’d hang out more informally and make friends.

Right now, my greatsword gym is my backyard, since I want to train up the skills I picked up in a workshop last week.  There is a 99.9% chance that the greatsword material will end up in a future novel, it’s just too much fun.

2.     What was your job description as a fiction reader for Fantasy Magazine?

We all had access to an email account which received the submissions, and the fiction readers would go in, mark stories with their personal icons to say ‘I’m reading this, don’t bother’ so that we didn’t step on one another’s toes. When I marked a story, I opened it up and read very critically, setting my expectations high, like if I were an only-vaguely interested reader.  The stories I passed along to the fiction editor for consideration were the ones that grabbed me right away or were so strong in their concept or prose that I never had the chance to lose interest.

3.     Did you coin the term Geekomancy?

I made the term up, though I discovered after I got deep into the first draft with that name and title that the Dresden Files role-playing game also coins geekomancy in a throw-away comment in the margins.

I give a fair bit of credit to the Unknown Armies role-playing game, which had such schools of magic as Dipsomancy, Personamancy, Plutomancy, and so on, for serving as inspiration to look beyond the normal range of magical schools. I tried to avoid the specific styles they reference, and make sure I had a different interpretation/method anytime I did something remotely close to a style the game had already done.

4.     How does one channel a genre trope?

Since it would be mean to say ‘You’ll just have to wait and read Geekomancy to find out!’ here we go:

Channeling a genre is a matter of focus and will, like many magic systems in fiction and among various traditions in our own world. First, you have to immerse yourself in a media property which shows the genre trope or conventions you want.  You could watch Die Hard to get the ‘long-suffering but determined and unstoppable action hero’ power or put on the recent BBC Sherlock to copy the title charcter’s hyper-analytical skills. But channeling a genre isn’t just about watching and copying, it requires an individual emotional connection to the material. Ree, my hero, can’t emulate a genre she doesn’t love, can’t use magic from a TV show or movie she isn’t passionate about.

Once you’ve built up enough of that synergetic connection between passion and exposure, the magic takes up a place in your mind, which Ree experiences as a buzzing energy. But once you’ve made the connection, it will change your perception of the world.  Channel Sherlock and you can’t help but see the way he does, right down to not understanding emotions, channel The Princess Bride and you’ll find your dialogue comes out all William Goldman-y unless you very consciously work against the magical influence.  You get some of the bad with the good, so it takes experience and willpower to find the right balance to achieve what you want.

In short: Exposure to the material + Passion for the material, focused by will = Magic.

5.     What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd? Do you identify as either?

It’s really hard for me to have this conversation anymore, because the terms have become so blurred.  Some folks draw strict lines between the terms/communities, others use them interchangeably, and sometimes, it just comes down to what sounds better when used as a label.

Generally speaking, I think of geeks as people passionate about something in the SF/F pop culture world, and nerds are people who are passionate about something in academic fields. But this distinction falls down very quickly for many people.

I identify more as a geek than a nerd, but I won’t get angry if someone calls me a nerd, as long as they don’t mean it in a derogatory fashion.  If you use a label to condemn or intentionally exclude someone from notice, worth, or consideration, whatever the label, then I get uppity.

6.     Do you identify with any of the characters on The Big Bang Theory or The Guild?

In The Big Bang Theory, I’d identify most with Leonard, but only just.  I’m not at all on the physical science side of the geek/nerd world, since I’m a humanities/social sciences guy.  And the last time I was as consistently inept around women was when I was in undergrad, about ten years ago.  I think the model of geek/nerd as shown in The Big Bang Theory is largely outdated in terms of being a representation of what ‘most geeks/nerds are like’.

As far as The Guild, those characters are just as exaggerated as in The Big Bang Theory, just with different archetypes.  If I had to pick, I’d be a Codex – sometimes insecure, but trying to bring people together to find meaning outside just that which the game itself yields.

Thanks Michael for being such a great sport about me including this video in your interview lol! .

7.     Do you ever Google yourself? Has anyone confused you with a different Michael Underwood?

I commit self-Googling, certainly, especially after I got my book deal.  When I was still an aspiring newbie, I knew that I’d need to use my middle initial or a pen name when I got published, so I wouldn’t get confused with other Michael Underwoods.

There was a mystery writer Michael Underwood who was fairly prolific in the 1970s, so I didn’t want to have confusion in author/title searches.  Add that to the various doctors and the Michael Underwood who is a British television personality, and I’ve got a lot of competition.  Specificity makes search engines happy, so it was middle initial to the rescue.  Luckily, I got that figured out even before my short fiction started selling, so it’s all under one name.

8.     What is line editing? Is that something the author does, or the editor?

Luckily, the name is pretty instructive – line edits are changes on the line level, aka the sentence level. They include things like ‘This phrase is awkward’ or ‘You’ve used the word cable four times in this paragraph, we need to change it up.’

Line edits are done by the editor, but then approved and executed by the author. I get a version of the novel with Adam’s comments in-line and as sidebars, where he’ll suggest grammatical changes, word choice changes, and add in any questions or comments he has about small-level issues.  I go through the document and if I see a change he’s made that I disagree with, I change it back or type in a different phrasing/way of resolving the issue.  Line edits combine with copy edits for the 1-2 punch that takes a novel from ‘good’ to ‘great’ in terms of polish.

9.     What will your novel go through before it comes out later this year?

After line edits, the manuscript will go to a copy editor, who will correct grammatical issues, typos, and such. Some copy editors also help with continuity work, correcting things like ‘This character has green eyes in one scene and blue eyes in another’ or ‘this book happens over five days, starting on a Thursday, but the end of the novel somehow happens on a Friday.  I’ve changed the dates for continuity based on the first day given’ and so on.

After that, the book will be typeset for production (into the various eBook formats).  Then my editor and I will get First Pass Pages, making sure that nothing crazy happened between the copy edit and the typesetting (as he explained it to me).  If all is well there, we approve the FPPs and the publisher finishes producing the final eBook that will be available to readers on the release date (July 10th!)

There’s also promotions work that happens between now and then, but that’s a different part of the business.

10.  Were any changes suggested to Geekomancy that you that you were reluctant to make?

Happily, no.  Adam and my vision about what makes Geekomancy appealing are entirely in line.  All of the suggestions he made were ways to strengthen what I was already doing, and nothing called for has rankled my aesthetic.  Adam is great about respecting my artistic vision; he helps me make sure the book is representing itself as effectively as possible in terms of clarity, character, and plot.

11.  What was your path to publication?

Geekomancy was not ‘supposed’ to be my first novel sale. It wasn’t even the novel I was ‘supposed’ to be writing.  I was working on a YA Epic Fantasy novel (which I will be getting back to, because it is awesome) in the fall of 2010, and over Thanksgiving weekend, I was staying with my girlfriend while she worked on papers for grad school. I decided to take a little vacation in my writing, and gave myself the weekend off from what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing to play with this weird ‘geekomancy’ idea.  At that time, it was known as ‘Distraction: The Novel’, but after a couple of days and about five thousand words of material, I couldn’t stop.

A little over a year later, I’d finished the first draft and done some revisions, so I decided to post the novel on Book Country (www.bookcountry.com — an online writing community for discussion and workshopping).  But since the site is run by a subsidiary company of Penguin Group, the folks who run Book Country had the connections to reach out to editors and agents, who are invited to the site as a way of finding new talent.

When I uploaded Geekomancy, I was just intending to show my revisions as I tried to prepare the novel for publication.  But one day, I got an email from Adam Wilson, who introduced himself as an editor for Pocket/Gallery, said he’d read my Geekomancy excerpt on Book Country, and wanted to read the whole manuscript.

Cue excited freak out (!) I sent the manuscript, along with a note saying that it was still deep in revisions, and wasn’t anywhere near polished.  Adam wanted to read it anyway, and a little over a week later, he contacted me again and asked to schedule a phone call, where he offered to buy the book and up to two sequels.

12.  What do you refer to as your “real” project?

Along the way, I thought of each novel as my first ‘real’ project.  Looking back now, the first novel that had a chance of being sold was Shield & Crocus, which combines the New Weird (ala Perdido Street StationThe Etched City or Finch) and the superhero genre (ala revisionist stories like Astro CityInvincible).  It was the first novel I sent out to agents and editors, and it got a lot of positive feedback despite not being sold (yet.)  I’d like to do something with it someday, but right now, the Geekomancy series is keeping me plenty busy.

13.  Do you have any “stories in the back of the proverbial drawer that will never see the light of day?”

Sure, lots.  I think most writers do.  Every one of the stories I wrote during undergrad are in that category.  They were the result of my efforts to figuring out the craft, learning the basic skills and developing my abilities, so I don’t regret the time I spent on them.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t ever publish them out or ask people to pay for them.

14.  What social media do you use? Do you combine your personal and professional or keep them separate?

I’m active on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and to a lesser extent, Google+.  I also run the Facebook page for my day job, which is easy to keep separate, since they’re distinct accounts.  When I speak in my social media faces, I’m 99% of the time speaking as myself, not claiming to be speaking for my job. If I’m talking up a book from one of my publishers, I try to disclose that so people know where I’m coming from.

In terms of personal/professional as a writer, I tend to follow the approach that my friends and my readers are likely to want to know my other thoughts about the world – what movies I like, what happens as I’m traveling, and so on.  Since my first novel series is deeply tied into pop culture, I view posts about movies, tv, and the like as immediately relevant to my writing identity. Truly personal material just doesn’t end up on social media sites.

15.   What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

I’ve used Word for writing since undergrad, though when I wrote Geekomancy, I was trying out the Scrivener for Windows beta, and now that it is released, I bought a license and will keep using it for novel projects to help me stay organized, especially with the Geekomancy sequel, where I need to keep track of established characters.

16.  What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

A notebook.  I have a few notebooks strewn about in my apartment and various traveling bags, where I’ll jot down little ideas I can’t immediately connect to another project.

17.  What is the most persistent distraction from writing?

In my free time, the biggest distraction is just the siren song of the internet and its multiplicitous glorious-time-wasters.  I have other hobbies and passions, but those help keep me healthy and excited about life, in addition to giving me cool things to write about (see #18).

18.  Which is more useful to a person who wants to write fiction for a living, a degree in creative writing, or a degree in whatever subject the writer finds interesting?

I can only speak to my own experiences, and I was kind of a hybrid.  My Creative Mythology degree included a lot of creative writing classes, but I also earned a B.A. in East Asian Studies and my M.A. is in Folklore Studies.  I think that it’s really important to develop your craft skills, and writing classes/degrees can give you the time and the structure to do that, but I think it’s really important (for SF/F writers at least, and for all writers more broadly) to cultivate passions outside of writing which you can bring to your work, as color, setting, or as forces that shape your worldview and contribute to your individual voice.

If all fiction writers only ever read the same canonical texts and all studied the same curriculum of literature, craft, and workshopping classes, I think we’d have a much narrower range of fiction in the world.  Embrace your weird interests, and then reap the rewards of your specialized knowledge by bringing it to your work.

Chealsie Hightower dancing with fellow Dancing With the Stars Pro Mark Ballas, whom I am sure gets mistaken for Mike Underwood all the time.

19.  If you were to be a competitor on Dancing With the Stars, which pro dancer would you like to have as a partner?

Probably Chelsie Hightower – I watched her on So You Think You Can Dance, so I’d feel most comfortable working with her since I ‘know’ her better than the other pros. She’s also not taller than me (even in heels), which is a plus.

However, I think I might get disqualified from being on Dancing With The Stars, since I’ve studied ballroom dance and spent several years dancing Argentine Tango pretty intensively.  But if they let me sneak on (or more accurately, if they thought I’d bring in viewers and decided to invite me), I think my skills might make up for my lack of relative fame.  Then again, I might throw the choreography out the window and dance improvisationally one night, overpowered by the ecstatic glory of the dance.  That’d make good television, I bet.

20.  Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

For me, if Han doesn’t shoot first, his character arc in A New Hope is worthless.  When we meet Han, he’s a seedy character who looks like he’s going to swindle Luke and Obi-Wan. He’s a not-terribly-reassuring only option for the desperate pair. He has a dangerous buddy and we don’t know what he’s going to do.  Shooting Greedo first fully establishes Han as a grey character, not a Good Guy.  Until the very end, Han is consistently motivated by greed and self-interest.  If you have Greedo shoot first, you never fully get to establish Han as 1) a badass and 2) a shady not-so-trustworthy guy.  Without setting him up to change from selfish to selfless, you rob the character of a rewarding arc.

At least, that’s how I see it.

Attention writers: Michael has donated a critique to Kat Brauer’s Crits for Water Fundraiser! It is a great cause. Click the Crits for Water link for more information. This raffle is open for entries until 11:59pm, Eastern Daylight Time, May 6th, 2012.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1qnT4-JN

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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2 Responses to Interview With Michael R Underwood

  1. Pingback: Out in the World « Geek Theory

  2. Pingback: SciFi Q of the Day: Channel the Genre Trope | AmyBeth Inverness

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