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01 Jun

A cartoonist at heart who eat up visual art forms like candy. Know more about Mike MacDee…

JR: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe yourself?

Mike: An idiot savant.  Also a freelance author, cartoonist, and game designer.  Mostly an idiot, though.  Oh, and if you enjoy a fine cigar with me, we’ll probably be best pals.


JR: When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer? Who spotted that talent, and what was the first thing you did with it?

Mike: I quite enjoyed Miss Folz’s first grade class because she encouraged us to write whatever we wanted on a weekly basis.  I wrote stories and drew comics all the time as a kid, mostly ‘cos I couldn’t make friends. Art and writing were sort of my protective shell from the outside world, often to a fault.

Haha, who spotted my talent? The very idea of anyone noticing me is kind of hilarious. I’m not sure what I’d do if I suddenly wasn’t obscure anymore.


JR: Do you have any formal education in creative writing? Do you think formal education in writing is necessary?

Mike: I do, and it is!  I’m sure there’s the odd person who taught themselves to write well — Malcolm X taught himself to read in prison, so why not?  But language is a tough thing to learn without formal training, and using that language for entertainment is even tougher.

A big part of creative writing is peer review.  It’s tough to get peer review outside of a classroom environment — sometimes you’re lucky to get it in an online writing community.


JR: What made you decide to start writing? What or who influences you?

Mike: Music is how I started writing for serious: my love of film soundtracks.  Before I even knew how to write coherently, I was composing stories in my head while listening to film scores.  When I was little, the house was constantly blasting Danny Elfman scores like Beetlejuice, Batman, and Mission: Impossible (partly to drown out my brother’s Wheezer albums in the next room).

I’m a cartoonist at heart, so I eat up visual art forms like candy.  I grew up on old films — adventure films, monster movies, and westerns especially — and a lot of those motifs find their way into my work whether I want them to or not!


JR: What is the greatest lesson you have learned and/or greatest achievement you have reached as a writer?

Mike: It’s hard to single out one lesson.  It’s also hard not to list them all off and sound like an egotistical ass.  I guess I’ll pick the one I learned too late: if you’re thinking about writing, DON’T…unless you can’t help yourself.  You can count on one hand the total number of authors who make a living on their writing alone.  In other words, don’t quit your day job.

I recently entered a collaboration with a former Marvel Comics employee, so that’s a pretty exciting achievement.


JR: Do you have habits in writing? Any specific time and/or place to write?

Mike: Unless I’m reeeally burnt out, I just sit down and do it whenever I have time.  No rituals, no special places: I just sit at the compy and punch something up, even if I don’t feel like it.  This is harder if I have no idea what I’m gonna write. My brain works like a pot o’ ramen noodles: can’t eat until the noodles have simmered long enough.  Some days it cooks faster than others.

Ugh, now I’m hungry again…


JR: How long does it normally take to finish writing a book? What is the hardest part of the process?

Mike: I’ve managed to finish a novel in a month, again by just sitting down and punching it out, inspiration be damned.  Outlines help immensely in this regard.

The hardest part isn’t writing, it’s getting noticed.  You gotta market your book and spread awareness and build an author platform and a bunch of other stuff, all of which requires that the people of the world give a damn in the first place.  I’m not a business person and never really understood it too well, but I do come up with creative ways to market my books.  As a game designer, I can make interactive promotions whenever I want!  I made a Doom mod called Project Einherjar to promote my Winter Agent Juno dystopian adventure series.

Also, finding amazon reviewers who actually provide an email address is a crap shoot.  You can email the top ten or twenty reviewers, but you may never hear back from them because of their backlog.  Check the lower-ranked reviewers and hope for the best.  And be wary of book review sites: most of them are strangely put off by any amount of violence, sex, or dirty birdy words.  Most of them would never touch my novel The Helios Legacy because of a single three-paragraph conversation loaded with profanities.


JR: How do you think you have evolved creatively?

Mike: I think my dialogue has become the best aspect of my writing.  Sometimes the narrative is dry, sometimes quirky, sometimes not up to par, but the dialogue never fails to grab people for some reason. Not sure why. I’m just glad it does, ‘cos it used to be very Tarantino-esque: longwinded and self-indulgent.  If I’d known that was so popular in the 90s I probably could’ve sold a few scripts in high school!


JR: Do you ever face Writer’s Block? How do you overcome it?

Mike: It’s a maze.  When you get writer’s block, you’re at a dead end.  You can smash the wall down and stay on your original path, or backtrack and take another path to the end.  The second option is always easier.  Outlining beforehand helps a lot either way (i.e. mapping the maze).


JR: Do you have a professional designer to design the cover and/or interior of your books? If you do, any recommendation you would like to share with fellow authors?

Mike: I can’t recommend anyone because I’ve never seen a book cover design portfolio that impressed me.  All the covers look the same as anything else, and while it is important to have a pro design your cover, it also needs to stand out in the potential reader’s mind, AND stand out from the rest of the generic-looking crap on the (virtual) shelf.

I design my own book covers because I’m also a cartoonist and I understand artistic composition.  In a way it’s how I sign my projects, sorta like how Yello makes their own music videos.  The only book I wrote where I didn’t draw the cover was Shadow of the Fox, but even then I still did the conceptual design and the artist stayed remarkably true to it.


JR: How do you promote your books? Any marketing techniques you can share?

Mike: Do book signings, do blog/podcast interviews, do giveaways on amazon and goodreads.  Apart from that, your marketing is limited only by your imagination.  Do you have a talented musician friend whose style suits your book?  Commission them to make an album to go along with it.  Know a game designer?  Make a series of video game adaptations.  Sculptor?  Action figures!  Any good with acting or cinema?  Upload readings, short films, or cinematic storyboards to youtube.  You can even write fan fiction and link to your website in the header and footer.


JR: What are your thoughts on traditional publishing Vs. self-publishing?

Mike: Hoo boy.  Trad versus self…

Traditionally Published:
– You have to research which publishers are looking for books like yours, and you follow their submission guidelines to the letter.  If you don’t understand an industry term, look it up.
–  If it’s fiction, you do not submit the entire manuscript.  You submit a query letter and a sample chapter of the book, or however many pages the submission guidelines ask for. (non-fiction is another beast entirely with a very different process)
–   The publisher handles all fees for printing, hiring editors, hiring cover designers, etc.
–  The book gets published whenever it fits the publisher’s schedule, which means it’ll be anywhere from one to three years from submission, to contract, to editing, to publication.
–  Sometimes you get an advance payment, which must be paid back in book sales before you begin to see any profits.  As long as you don’t breach your contract, the advance is yours to keep — so if you get a two million dollar advance, your book could be a total flop and you still got two mil in the bank.
–   People take you more seriously as an author, despite traditional publishers’ history of crappy books.
–  You have to do all the promoting yourself. You pay for promotional materials, you pay for copies to sell or give away. (Your publisher MIGHT give you copies for signings. Ask them.)

–   You have to choose the best venue for your book. ebook? Print on demand? Kinko’s chapbook? My god, you’re outta control!
–  YOU handle all fees for printing, hiring editors, hiring cover designers, etc.
–  The book is ready whenever you say it’s ready…for better or worse…
–  The profits are mostly yours, and available from the first book sale.
–   People don’t take you seriously as an author, due to self-publishers’ history of crappy books.
–  You have to do all the promoting yourself. You pay for promotional materials, you pay for copies to sell or give away.

Which one is best for you? Go with that one. Both methods have born successful authors.


JR: How many books have you written (published and non-published)?

Mike: Too many.  All the earliest ones were deleted, and deservedly so.  They were crap.  My new year’s resolution was to finish a book a month, and already I’m failing.  The newest Winter Agent Juno book was a bit loftier than I’d anticipated.

As of this interview, I’ve published three: ‘Shadow of the Fox’ is published through Pro Se Press.  The rest are self-published via Lulu, Amazon, and Smashwords.  I’m planning to put out at least two more by the end of the year.


JR: What genre do you normally write in, and what draws you to this genre? Do you always write in the same genre?

Mike: I initially specialized in horror while I was still learning the ropes.  I found it’s very good to specialize in one genre when you’re starting out, because then there’s no question what you’re going to write: now you just worry about writing it WELL.  I have twenty-odd horror stories published on the ‘net, and that was more than enough.  I’ve since moved on to pulp adventure fiction.  After that, who knows?  Robot erotica?  Dino-noir?

I love genre fiction, but actually I can never write plain genre fiction myself.  I always have to mix a bunch of stuff together to get a weird concoction.  Shadow of the Fox, for example, is a very niche mix of spy and historical fiction.  Winter Agent Juno is a mix of dystopian sci-fi, western, and adventure pulp.  Bishop & Holiday is mythological horror comedy.  Or something.  I still haven’t figured it out yet.


JR: Of all the books that you have written, which is the best in your opinion? What do you think readers will find most appealing about this book? What’s the “real story” behind this book?

Mike: I guess it’s ‘Shadow of the Fox’.  For a lot of reasons.

The premise is memorably unusual.  I basically took the 1960s Mission: Impossible TV formula (a government agent destroys the villain-of-the-week with an elaborate con game) and tossed it into Japan’s Edo period, when Japan was unified and wandering ronin were a common sight.  So it’s historical fiction, but the plots are elaborate con games with seedy characters, and you never know how it’s gonna end because you’re just as in the dark as the villains.  I ended up reinventing the ninja as a result of my research ethic: the heroes don’t use ninja tricks or wear black uniforms or anything like that.  They’re just soldiers and criminals who are really good at being sneaky.

The tension is usually better than anything I’ve written, too, and the plots are airtight machines that are VERY difficult to write.  No characters can be superfluous, no events or actions can be pointless, or the whole plot falls apart.  The reader would suddenly think “Wait, it would be so much easier if they just did this instead!”  Each story requires a delicate and sneaky solution to avoid unnecessary conflict, and as I said, you don’t know how the hero plans to stop the villains until he actually puts his plan in motion: anything and everything that happens could be part of the plan, or could be an unforeseen disaster.  And when you get to the end you feel a bit smarter for having read it.

I wrote it as a love letter to Japanese and American adventure shows from the 1960s and 1970s (Mission: Impossible, Shokin Kasegi, Oedo Sosamo). I had been writing the series as a comic years and years ago, back when it was much more juvenile and anime-esque.  I’m proud of how it evolved and matured, even though it’s a very short book.


JR: Any other works in progress?

Mike: The sequel to Shadow of the Fox is supposed to come out next year, with three more elaborate con games set in the Edo period.  It’s bigger and better than the first, and filled with larger-than-life characters.

I’m editing Kingdom of Famine, the follow-up to The Helios Legacy.  The plot is more centralized and very personal to Juno: she goes back to her home town to bury her mother and runs into the usual ne’er-do-wells.  It reads much more briskly than the first book and dials back the world building a bit.  I’m also trying to finish writing the third book, Last of the Ghost Lions.

Finally I need to get around to editing the second Bishop & Holiday book, The Amityville Nuisance.  There are some scenes in this one that left people in stitches when I read them aloud, so I’m pretty excited about it.  It also has a gorgeous cover featuring a gorgeous medusa lady.


JR: What advice can you offer an aspiring writer?

Mike: Don’t quit your day job.

No, really.  Write ‘cos you can’t help it, not ‘cos you wanna be a celebrity.  There is no celebrity status.  I’m pretty sure even Stephen King has a day job.


JR: How can readers discover more about you and your works?

Mike: Why, they can sail on over to Mikestoybox.net and read all the weird stuff therein!  Anything and everything I’ve made is available through the site, and I’m always available to answer emails about the secrets of the universe.

Just don’t ask me how to get girls.  I haven’t figured that one out yet.