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Interview: Michael R. Fletcher

I’m interrogating … er … interviewing Michael R Fletcher today, author of the science fiction novel 88. Mr. Fletcher’s debut novel is quite a good read, and is reviewed here on The Blaagh.


So, to start off, tell us a little about yourself.

Um. No.

The thing is, I’m not very interesting. Anyway, it’s not about me; it’s about the stories I tell. Plus, if I told you the truth, I’d have to kill you afterwards. Which would be awkward because I don’t even know where you live and it seems like a lot of effort.

Okay. Maybe a bit.

I moved a lot as a child and lived in eighteen different towns in fifteen years. I think it had something to do with the Witness Relocation Program, but my parents roll their eyes every time I mention it. Later I met this absolute goddess, all long dark hair and flashing dark eyes, and for some reason she was willing to marry me. Seriously, I’ve looked in the mirror. I don’t get it. Anyway, I wrote a science fiction novel, 88, while the goddess planned our wedding. We now have a daughter who is the Centre of the Universe.

The novel 88 is chock full of ideas. Virtual reality, human rights, assassin ninja robots … What sort of things influenced and inspired you to write this book?

The truth is, when I wrote 88 I didn’t expect it to get published. What I really wanted to write was a story my half-dozen closest friends would enjoy. The problem is my friends are all physicists and engineers. I’m sort of the odd-man out, the token artsy in the group. These guys know their physics and they know their technology and they’re all industry leaders in their fields. To make it worse, they all read a lot of science fiction. I had to write a story they hadn’t read a half dozen times before, and I had to do an awful lot of research to get the details right.

Beyond that, I’m not sure where it all came from. I certainly didn’t create the idea of scanning human minds. Kevin O’Donnell and Robert Sawyer went there long before I. I did think, however, there were aspects of the idea that hadn’t been explored. Really, the entire story came out of one idea: What minds will make the best computers? The answer seemed obvious. After that it was all about pushing it into the darkest corners I could find.

Characters like Archaeidae, Wandering Spider, SwampJack, and Oo-Suzumebachi came out of being repeatedly slaughtered in on-line shooters by fourteen year old kids with nothing else to do with their time but become killing machines.

Living in Canada, are assassin ninja robots something you need to be aware of? Should tourists pack military hardware in their luggage?

The ninja robot problem is really getting out of hand. Luckily, due to our strict gun control laws, most are armed only with hockey sticks and water-logged nerf footballs.

The novel was published by Five Rivers Publishing, an “independent publisher of fiction and non-fiction, giving voice to new and established Canadian authors.” It looks like smaller publishers are gaining a foothold. How was your experience with them?

The Five Rivers folks have been beyond awesome. They put an absolutely crazy amount of time and effort into my little novel. I have no doubt I would not have enjoyed such attention from a major publisher.

To quote Lorina: “…the key to success in publishing in today’s rapidly morphing industry is not bricks and mortar stores. Success is through online print and digital sales, where overhead is minimal, a sale truly represents a sale and not a rental of a book for 45 days, all of which is propelled by online social networking and marketing. The only exception to that rule is through the giant houses, which can afford to dump bags of cash through conventional and traditional marketing and sales avenues. But it is to be noted even the giants are having a hard time with this archaic business model, and it is interesting to note how they’re bumbling about trying to mimic the fast-paced, rapid fire kind of business model we small, micro and indie publishers have adopted and perfected. It’s through the small houses the leading edge of the publishing business is now carried, not the giants, and our marketing methods are constantly evolving, adapting rapidly to consumer needs and trends.”

How long did you work on the manuscript? Is the end result very different from how you saw it initially?

The short answers are: Five years. Yes. The (overly) long answer follows.

I started writing 88 in late 2008 and it took about a year to finish the first draft. After that I spent six months editing with help from family and friends. I then spent about a year chasing the biggest publishing companies and getting absolutely nowhere. Being a clever little monkey I soon saw the error of my ways. Most of the big publishers won’t look at an author who isn’t represented by a literary agent.

Fine, I’ll get an agent.

I then spent a year chasing agents and once again got nowhere. The problem, I decided, was that no one had heard of me. I had no cred as an author. So I set about writing short stories. I figured I’d get a few published (how hard could that possibly be?) and then chase publishers/agents again.

After a year I’d collected well over 100 rejection letters and was about to give up on short stories and writing in general. As you can guess, fate is a fickle trickster. Just as I was about to throw in the proverbial towel, On Spec bought one of my stories, Artificial Stupidity. After that I sold stories to Interzone (Intellectual Property, IZ 232), Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (Death at the Pass, and Death and Dignity), Daily Science Fiction (Character is What You Are), and the Arcane II Anthology (Fire and Flesh). The above took the best part of two years. What can I say, I’m stubborn.

Ah ha! Now I’ll be able to land an agent and score that huge publishing deal and quit my day job!

Nope. Still no one was interested in 88.

I decided to change my approach and researched small presses, looking for which would be the best home for my novel. One publisher stood out. Lorina at Five Rivers talked about going back to the roots of publishing. She talked about old-school relationships where publishers and editors worked with the novelist for however long it took to make the book the best it could be.

After the deal was signed we spent a year in editing and rewriting. They taught me how to write. Or at least they tried to.

The final version of 88 is very different from that first draft. It changed from sloppy-as-hell third person POV to a very tight third. It changed from present tense to a much more readable past tense. I rewrote the ending five times before I got one I was really happy with. New characters were introduced, characters surviving earlier drafts were killed, and characters I had killed off were resuscitated.

I’m going to stop now. This is getting silly long.

For our novice writers out there *cough*me*cough*, tell us how you plan out a project as large as a novel, especially one with so many sub-plots. Long bullet-ed lists? Scribbled arcane symbols on scraps of toilet paper? Chicken bones cast into molten lead?

I don’t plan. I like flying by the seat of my pants, making things up as I go. But what works for me, might not work for you.

When I started 88 I had no idea how the book would end and I didn’t know who (if anyone) would survive. After I finished the first draft I went back and fixed scenes, rewrote them from other character’s POVs, added new characters, changed people’s relationships, and looked for plot and logic holes.

I’ve cut and pasted the entire background notes I wrote before starting 88. Everything else I made up as I wrote. The ones in bold actually made it into the novel. If you haven’t read the book yet, not to worry. There are no spoilers.

AI is not possible

Cell phones give people cancer

A massive epidemic of brain tumours led to a massive increase in neural surgery and research

Out of this research came brain Scans and other neural augmentation

Neurosurgeons are as common as dentists

Scanning human (and animal) minds is possible

The Scanning process is destructive and kills the individual

A Scan is never 100% accurate, but sometimes so close that no one can tell.

Wildly inaccurate Scans can still sometimes be useful.

Copies of a Scanned mind are also never 100% copies –each generation is degraded – so a fresh Scan is always better than a copy

Scans come from volunteers and donors –all run by the government

There is a black-market for illegal Scans.

The best minds for Scanning are those of children

There are illegal “orphanages/crèches” where children are raised to be Scanned. They are taught little of the world and often prepped for specific jobs

Scanned brains can be given access to “tools” (software) that make them far superior at many tasks to a human.

A Scanned brain cannot be turned off/interrupted –to do so is to kill it.

Legal controversy: Are they still people, do they have rights, do they have souls?

And that’s it. I had a couple of point form notes on the characters, Griffin is prematurely greying, Nadia has long dark hair kinda stuff. Most of the characters (Miles, Archaeidae, Wandering Spider, SwampJack, Oo-Suzumebachi, etc, etc.) I created as they were needed. Several were added during the rewrites.

I had an idea who the characters were and then I threw them into this world I had in my head and just started writing. I didn’t put too much thought into defining their personalities. I wanted them to be different people – changed by their experiences – by the end of the book.

Someone (Michael Crichton?) said books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. That was certainly the truth for me.

What kind of software do you write with?

I do all my writing in LibreOffice (for Ubuntu). Previously I used word-processors as glorified typewriters, but now I make use of some of the deeper functionality, like using comments to leave reminders and notes for myself. Still, I barely scratch the surface of what they can do. I’ve never really felt the need to explore writing tools like Scrivner. I think if I bothered with outlines and the like they’d be more useful.

What kind of things do you do when not penning epic stories?

Right now I spend a lot of time playing with my 2 ½ year old daughter, so I’m either building castles with blocks or pretending to be a puppy or a dragon. Um…no idea where the castles and dragons thing comes from.

I also like drinking red wine with my wife while we talk about random stuff; it is one of my greatest pleasures. We don’t get as much time to do this as we used to, but we’re trying.

And I am a huge nerd. I still get together every Monday night with friends from high-school to role-play. We wrote our own system and have campaigns that span years. Fuck growing up.

In those rare quiet moments when there’s nothing I have to be doing, I listen to really loud death metal.

Now that 88 is out in the wild, what’s next? Sequels? New novels? A personal trip to outer space with all your phat published author lewt?

The second 88 was officially out of my hands and no more changes could be made (novels are never finished) I got to work on Beyond Redemption, my dark fantasy novel. I’d started it ages ago – back before landing a publishing deal for 88. Beyond Redemption is currently in the hands of some test readers and, assuming it goes well with them, I’ll be firing it off to Five Rivers in the near future. While waiting for feedback from the readers, I’m hard at work on 88.1, the sequel to 88. Once 88.1 is finished and out the door I can get to work on a sequel to the fantasy novel. I also have a children’s fantasy novel I’d like to write before my daughter is old enough to read it.

Between writing, playing with my daughter, and getting drunk with my wife, I don’t have time for space travel or spending my phat stax of published author lewt.

I can’t even keep a straight face writing that. I won’t be quitting my day job (ninja) any time soon.

Last, but not least: You sat down and rolled your face on the keyboard hour after hour, persevered, and created an awesome novel. What advice would you give a new writer or a budding novelist?

Write. Submit. Learn to accept rejection. Write more.

I’ve wanted to write the kind of stuff I’m writing now my entire life. I let fear and doubt and insecurity stop me. Don’t be me.

Turn off the TV. Give away all your video games. Put your ass in a chair. Write.

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