Author Interview: Michael R. Underwood, author of “Geekomancy”

Today I’m so pleased to welcome Michael R. Underwood, author of the super fun and super geeky book Geekomancy (Pocket Star, July 10, 2012). I read it this past summer and loved it, and reached out to Mike via Twitter. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about his book, his writing process, path to publication, and what’s in store with him for the future!


First, the blurb for the book!

Clerks meets Buffy the Vampire the Slayer in this original urban fantasy eBook about Geekomancers—humans that derive supernatural powers from pop culture.

Ree Reyes’s life was easier when all she had to worry about was scraping together tips from her gig as a barista and comicshop slave to pursue her ambitions as a screenwriter.

When a scruffy-looking guy storms into the shop looking for a comic like his life depends on it, Ree writes it off as just another day in the land of the geeks. Until a gigantic “BOOM!” echoes from the alley a minute later, and Ree follows the rabbit hole down into her town’s magical flip-side. Here, astral cowboy hackers fight trolls, rubber-suited werewolves, and elegant Gothic Lolita witches while wielding nostalgia-powered props.

Ree joins Eastwood (aka Scruffy Guy), investigating a mysterious string of teen suicides as she tries to recover from her own drag-your-heart-through-jagged-glass breakup. But as she digs deeper, Ree discovers Eastwood may not be the knight-in-cardboard armor she thought. Will Ree be able to stop the suicides, save Eastwood from himself, and somehow keep her job?

Hi Mike, thank you for being here. (I then attempt to do a virtual geek secret handshake/fist bump thing–Represent!–and promptly mess it up. Mike’s giving me a weird look). Ahem, moving along… Right when I saw the cover and blurb for your book, Geekomancy, I instantly bought it. How has the response for your book been so far from fellow geeks?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the love Geekomancy has gotten from geeks from all walks of life. When I set out to write Geekomancy, I wasn’t specifically intending it to be a love letter to geekdom, it just kind of ended up that way and I ran with it. Every time I see a recommendation or review come across Twitter, it hits me again how special it is to have been able to get out a story that connects with people and their passions. I’m very lucky to have gotten a chance to share the story, and even luckier that the response has been so positive.

What was your inspiration for the book? Was it one ‘a-ha’ little seed that then grew through a series of ‘what-ifs’ or did it come to you some other way?

Geekomancy started as a distraction. I was busy working on another novel, Codenamed Metaphysical Fencing Academy, and was having some trouble figuring out what to do next. My brain, industrious and insidious as it is, took this delay as a chance to pipe up with an idea about an urban fantasy where the magic came from pop culture. I took the Thanksgiving weekend to let the idea play out while hanging out with my girlfriend (as she worked on her thesis for grad school) and before I knew it, Geekomancy had totally taken over my attention, demanding to be written first.

This is more a comment than a question, but I, of course, loved the Firefly references. Thank you for including them! It made me feel like it was indeed a legit geek thing, making it into a book geared to fellow geeks :)

Of course! I’ve been a Whedonite since the early days of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show, and I loved Firefly most of all, with the fun slang, the great characterization, and the amazing community which built up around the show and the story. It was only natural to work Firefly references in, especially once I figured out Eastwood’s voice (and his cursing style in particular).

Your protagonist is female. What made you decide to have the main character be female? And thank you for doing that, as it was refreshing not to have it be a boy geek…

I’ve seen a lot of stories about male geeks. And even more about white male geeks, and straight white male geeks. And I know many female geeks, geeks of color, and queer geeks. So when I picked my protagonist, I wanted to feature a protagonist to partially represent the diversity in geekdom. It also let me give myself the challenge of writing a tight-POV with a female lead, which I will talk about in the next question.

How hard was it, as a guy, to write from a female POV?

Great follow-up question! I tried to make Ree a person who was female more than a female person. I didn’t want her to be female first, and for that to somehow be my brain’s overriding control on interpreting how she’d act. My female friends and family, when compared to one another, are just as diverse as my male friends and family, so I just used my experience of female friends, how they talk, act, and respond to things, grabbed a few characteristics, and then tried to stay consistent to my internal conception of who Ree was as a character, merits and flaws, skills and talents, and go from there. I made sure to consult female friends as first readers and critique partners to make sure I wasn’t going off the rails, and made a number of tweaks based on their feedback.

Your B.A. is in Creative Mythology. That sounds totally awesome and cool, but then my head tilts and I wonder what that exactly means, specifically the ‘creative’ part?

I blame Joseph Campbell. I was a perfectly happy freshman intent on declaring an East Asian Language and Culture major, then I read The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and had a huge lightbulb moment. I wanted to go all the way down the mythology and storytelling rabbit hole, and rather than triple majoring in Folklore, Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies (because at the time you couldn’t triple major at IU), I found the Individualized Major Program. It required a lot of legwork, but ultimately it let me build my own course list and synthesize classes from all over to inform my writing. My approach for creative mythology was to learn about how various world cultures formed worldview using mythology and folk narrative, then try to apply that same structural approach to write new myths that would symbolically resonate/inspire contemporary audiences. In reality, I just learned a bunch about worldview and storytelling, which helped me a great deal, maybe just not in the ways I originally intended.

You also have a Masters in Folklore, which I also think is tres cool, I concentrated in folklore studies for my Masters in Heritage Preservation. How much did your BA and Masters influence your writing? Hmm, just realized your whole book could be an example of Creative Mythology… (am a little slow on the uptake this morning, takes me a while to fully awaken since I don’t do caffeine).

My writing very much flows out of my academic work. Geekomancy is quite directly informed by the work I did at my master’s program, studying tabletop RPG groups and geek culture, since it was that work that got me to really start seriously thinking about what geekdom meant, why people invested in these clusters of hobbies, why those hobbies overlapped, and what this overall ‘geek culture’ thing was, especially as various aspects of geek culture were becoming very prominent in mass culture (Superhero movies, the seemingly-unstoppable rise of video games, continued tech ascendance, etc.)

The other major academic -> writer influence is my general folklore and mythology background, which prepares me to be more effective in fabricating non-earth cultures with some sense of authenticity. I know how cultures fit together, how tradition clashes with and adapts to innovation, and I have a big bucket of tradition, ritual, folk narrative and cultural stuff to draw upon, mix together, and apply for my own work. This means that I generally lean more towards fantasy than SF, but both of my published short stories so far are SF, so who knows.

Your book is chock full of nerd and geek references– I described it once to someone as Nerd Porn, as there’s one fun reference after another. Did this make it more difficult or easier to find an agent and then an editor?

My path to publication for Geekomancy is a very non-standard one, but I think that this era of rapid change in publishing is making stories like mine radically more common.

If I’d submitted Geekomancy as a first novel the traditional route, I think it might have. But I got very very lucky.

Shortly after I finished the rough draft of Geekomancy, I posted the first few chapters on a site called BookCountry.com, which is a writing and critiquing community for genre fiction writers. I’d posted a previous project there, and gotten good feedback, so I decided I’d post the rough draft for Geekomancy and share my whole revision process on the site. Make it a Thing.

I got a few reviews, and started revising based on that and other feedback. Then in January of 2012, I got an email from Adam Wilson at Pocket/Gallery that he’d read my excerpt at Book Country, liked it, then found a post on my blog saying that I’d just finished a full draft and could he see it?

Despite my trepidation about submitting a barely-revised super-rough-I-mean-like-bleeding-raw-rough draft to an editor, I did it. And just over a week later, I had an offer for a book deal. I took the window of consideration he could give me on deciding on the deal to go out and try to find an agent, and did a Lightning Round of agent searching, drawing on my experiences trying to get an agent with a previous project. I sent out around a dozen full manuscripts to agents per their requests, ended up with two offers of rep, and happily signed with Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency.

I think that some agents probably ended up passing because it was so All-Geek-All-The-Time, but I had a passionate and supportive editor who was willing to sign a debut author off of a 2nd draft, and found an agent who was willing to jump in on a deal that had already started being made because she was that invested in the project and in my work.

Your agent is the fabulous Sara Megibow. How did you go about ensnaring her? A lot of my blog readers are fellow writers and would love to get a little peek into your journey.

This is mostly covered in the previous question, but I can give a little more detail. Sara said that Nelson Literary gets 2-3 queries a month for authors that have deals on the table, but that mine was the first time either she or Kristen Nelson, the founder of the agency, has ever offered rep on such a query. I believe that I snared her with a query letter that was reflective of the voice of the novel (sarcastic, very verbal, comedic, and geek-tacular) and then delivered the kind of voice and kind of story that I promised in the letter, and that she connected personally with the character and the story, being of the Geek persuasion herself. When we talked on the phone, we got on swimmingly, and since then it’s just been marvelous. I’m working on notes for new projects now, and will be chatting with Sara about those soon, moving forward with my career as a novelist, and I couldn’t be happier to have her as my professional partner.

What has been the best experience so far, now that you’re a published author?

I said this above, but it’s totally the coolest thing. The hands-down best thing for me so far has been seeing the stories from readers about how they personally connected with the novel and with Ree. I’ve gotten emails and reviews where the reader talked about their personal connection to the shows/books/movies that are referenced in the novel and how seeing that love mirrored in the novel resonated with them. The novel is in many ways a love letter to geekdom, and it’s been amazing how many people in geekdom have written back to reciprocate and echo that love – love of the stories, the characters, the worlds that bring us together.

I see a sequel is in the works. Can you share anything yet about it? What can we expect (besides awesome geekiness abounding)?

I’ll give you a bullet list of things to expect:

  • Romance
  • Show Business
  • Rooftop chase
  • An Upgraded Geekomantic arsenal
  • A new magic system
  • More buddy action with Drake Winters

What was your favorite part about writing Geekomancy? Was there a character that surprised you along the way?

I can’t give the singular best part, but one of the best parts was taking a lifetime of passion for and knowledge of pop culture and geek stuff and weaving it together into a narrative. I got to look at the big wing of my brain that’s labeled ‘Geekdom!’ and rummage through with abandon for fun jokes, plot points, cool artifacts, whatever I wanted, it was all fair game. I didn’t have to water anything down, be coy about alluding to this that or whatever. If I wanted to make a joke, I made it. Some of them would later be edited out, but that sense of freedom was really invigorating.

I found Drake endearing. Will we see more of him in the sequel?

For sure. He’s far and away my favorite secondary character in the series, and he’s tremendously fun to write, especially as a straight-man to Ree’s sarcastic jokester. They turned out to be a better buddy-adventure pair than I’d initially imagined, and I feel like I can get a lot of mileage out of that relationship. Especially as other parts of their relationship change…

And the question always near and dear to a writer’s heart– are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between?

I live somewhere in-between, which I attribute to my time playing tabletop RPGs, specifically as a Game Master/Storyteller. As the person who had to provide an entertaining and fulfilling story for 3-6 people, I learned to make a variety of half-ready plans, then jump on whatever the players ended up choosing. This means that I do a decent bit of rough sketching, usually involving figuring out the ending and then backtracking to lay down a few way-points where the story turns, so that when I start the draft, I know where I’m going in the end, and I know what big turns I have to take to get there. But it still leaves me with big huge chunks of undiscovered territory, and even knowing the plot turns in general doesn’t mean I’ve got them totally crystalized in my mind. This means that I still get to surprise myself, and if I come up with something that I think is even cooler, I’m happy to go off the rails in certain places.

I’m hoping to experiment with a bit more structure for some future project to see how that works out, especially if I want to get to a point where I can produce two novels a year while still working a day job and having a social life. I get the sense that that pace of production would require a bit better pre-planning. But then again, I wrote the rough draft of the Geekomancy sequel in just about 6 months, so maybe I can get there as is.

Do you have any words of wisdom to fellow writers struggling to land the elusive agent?

When constructing your query, go out and find the back cover copy of a bunch of novels in the same genre, both for novels you’ve already read and ones you haven’t. Figure out what the copy on the novels you’ve read communicates about those books, what it draws out to tease a reader. Then look at the ones for books you haven’t read and try to figure out which ones most compel you to read more.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to re-create that marketing magic for your own novel. The absolute only thing a query letter needs to do is convince an agent to read more. But in doing so, it must also tell the truth about your novel, because if you promise one thing in the query and then don’t deliver that thing at all in the novel, chances are you won’t hook their representation.

Again, thank you so much for agreeing to do this! Us geeks need to stick together :)

Thanks for having me! In the words of our people, may the Force be with you.

———

Me again! So enjoyed this interview and his answers. Here’s more about Mike:

Hello! I’m Michael R. Underwood (I go by Mike Underwood, but the full name + initial makes Google happier), speculative fiction writer and North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. This blog was formerly called 21st Century Geeks.

I hold a B.A. in Creative Mythology (through the Individualized Major Program) and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon.

In 2007, I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which was the biggest boost to my writing career I’ve had yet. I’ve worked as a fiction reader for Fantasy Magazine, as well as writing for PopMatters.com as a DVD reviewer and essayist.

My first novel is an urban fantasy called Geekomancy (published July 2012 by Pocket Star, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Geekomancy was inspired by stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clerks, the Dresden Files, and The Middleman, as well as my experiences growing up geek. I am currently working on the sequel to Geekomancy, which will be coming in 2013.

Where to find Mike:

website | twitter

Where to find Geekomancy:

Amazon | iTunes | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Baumgartner Space Jump LEGO Reenactment!

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” by U2

NEWS: This week MUST LOVE BREECHES won 1st place in FF&P’s On the Far Side contest in the time travel/steampunk/historical category and a full request from the judging editor. It also finaled today in the Windy City Four Seasons Contest, paranormal category

Writing and the Writing Life:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Oppan Klingon Style (Gangnam parody)

Song playing right now on my playlist: “I Shall Believe,” by Sheryl Crow

Writing and the Writing Life:

Romance Writers:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this KLINGON STYLE (Star Trek Parody of PSY – GANGNAM STYLE) – h/t: @geekgirldiva – they’re even singing it in Klingon (turn on subtitles)!

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Stormtrooper Hygiene

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Begin the Begin,” by R.E.M.

NEWS: I will have some awesome news to report next week about MUST LOVE BREECHES (re: status in Query Land) and STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY finaled in its first contest (and the first one it entered), The Golden Pen, ironically beating out MUST LOVE BREECHES by less than a point (.7)

Writing and the Writing Life:

Browncoats:

Ada Byron Lovelace

  • This recently came across Publisher’s Marketplace: “James Essinger’s ADA’S THINKING MACHINE, exploring two interwoven human stories – the story of a man, Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and that of a woman, twenty-four years his junior, Ada Lovelace (1815-1851) and their involvement in the Analytical Engine, to Gibson Square, for publication in July 2013 (world).” SQUEE!!! (that last part was me of course, not PM) Now if only publishers would be convinced that MUST LOVE BREECHES could tie in with this :)

In Geekdom:

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to a Star Wars Call Me Maybe

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Walk Like an Egyptian,” by Bangles

NEWS: I’m heading to the RWA Conference on Tuesday, so there will be no Six Sunday tomorrow, or Monday Hunk, or Grab Bag. I don’t expect to resume normal blogging until August 1. I hope to do some sort of live blogging of the conference, but not sure how that will pan out, so we’ll see!

Writing and the Writing Life:

Romance Writing

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this (h/t The Nerdist):

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Batman Spa (and some Firefly)

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Let’s Dance,” by David Bowie

NEWS: I signed my first contract! BEER AND GROPING IN LAS VEGAS, coming January 2013 from Secret Cravings Publishing!

Writing and the Writing Life:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Jar-Jar Binks Target Practice

Song playing right now on my playlist: “On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor

NEWS: MUST LOVE BREECHES finaled in the Celtic Hearts RWA chapter contest, the Golden Claddagh, in the paranormal category!

Writing and the Writing Life:

Browncoats:

  •  Last week I posted the announcement of the Firefly cast reunion at ComicCon. Now there are rumors that a big announcement will be made. Oh, please be true and be what we’re thinking!!
  • And I thought you’d enjoy this:

In Geekdom:

Firefly Friday – The Three Dimensions of Character

Welcome to a new installment of Firefly Friday, where we examine a writing tip chestnut and marry it to my favorite TV show Firefly to illustrate it. Today’s topic: The Three Dimensions of Character. I haven’t done one of these since last November, but I thought this tip was shown so well in several instances in Firefly that I’d resurrect this feature.

I’m in the middle of digesting Larry Brook’s awesome book on writing called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. It’s chock full of great advice that has frankly made my brain hum (in a good way). One of the 6 core competencies that he says a successful writer needs to grasp is character.

Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Every craft book talks about character. But, like everything else he covers, he takes you deeper. One of the aspects of character development he talks about is the three dimensions of character, and if you think this is just your standard ‘make your character three dimensional’ advice, think again. I’ll give a quick overview (you’ll need to get his book to get the full details) and then give examples from Firefly. 

He says that all characters, like people in real life, have three dimensions, or aspects.

  1. First Dimension – Surface traits, quirks, and habits. These are things the world sees about this person, which may or may not be what the person thinks it says about them. It’s the person’s outward identity. In fiction, a writer can show aspects of a person’s character (what they drive, what they eat, etc) and a reader may or may not assign meaning to it. The reason it’s not good as a writer to stop here for main characters is that illuminating a character’s first dimension does not tell us his true self. (Firefly fans can already probably guess an example I will use). Anyway, it could all be a smoke screen.  If, however, as a writer, you show the meaning behind these outward traits, you’ve now crossed into the
  2. Second Dimension – The realm of backstory and inner demons.  In this dimension, the writer gives the backstory, agenda and/or meaning behind the surface traits, and what the reader assumed might be totally different. It adds depth to the character. It’s their inner landscape. It’s all the juicy backstory stuff that prompts, explains, and motivates the character’s first dimension choices of identity. First dimension is what you see– a guy with a tattoo. Second dimension is why he has that tattoo. Illuminating the second dimension creates reader empathy.
  3. Third Dimension – Where the true character emerges through choices made when something is at stake. Basically, when push comes to shove, just who is this guy? The true character is not defined by their inner demons and/or backstory until the character does something under pressure, which exposes who they truly are (good or bad). Usually in fiction, this decision comes at the end to show the character’s arc. It’s what shows the character as a villain or hero. A villain will continue to define himself by his backstory, while a hero will overcome it.

Okay, now for the fun part–giving examples from Firefly! The first example is from the episode “The Train Job” which FOX aired as the pilot. The premise is that the crew of the ship is hired by an underworld criminal to heist goods from a moving train. The captain doesn’t really care what it is, as long as the job’s done and they get paid. But when the heist hits an obstacle, and he learns that the goods are invaluable medical supplies the citizens of the planet are in desperate need of? His choice illuminates his true self. To relate it to the 3 dimensions, you could have two captains with the same quirks and traits, same background to explain them (on the losing side of a civil war, living on the edge of civilization scraping by), but each now has the same choice. Same 1st and 2nd dimension stuff, but one could choose to finish the job (and justify it in their mind) and the other could choose to return it. What does Captain Reynolds do? His answer beautifully illustrates what we’re talking about (9:24 to 10:30 on the timestamp):

The pertinent quote here:

Sheriff: A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.

Captain Reynolds: I don’t believe he does

To the captain, his belief that a man doesn’t have a choice when faced with such a moral issue is his true nature. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing. Another captain with the same traits and backstory might not have agreed.

This episode ties in nicely to the next example. The underworld criminal, not too happy with Captain Reynolds’ decision, gets his revenge in a later episode called “War Stories.” The villain, Niska, is a sick bastard, who follows the teachings of warrior-poet Xiang Yu. Niska loves to torture people because he believes it’s the only way to see their true selves. This whole episode becomes a demonstration of illuminating the 3rd dimension for many of the characters. For Captain Reynolds and his pilot, Wash, it is illuminated in how they react to Niska’s torture. Theirs is the biggest illumination of character in this episode, but some of the others get some too. In this episode, each has a choice about what to do now that their captain is captured. Each decides to rescue him, and in their own unique ways:

  • Shepherd Book, their man of the cloth, when asked about using a gun quips that the Bible is fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps
  • Kaylee, the engineer, discovers that she doesn’t have the fortitude to shoot anyone when their fall back position is overrun.
  • River, for the first time, shows a scary side of her abilities when she rescues Kaylee (twist here though is that her 2nd dimension backstory here gives her no option but to react this way)
  • Even the mercenary Jayne joins in (though it could be argued that even though he’s doing it for no money, he’s still operating between his 1st and 2nd dimension, since he also just likes a good fight)

The clip I’ve isolated (11 minutes) is a good example since it shows all of this and has the dialogue about ‘meeting the real me’. For those that don’t know the characters, this starts off with Wash, who up until this point in the season has been the never-been-violent, fun-loving pilot. His wife (who is a warrior) has just rescued him from a horrific torture session when this scene begins, leaving Captain Mal Reynolds behind. She also had a choice to make when she went in to ransom them, the captain or her husband, and she chose her husband (28:00 to 39:23):

And finally, the whole movie Serenity is the character arc of Captain Reynolds and River being resolved. For Captain Reynolds, until this movie, we never got to see what he’d be like when he was ‘at war’ and what kind of moral choice he’d make on something huge. His choice caused the death of two of his friends, but I believe his resolving that part of himself is why Inara is finally able to stay on the ship and explore a possible relationship with him. She needed to see his true self.

What do you think? Have you read Brooks’ book? Does this make sense? Fan of the show? Have you learned any good lessons from the show I haven’t covered?

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Vader In A Kilt On A Unicycle Playing Bagpipes (I Kid You Not)

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats

Writing and the Writing Life:

Romance Writers:

Ada Lovelace:

Jane Austen:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Vader Hugging a Unicorn

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Bittersweet Symphony,” by the Verve. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Writing and the Writing Life:

Romance Writers:

  • Sarah Wendell does an awesome post in reaction to 50 Shades and everyone in the media shocked to learn that women enjoy sex: Romance, Arousal, and Condescension
  • Merry Farmer writes an awesome post in reaction to a Philadelphia magazine article about the sorry state of the modern male which could explain why women like to read about Alpha males in romance: Where Have All The Good Men Gone?
  • Apparently we’re hitting the fruit too much, specifically cherries and berries, when describing nipples– this post will either have you chuckling or groaning: A Description of Nipples
  • Romance author Beth Dunn does an excellent and humorous overview of men’s fashion, specifically their pants, in the Regency and why some eschewed underwear (they didn’t want a panty line!) in her post at Wonders & Marvels: The Turn of the Leg

Ada Lovelace:

Jane Austen:

Browncoats:

And I’ll leave you with this: