I get to meet a lot of fascinating people on Google+ and Mike is just one of the many amazing Indie authors I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I hope you enjoy the interview and feel free to ask further questions of Mike or me.
Jameson: Now we met in the Writer’s Discussion Group community on Google+. And I’ve met tons of fantastic people there. Give me a quick overview of you and how you came to be on Google+.
Reeves-McMillan: It’s all Evo Terra’s fault. A few years back, I put my first published novel, City of Masks, up on Podiobooks.com, which Evo founded. So I joined the authors’ mailing list, and when Evo encouraged us all to join G+, I wandered over, circled him and some other Podiobooks authors, and it kind of escalated from there.
At some point I circled John Ward, and after that it was all over.
Jameson: When you circle John Ward it is all over. I listened to your first chapter of City of Masks on Podiobooks. Can you explain Podiobooks a little bit and your experience in using it?
Reeves-McMillan: Well, podcasting had been around for a short while by then, and I thought, “I wonder if you could make a book into a podcast, kind of like a radio serial or an audiobook? I don’t see why not.” So I Googled, and discovered that Evo and some others had already thought of the same idea and set up a site where you could register projects like that and gain listeners.
City of Masks is kind of a strange, genre-bending book, and I never got a huge number of fans that way, but I’ve had a few hundred downloads and people like Nathan Lowell and Brand Gamblin have listened to it and enjoyed it, so it was definitely worth doing. And fun.
It’s a lot of work, though, and I’ve put doing any other books that way on hold indefinitely while I concentrate on the writing. Maybe someday I’ll reach the point where I can pay to have someone else do the recording and, more importantly, the editing, since that’s what takes the most time.
Jameson: You felt the process took too much time from your actual writing?
Reeves-McMillan: Not then, because there wasn’t anything else I was working on. But now, yes, I’d rather get several books out and then work on getting them more widely known.
Jameson: Did that experience with the process give you a different perspective and focus? Do you it feel it educated you in anyway? Help define your writing path at all?
Reeves-McMillan: One thing it did for me was make me think about voice. Reading my own book aloud gave me the opportunity to “do the voices” (which was a lot of fun) – the main character, who’s naive and bumbling and ponderous, sounds completely different to his young servant. That was something I’d built in subtly to the book itself, but it came out even more when I did it in audio.
Right now, I’m working on the third Gryphon Clerks book, and I’m playing a little with viewpoint, using different characters in different chapters, and giving them subtly different voices. I might not be doing that if I hadn’t done the Podiobook.
Jameson: I found your voice to be very soothing. Like I was listening to someone reading to me in the Victorian era in some sitting room of a well-to-do family. Did you practice those voices at all before recording? Or did it just come naturally?
Reeves-McMillan: I don’t remember (it’s a few years ago), but I think I just did them more or less spontaneously. When I got to the end of the book, the character who opens the book also closes it, and we haven’t heard much from him in between, so I had to go back and listen to how I’d done his voice. (It was cynical and world-weary.)
It helped that I wrote that one in first person, as a series of journal entries with the odd letter (and a very short play) tossed in for variety.
Jameson: I liked the journal entries. There was a book I read years ago called Griffin and Sabine that was all mail and postcards between characters. It’s interesting to read other people’s private thoughts. You mentioned Gryphon Clerks though, let’s talk about that a little bit. You have one book out in that series Realmgolds and the second is coming along soon. Tell me how that series came about.
Reeves-McMillan: It started out as a game setting, back when I was hanging out on the Story-Games forum. I haven’t gamed myself in years, though, and when I tried to get a playtest group together the logistics defeated me. I’d built a few story hooks into the world, so I just started writing the stories.
In the course of doing so, I’ve changed the world a lot from my original conception. The magic, for example, is a lot more original than the system I started out with.
Jameson: I know some folks start out knowing nothing about magic or how it functions. How much of the magic did you research before it started coming out more original for you?
Reeves-McMillan: Well, it helped that I’d set the setting aside for a while. By the time I came back to it with the idea of it being a book world instead of a game world, the old four elements (earth/water/air/fire) sounded a bit stale. I had the idea of “mind-magic” in there already, and in the interim I’d studied hypnotherapy and some psychology, so I built that out quite a lot.
There’s also lifemagic, which is to biology and medicine as the mindmagic is to psychology, and as it happened I’d studied some anatomy and physiology as well, so that worked out. And then there’s “energy magic” and “matter magic” which are pretty much what they sound like, but come out, of course, more like technology.
Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from mad science.
Jameson: That sounds like a line I need to put on a T-shirt! HA! So how long from start to finish did it take you to do the first book in the series and what made you self-publish it?
Reeves-McMillan: T-shirt, hmm, good thought. I could pair it with the beautiful Chris Howard cover for Hope and the Clever Man.
Jameson: Don’t tell anybody I have good ideas, they start talking and pretty soon I have no life left.
Reeves-McMillan: I started writing in November of 2011, I think it was. My first attempt tried to tell too many stories all at once, and I had to go back and separate them out again. The first book came out in March this year – that was Realmgolds – and sets up the political context for the events. The second one, Hope and the Clever Man, is currently with my betas. It covers some different events in the same time period, with a couple of overlapping characters.
Why did I self-publish? There are a few answers to that. “Because I can” is one. I used to work in publishing – I did freelance work-for-hire, writing and compiling nonfiction books, and then I did a short stint as an in-house copy editor for Hodders. So I know the industry, I know how a book is made, and I’d done it before with City of Masks.
I’d recently discovered how easy it was to get stuff up on the Kindle Store, so rather than chase round traditional publishing for a couple of years collecting rejection slips and then, if I found someone who’d take a risk on a book that wasn’t just the same old same old, waiting another year for it to come out, I hired an editor, hired a cover artist, and put it out there.
Cover art was another big reason, actually. Traditional publishers often do a terrible job with cover art, and the art is often sexist. I wanted a cover that showed a man and a woman collaborating as equals. No traditional publisher is going to put that on a book, and they don’t let the authors have much input.
Jameson: That brings up an interesting topic I wanted to touch upon. You have been in the industry, you know what it takes to get into the big traditional scene. And yet you chose Indie. Even though you are an editor, you still outsourced that in your own work. How important do you feel it is for Indies to follow your example, even if they have the skills to edit their own work?
Reeves-McMillan: Well, I’ll admit I edited City of Masks myself, and my SF novella, Gu, which I wrote in between that and starting on the Gryphon Clerks series. I had good betas on CoM who caught some errors for me, but I write a very clean book (as I ought, since I used to make my living as an editor). I’m unusual, though, and also my thinking on it has evolved. I wouldn’t advise people now to self-edit without having at least someone else who knows what they’re doing run their eye over it. However good you are, you always miss stuff, it’s inevitable.
Jameson: True! I leave out words all the time. And commas are not my friend. But I’m no editor either.
Reeves-McMillan: The editor I brought in for Realmgolds, who I’ll be working with again on Hope, Kathleen Dale, is actually a developmental editor. I’m good at sentences but I’m still working on being good at stories, and that’s what Kathleen helps with.
Jameson: I think that’s important to note here, the different types of editing Indies should be thinking about. Where some might be great at story telling, their sentence structure might stink and vice versa.
Reeves-McMillan: She made a big difference to Realmgolds (as did my betas), and I’m anticipating she’ll strengthen Hope just as much. She will point out typos if she sees them, but that’s not what she’s reading for.
Jameson: Can you talk about your process as an Indie? What things you do to market and how you go about getting yourself out to your readers.
Reeves-McMillan: Well, the orthodoxy used to be that you build some huge platform, your blog or Twitter or Facebook, and get hundreds or thousands of fans, and they’ll all buy your book because they love you. And that does work, for a certain kind of person. But I’m not that kind of person, particularly. The current idea that’s around is that you write a series of books and then people will be prepared to take a chance (because, let’s face it, most people’s first books aren’t very good), and each book builds your profile and your fanbase. I’m working on that approach. My sales are very low, and I’m expecting that. I don’t even check them very often, because it’s not until I’ve built up that momentum of having three or four books in a series that I expect to make much of an impact in the marketplace.
My main strategy for now is just to get some good reviews (which I have, by various means – of which cold-pitching 144 book bloggers was the least effective), get some feedback, and work on becoming a better writer with each book. I already know things I could improve in Realmgolds, because in the five months since it’s been out I’ve already learned things.
Jameson: What advice would you give to Indies in your position? Having done Podiobooks and now releasing a second in a series.
Reeves-McMillan: Keep the momentum going, keep learning, stay connected with other authors and listen to their advice, get a good stable of beta readers and listen to their advice, get a good editor and listen to her advice, and know when not to listen to advice and just do things your own way.
And invest in cover art. As S.A. Hunt says, it’s your interview suit. Don’t dress like a bum.
Jameson: I want to touch briefly on your reviews. You’re a tough reviewer. I read some you even did on classics and you were tough. Do you feel that reviewing other Indies helps you as an author? Or is it something you just love doing?
Reeves-McMillan: It’s a risky thing to do, in a way. I thought long and hard before I gave a very bad review to a book by some people who are very highly regarded and popular in the steampunk community, for example. I thought “Am I burning bridges here?”
At the same time, although I’m tough, I try not to be abrasive. I’ve given less-than-glowing reviews to people who are my friends on G+, and they’ve taken them in stride and we remain friends. I try to be fair, and to emphasize that what didn’t work for me may just be me, and to lay out exactly what it was on the page that didn’t work for me.
Reviewing in general, I think, has definitely helped me as an author. I’m afraid I find it easier to see what doesn’t work than what does work. When a book is a five-star book, I’m caught up in it and I don’t notice the craft. But I do learn things from analysing other people’s books. I did a review of a book that was full of infodumps, for example, and noticed that the reason it especially didn’t work for me was not just because it was clunky and ridiculous, but also because by infodumping instead of worldbuilding in the action and the dialogue, this author ended up contradicting her infodump in the action and the dialogue. It helped me understand why I should show, not tell.
Then again, I do sometimes find something I can learn from a book that I liked, as well. Brian Meeks is great at breaking his characters out of their genre tropes and making them real people, with interests and concerns outside the plot, for example.
Jameson: ARGH! Show vs Tell is a stick in my spokes and I’m slowly learning to stop my bike before I flip over the handlebars. I can only land on my face so many times you know. HAHA! So with the release of Hope and the Clever Man, what is next for Mike?
Reeves-McMillan: Well, Hope and the Clever Man is with my betas now, as I said, and I want to spend some time in September going over their feedback, revising, strengthening it as best I know how, and then give it to Kathleen so she can help me strengthen it better than I know how. I’m aiming for an October release.
While I’m waiting for my betas, I’m not sitting idle. I’m 25,000 words through a book I’m currently calling Still Untitled Hope Sequel, which leads straight on from Hope and the Clever Man. It may be called Hope and the Patient Man or Hope and the Clever Woman, or something else entirely.
That, in turn, is giving me glimpses of a further book, which will return to the political arena. The Hope books are about the engineers and mages who come up with the technology that the politicians use in order to do what they do.
Meanwhile, there’s a third book yet to be rewritten that was actually the core of the original story I came up with two years ago, that also takes place in the same approximate time-frame as Realmgolds and the first Hope story. It’s currently called Beastheads, and follows a young failed shaman’s apprentice on a diplomatic mission.
And I have other ideas. A country house mystery with undercover agents posing as an airhead aristocrat and her maid. A kind of steampunk Star Trek which has a military skyship voyaging to the east to pioneer a new trade route. The tale of a dwarf who works with the gnome underground in order to get the females of her own people the liberty to go out under the sky.
Ideas are easy. Execution is harder, but I’m having so much fun it’s worth it.
Jameson: You have a lot on your plate, that’s very impressive. Do you have a day job too?
Reeves-McMillan: I do. I have an excellent employer who gives me a day off every second week (unpaid, of course) to work on my writing.
Jameson: That’s practically unheard of! Kudos to your employer for believing in you. Unpaid or not, that is an amazing benefit.
Reeves-McMillan: I’m fortunate enough to work in an industry that’s not only doing well, but has trouble finding people, and to have an employer that recognises that and will be flexible in order to hold onto us.
Jameson: So before we wrap, I have to know. With your experience working in a traditional publishing setting, is traditional off the table for you? Would you consider a hybrid career?
Reeves-McMillan: I would definitely consider it if I could get the right offer. The package would have to include a reasonably fast turnaround (by which I mean no more than six months from submission to publication), and being allowed to write the brief for the cover artist. I can’t see anyone in the current industry offering me (me specifically, and people like me) that kind of package, but I think it will probably come eventually.
I have a slightly-formed idea for an urban fantasy series, and I’m keeping it in mind if the opportunity comes up.
Jameson: I think your background definitely makes you smarter in your decisions concerning a traditional path. Do you believe the industry is mostly the same in its view of Indies in New Zealand as it is in the USA and elsewhere? There seems to be some stigma when the words self-publishing comes up.
Reeves-McMillan: To be honest, I haven’t had much interaction with the NZ publishing industry in the last 20 years. I do know that the NZ speculative fiction association, SpecFicNZ, is much more indie-friendly than organisations like SFWA, and I’ve managed to get my books into the catalogue for one of the main suppliers of ebooks to libraries here while being totally upfront about my indie status. The DIY ethic in NZ is very strong, and I think that helps to make Indies more accepted.
Jameson: Is there anything about your work or process that you’d like to share? Are there any services you offer to Indies or additional advice you’d give writers like you?
Reeves-McMillan: I think I’ve said enough for one interview. I find other people’s process interesting, but often not all that useful; how I work won’t work for another person, most likely.
I used to do reviews by request, but I’ve stopped because I was having to review books I wouldn’t have chosen to read otherwise, and inevitably I wasn’t that enthusiastic. If I ever go “full-time”, there may be a period when I go back to editing to bring in a bit of extra money, but I’m not interested in that at the moment.
Oh, one thing about my process I will mention: I use the Dan Wells Seven Point Structure for plotting. I’m not much of a plotter, more a pantser, and it’s minimal enough that it gives me some direction and structure without being so complicated that I don’t do it.
Jameson: Fantastic! I really appreciate you taking time out to talk to me. I feel like we’ve time-traveled a bit with you in a completely different time zone. You’re in my future and I’m in your past. I don’t know how I feel about that, but surely there is a story in there somewhere.
Reeves-McMillan: The future is bright, Cyndi. My cats are passed out in the sun as we speak. Thanks for the opportunity, and for the excellent questions. When I saw your interview with Sam, and what a good job you’d done, I hoped you’d agree to interview me too, and I think it’s gone well.
If you wish to contact Mike Reeves-McMillian you may do so by visiting his website C Side Media.
© 2013 C. S. Jameson