Breaking In: Interview with Michael R. Underwood

Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.

Today, I’m very excited to have the opportunity to interview Mike Underwood, a writer whose work ranges across speculative fiction, in stories that are smart, thoughtful and always tremendously fun.

Michael R. Underwood is the author of the Ree Reyes series (GeekomancyCelebromancyAttack the Geek, and Hexomancy), as well as Shield and CrocusThe Younger Gods, and Genrenauts, a series in novellas. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books.

Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books. He holds a B.A. in Creative Mythology and in East Asian Studies from Indiana University and a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon.

In years past, when his life was not scheduled around novel deadlines, he danced Argentine Tango and was an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, studying historical martial arts, which is how he knows why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro. Mike has been a hobby game store cashwrap monkey, a student archivist, a webmaster, a web design teacher, a bear-builder, a bookseller, an independent publishers’ representative, and more.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife and their ever-growing library. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he geeks out on TV and games, and makes pizzas from scratch. He is also a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show and on Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers, and Fans.

Mike’s latest project is The Shootout Solution, the first volume of his new Genrenauts series, part of the Tor.com imprint’s innovative novellas line.

Leah Tang just died on stage. Well, not literally. Not yet.

 Leah’s stand-up career isn’t going well. But she understands the power of fiction, and when she’s offered employment with the mysterious Genrenauts Foundation, she soon discovers that literally dying on stage is a hazard of the job!

 Her first assignment takes her to a Western world. When a cowboy tale slips off its rails, and the outlaws start to win, it’s up to Leah – and the Genrenauts team – to nudge the story back on track and prevent a catastrophe on Earth. But the story’s hero isn’t interested in winning, and the safety of Earth hangs in the balance…

All of Mike’s works are available from their publishers, or from your preferred online bookseller. You can find the full list here.

The Shootout Solution, by Michael R. Underwood (published by Tor.com)

The Shootout Solution, by Michael R. Underwood (published by Tor.com)

[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Mike! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?

[MRU] For me, breaking in meant selling a novel. I’d sold short stories before, but when Pocket Star bought Geekomancy and the sequel in early 2012, that’s when it felt real to me.

I got lucky, but I made that luck happen, to a degree. Geekomancy was discovered on Book Country, a Penguin-run writers’ community. Colleen Lindsay was the Community Manager at the time, and I knew Colleen through my dad, who also works in publishing. I poked around Book Country and started workshopping stories there. When I finished the first draft of Geekomancy, I made some quick revisions then put it up on Book Country, planning to show my revision process and get feedback on the book from others writers. A few weeks later, I got an email from Adam Wilson at Pocket/Gallery, saying he’d read the excerpt on Book Country and did I have a complete manuscript? I sent it, noting that it was still rough, and he took it, read, and then offered me a book deal around two weeks later.

Luck was a big thing – luck that Adam went to the site, that he found my book browsing through the manuscripts, luck that it was his kind of book. But if I hadn’t put the excerpt up in the first place, none of it would have been possible.

Geekomancy, by Michael R. Underwood (published by Pocket Star)

Geekomancy, by Michael R. Underwood (published by Pocket Star)

What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?

Uploading Geekomancy to Book Country was just one part of my then-strategy to break in. It ended up being the part that worked, which was a delightful surprise, but I wasn’t putting all my chips on Book Country.

I’d already queried a previous novel (Shield and Crocus, now published by 47North) for around a year and a half, and was submitting short stories, attending conventions (World Fantasy Convention, WisCon, and more) meeting and pitching editors given the opportunity, and connecting with other writers. Going into 2012, I was expecting to finish Geekomancy, revise it for 6 months, then send it out on submission while I wrote yet another novel. I was excited about Geekomancy’s chances, but wasn’t expecting that it’d find a champion so quickly.

And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?

I might have shelved Shield and Crocus a few months earlier, or at least moved on to writing a new novel faster. The first year or so that Shield and Crocus was on submission, it was my entire writing world – I’d query, tweak the query, re-write the synopsis, re-write the first 20 pages based on rejections, and so on. Some of those tweaks were very good, but I did them at the expense of moving on to other work. If I’d moved on faster, I might have gotten even better before writing Geekomancy.

Shield and Crocus, by Michael R. Underwood (published by 47North)

Shield and Crocus, by Michael R. Underwood (published by 47North)

Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?

It’s both what I expected and also totally different. Promoting my work and keeping up on the business is as much extra work as I was imagining (maybe even a bit more), but what I didn’t really understand the day to reality of the emotional landscape of being a working professional writer. Like most professional writers, I worry about how my books will do, whether they’ll sell to publishers and then whether readers will love them, and more. I’m always looking on to the next challenge, the next project, though I do my best to mark milestones and take stock of how fortunate I’ve been to have the success and positive responses I’ve gotten so far.

Author Michael R. Underwood (photo (c) Brandie Roberts)

Author Michael R. Underwood (photo (c) Brandie Roberts)

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a space opera on submission, pitches for a non-standard model under consideration, and I’m waiting to hear back on whether Genrenauts will be renewed. On top of that, I’m revising the script for a creator-owned superhero comics pitch, and I just submitted a short story for a to-be-announced anthology.

I keep busy.

How can people keep up with you online?

I spend entirely too much time on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood, and my website is michaelrunderwood.com. I’m also a co-host on Hugo-nominated The Skiffy & Fanty Show, and just joined as a new co-host of Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers and Fans. Give them a listen!

Thanks very much to Mike for his thoughtful and informative responses. The Shootout Solution is in my to-be-read pile as we speak, and I’m looking forward to it tremendously!

Coming up next on the blog: A PerNaNoReWriMo progress report, and more Breaking In.

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