Michael R. Underwood grew up devouring stories in all forms, from books and comics to video games, RPGs and more. He holds a B.A. in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon, which have been great preparation for writing speculative fiction. Michael went straight from his M.A. to the Clarion West Writers Workshop and then landed in Bloomington, Indiana, where he remains. When not writing or selling books across the Midwest as an independent book representative, Michael dances Argentine Tango and studies renaissance martial arts.
Now on to the FIVE QUESTIONS
1. Congratulations on the sale of your novel. What was the inspiration behind Geekomancy?
Thanks! One of the biggest influences was just growing up as a geek. I was partially raised in a game store, and quite happily spent a bajillion hours playing tabletop rpgs, card games, wargames, strategy games, learning the ropes of geek culture in a community.
Geekomancy’s conceptual DNA has strong threads from several influences: Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the quippiness contrasted with the serious content, The Middleman for the whacky-crazy and the wide-open possibilities for the weirdness of the world, Clerks for the slice-of-life aspects, and The Dresden Files for giving a strong model of how a urban fantasy hero in prose could be a big geek and still a credible hero.
2. Some authors are hesitant to post their work online, but it worked out for you fantastically. Did you have any hesitation in utilizing Book Country?
Not at all. Once I read through the description of how the Book Country staff had established the community as a clearly-established workshop environment with strong anti-plagarism protections, I was totally sold.
I’ve been a big believer in workshopping pretty much since I got serious about writing, thanks to being adopted by some older writer friends while I was in undergrad. Joining that critique group trained me in the workshop paradigm, and I’ve held it in high esteem ever since. Book Country was just a new way of workshopping with a huge audience, and for free. The idea that an editor or agent could pick the novel out and make an offer was nowhere near the front of my mind when I uploaded the Geekomancy excerpts. I was just looking to do an experiment in making my revision process public, going from rough draft to polished (theoretically saleable) draft. Little did I know what was really in store…
3. You had an offer before signing with Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary. Some people may think you’re crazy, while others see the value of agents. What was your reasoning behind seeking an agent?
In addition to being a writer, I work in publishing for my day job, and my dad has worked in publishing since I was about seven. Between my professional experience, my dad’s knowledge of the industry, and hearing stories from my friends, I was very firm in my intent to try to form a professional partnership with an agent to help my career. I don’t know the first thing about selling foreign rights or subsidiary rights, and I can’t be my own advocate in the way that an agent can. I’m only one me, and I find that my brain works much better when I have someone knowledgeable outside of it to talk to. The publishing landscape is changing, but the smart agents out there, from what I’ve been seeing, are working tirelessly to show that they are not only still relevant, they can be a tremendous boon for a writer.
Before uploading Geekomancy, I sent out more than 80 queries for a previous project, and collected a ream of rejections, a few manuscript requests, and even a couple of revise-and-resubmits, but no offers. I got a fair amount of feedback from various agents as they gave me rejections, and as frustrating as the year-and-change-long agent search was for that book, I learned a lot and my appreciation for agents only increased during the process. I know there are people who are doing quite well for themselves without agents, and I think it’s a viable choice, depending on what you’re willing and feel confident in being able to do yourself.
4. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Write more. Read more. Put your work out there, and learn to take criticism. Yes, your stories are your babies, but they aren’t you. If someone eviscerates your manuscript, learn from it. Break down the criticism and see what of it is useful, then ignore the rest. Unless you’re the God-King/Queen of publishing, you’re not going to be perfect right out of the gates. Acknowledge that it’s a process, and if, say, you spend a year and a half trying to sell a book and it doesn’t sell, write another one, using the lessons you learned. Never stop learning, and eventually, things will (hopefully) come together. We’re lucky now, those of us that are getting started in the age of Writer Beware and Duotrope and self-publishing; authors have more resources and career self-determination than ever. Be informed, work hard, and put yourself out there.
5. Finally, Star Trek or Star Wars?
Ha! My heart says Star Wars, and my brain says Star Trek. I couldn’t easily take one of those universes out of my life experience and be close to the same person I am now.
Star Wars is one of the first stories I distinctly remember watching/seeing/experiencing. From what I’m told, my parents took me to the movie theatre with them twice when I was less than one year old. Once was to Ghandi, the other was to The Return of the Jedi. One of these has had more of an effect on my life than the other…
The Joseph Campbell-infused mythic structure of those first three Star Wars films has had an indelible effect on the way I conceive of storytelling. I’ve been a lifelong fan on a very visceral level, and will doggedly keep enjoying new Star Wars material when it delivers the kind of fun I want from it – namely, cool lightsaber fights, fun blaster sounds, grand sweeping adventure and cool vistas. Star Wars was and remains one of my best examples of what Sensawunda is all about.
Star Trek, on the other hand, was largely responsible for my early education in science fiction plotting and tropes. Watching The Next Generation growing up, I learned about story types in SF, the use of alien races to talk about cultural difference, ethics, politics, friendship, and the nature of humanity. Star Trek was more serious, more cerebral, and I got to grow up with it, graduating from The Next Generation to Deep Space 9 and through Voyager, appreciating what I liked and growing more critical of the things I didn’t. Trek trained the scholarly part of my engagement in SF, and showed me the critical stakes of the genre.
Here’s the story of the sale as posted on GalleyCat: