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Myke Cole Interview At The Library Of Congress

Myke ColeAs part of his promotional efforts for his latest novel, Breach Zone, Myke Cole spoke recently at the Library of Congress as part of the “What If Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum”. Among many other topics, he spoke about how his books were a combination of working inside the military bureaucracy, asking “What if” questions, and gaming out the consequences.

Myke said that a big difference between your average person and a speculative fiction writer is that last part. The average person would answer a question like, “What if the military had to respond to individuals manifesting magical powers?” with “I don’t know, but that would be cool.” But a writer will mull over that issue, tease out all the complications, and then build it into a story. With that in mind, I sat down and chatted very briefly with Myke after his talk about the subject of progressing towards that level of a professional writer.*

I wanted to focus on some of your past remarks about feeling that switch flip where you felt you could be a professional novelist. What led up to that, and what changes in your behavior and in your writing did you see?

Right, there were a few things, and I talked about this in an essay for tor.com [Part 1 and Part 2], but there was a general leveling up in my life. One of those things was to stop feeling sorry for myself, to start accepting the binary nature of life, and to really see what the standard was.

Control Point (cover)This is different from being harsh with myself and saying, “You suck, and you’ll never do it.” Okay, you’re scared, you’re disappointed, you’re unhappy, and I get it. Writing is hard, people are rejecting you, and I get it. But if you want to be a professional writer, you need to do X, and that’s just the way it is. There’s a difference between that and beating yourself up, which isn’t helpful. You can say to yourself, “This is hard, this hurts,” but you still have to get to work, because that will produce the result we want.

So I began to look at what it takes to be successful—and not just baseline successful. I think when I was an aspiring writer, I was just trying to be good enough instead of trying to be the very best. But I began to realize that the standard just to be published in this industry is the-greatest-of-the-greatest. So instead of just trying to get across the threshold, I began looking at my favorite writers. What is George R.R. Martin doing that is so amazing? I began to look at it very mechanically, like an engineer.

I’d like to point out that this was not just for writing, this was for life, for everything: in my social interactions, my dating relationships, in my civilian work, and my military career. It represented a general leveling up.

And I think the crucible that made that happen was Iraq because there is nothing that can focus you on binary standards like death. I mean, if you f*** this up, you’re going to die, or people are going to die.

So to sum up, there were two things that happened: one was this focus on binary standards. This is the standard you must meet. And the second was to be kind to myself, without releasing that pressure. This is hard, this sucks, and I get it. Here’s your hug, but let’s get back to work. That made a huge, huge difference, like I felt a physical click. I felt that “aha.”

You know what it’s like? Riding a bike. You can’t ride a bike, you can’t ride a bike, you can’t ride a bike, and then all of a sudden you can. And it seems to happen suddenly. That’s not what’s happening, but it feels like that.

I remember when I went to Confusion, and I went to an archery range.

And there’s something called “the transfer” where you move the tension from pulling the string from between your shoulder blades into your spine. It’s hard to figure out how to do it. You have to sort of feel it. And then I could do it. That’s what it felt like. Does that make sense?

Like internalizing the idea?

That’s exactly right. Having it become second nature, instinctive. And the thing I see with writers, well, I see a lot of things. But the big thing is no focus on craft. They’re focused on the business, the marketing, and the networking. Or big pity parties: this is so hard, gatekeepers, wah wah wah, blah blah blah. Or they focus on instant gratification: they write short stories because they think it’ll make them a better novelist. No, it’s not.

I think most people are doing it because it’s a shorter cycle. The time from doing the hard work to being excited about having something on submission is tiny. Whereas writing a novel is to work for years with no reward. When I talk to aspiring writers, that’s a problem. I really feel like if I had figured this out earlier, I would have been a professional writer a lot earlier, and Iraq accelerated that learning process.

And to put this in perspective, when you did Viable Paradise and Writers of the Future, that was after you heard the click?

No, before. Well before. And what was funny was that after Viable Paradise and Writers of the Future, I expected to just become a success.

Right, you hit the benchmarks.

Yeah, but that’s not how it works. This is the thing I keep saying. When I focused on getting published, I didn’t. When I focused on writing a great novel, I got published. And that’s really important to remember.

Yeah, I seem to remember you saying [around the 8:05 mark] once your writing reaches a certain level, it will find a home.

Wool (cover)Oh yeah. This is the thing people keep doing. People love this illusion that the publishing industry is capricious and getting success is random. People love that illusion because then it’s not that they suck. It’s not that they’re a bad writer. It’s publishing’s fault. Bullshit. Publishing is an industry to make money. And the reason it makes money is that editors have decades of experience picking winning horses. They know what they’re doing. Do they miss some? Sure. Do they pick some bad apples? Sure. But like 90% of the time, it’s good. And if you have a good, good manuscript, you’re gonna sell the manuscript. Or, if you self-publish it, you’re going to see great success. The Amanda Hockings, the Hugh Howeys, the J.A. Konraths, you know.

Have you read Wool? Read it. I will admit it: I definitely approach self-published works with skepticism, but Wool is amazing. Wool deserves its success in spades. And it is now traditionally published. And frankly, it’s just easier to be a writer instead of being a writer and your own publisher. That’s why I don’t do it. But this is my point: Bullshit walks. And when you write a great book, whether you self-publish it or not, you’re going to find an audience. Wool is successful not because Hugh Howey is nice and not because he got lucky. Wool is successful because it’s an amazing, amazing novel.

So, if someone is looking to get to that click—I don’t want to say “fake it until you make it,” but to start with actions to prompt that sort of change—if people were going to build a new checklist: instead of aiming to get published in a certain place, they decide to read with a new eye, or to improve their craft by doing X, Y, Z, what would you tell them to become a better writer?

Fortress Frontier (US cover)Honestly, I would talk about things that have nothing to do with writing. I would say—and look, you’re talking to one person, and people come to things in different ways, and I’m sure you’ll find some very successful writers who won’t identify with what I’m describing—but for me, it’s been very important to seek crucibles and very important to take risks and very important to do the things that scare me. For me, it’s been going to war, being involved in law enforcement operations, public speaking, or whatever it is that’s frightening.

I have a history of finding the thing that frightens me the most, and running at it like a mad dog. That and taking on things that I know I can’t do: taking on jobs that are too big for me and taking on positions with more responsibility than I’ve ever had before. I spend a lot of time thinking, “I don’t know how the f*** I’m going to get this done,” but living in those crucibles, because the stakes are higher, has accelerated my reaching that point. But the one mantra—[chuckles] I’m giving out mantras today—I would ask people to repeat, if they feel they want to imitate my path in life, is “Do the thing that scares you, do the thing that scares you, do the thing that scares you.”

I think that’s a great closer. But I also wanted to include a bit about your upcoming books. Breach Zone is out now, and Gemini Cell [the next book in the Shadow Ops series, separate from the original trilogy] has been turned in?

It’s done. Seven drafts. By the way, I’d like to point out that that is the least number of drafts I’ve ever had to do to get a book to an editor before.

I think I remember when I interviewed you around the time of Fortress Frontier you were on draft eight, maybe?

Yeah, Fortress Frontier was nine drafts.

So the romance novel will take only six drafts?

Yeah, who knows? The Fractured Girl is already on its second draft, and that’s not even finished. It’s only 50% a book.

And that will be more of an epic fantasy?

No, it’s dark, grimdark in fact, a la Mark Lawrence. If I had to compare it to any other writer, it’s Mark Lawrence. It’s got an 11-, 12-year old, gay, female protagonist. It’s really out of my wheelhouse. I think it’s really good, but of course I’m re-writing it now, so we’ll see.

Breach Zone (cover)And all of these books will be Myke Cole titles?

I will not write under a pseudonym. F*** that. I wrote this book, and if you feel that my name is somehow going to f*** it, then you don’t need to be publishing me. I told you this before [during his talk earlier that day] if some publisher says that, look at publishing. It’s not exactly doing well. So I’m not going to take that advice. If a publisher wants me to be Loretta Hewitt to publish it, I’ll either self-publish it, or I won’t publish it. I’m not going to do that.

And you said there might be a slight chance Ace might bump up the publishing calendar for Gemini Cell?

No, we asked, and the answer was no. So it’ll be a year.

Well, until then, we’ll be waiting for it. Thank you, Myke.

Thank you.

*It should be noted that I did not plan this in advance like a reasonable person. I happened to be the first one to arrive for his talk, and I put Myke on the spot. Despite the press of fans and friends who were eager to talk with him, Myke was kind enough to do this interview. So thank you, Myke, for continuing to be incredibly generous with your time when it comes to the fans. And yes, in case you were wondering, he did wear the shirt Sam Sykes gave him:

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