Alexia: I love this week’s topic because it gave me an excuse to reach out to one of my auto-buy authors and fangirl! And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect because my guest’s newest release kept me from going insane while I was stuck in bed with vertigo—which was definitely not fun, but the audiobook WE COULD BE HEROES was beyond exciting! Welcome, Mike Chen!
Mike: Thanks so much for having me! And shoutout to Emily Woo Zeller, who narrated the audiobook. She did my previous one (A BEGINNING AT THE END) and when I found out she’d signed to do this, I messaged her and asked her to bring some of the chaotic disaster energy from her lead role in STAR WARS: DOCTOR APHRA. Game fans will recognize her from the recent Cyberpunk 2077 -- like my wife, who loaded up the audiobook and said, “Hey, it’s Panam!”
Mike: Not directly, but various creative arts felt like that to me as a teen. I can count on various songs and musicians that I would lean on as lifelongs. But I would use books as a means to feel accepted and seen, specifically Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books -- Zahn's came at a time when being a nerd wasn't socially acceptable and it made it feel okay to love those things while Anne Rice fed my inner teen goth angst.
Alexia: I think everyone needs to be saved at some point in their life and that’s why we connect with heroes in books. And your newest release is a take on superheroes. Jamie, the Memory Robber, and Zoe, the Throwing Star, both woke up a couple years ago with no memory of who they are. One decides to rob banks and the other decides to help people stay safe on the street—until they meet at a memory group they discover they have the same blank background and team up to figure out why. That leads them on a journey to discover who they were, what they’re capable of, and where they want to be. I think the premise of this book says a lot about people and how we all have the choice to be who we want and choose good or evil. When you set out to write a new book do you purposely pick a theme or does it evolve as the story flows out of you?
Mike: It's a little bit of both. I think I first find a hook and rough character setup first. There might be some specific things that I want to address thematically, like with HERE AND NOW AND THEN I knew I wanted it to be about the impact of time on relationships. With A BEGINNING AT THE END, I knew I wanted it to be about processing trauma. For WE COULD BE HEROES, I knew I wanted it to be about friendship. The other themes of identity and choosing who you want to be in the face of expectations, that evolved as the story itself evolved.
Alexia: Since this blog’s purpose is to be a resource for writers we can get into craft of that a bit. I love how you send your characters on a quest to learn or discover truths and keep that sense that knowledge is just out of reach. That’s good pacing right there. How do you keep from having slow spots, or as some call it—a soggy middle?
Mike: It's not easy! If you're looking at Act 1, 2A, 2B, 3 structure, 2A is always the hardest to write because that's where you're supposed to roll into the promise of the book's premise (that's a Save the Cat term). I find the setup (1) easier because everything is fresh and fun to explore. The second half (2B, 3) is easier because it's filled with tension and momentum. 2A, though, has to be the right balance of tension and living up to a cool log line.
So to answer your question, I think I've gotten better at recognizing how to establish stakes and make those more impactful. And I have good critique partners who know my weaknesses, that helps a lot.
Alexia: Your books are incredibly easy to slip into. I attribute part of that to your world building ability where you piece together these near future sci-fi backdrops. But I want to say the other part is due to your ability to tie together the story’s inciting event and the climactic moment. If you look at books as more of a circle than an arc you see that the inciting incident asks a question that the climactic moment answers. How do you keep that balanced when you’re plotting your books?
Mike: I’m a plotter by nature. I like to see the inner workings of pretty much anything, and there’s always an underlying mechanic to most creative arts, even writing. Things like pacing really just come down to numbers when you think about it, and that works really well with my engineering brain (I have a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from UC Davis). So a lot of that is by design. I find the most satisfying stories are the ones where little threads begin to converge in the third act and the biggest problem also becomes the biggest solution, usually in an inverted way.
So I do a standard beat sheet at the start of an idea, mostly to see if it works. I’m not too glued to it and will happily adapt to any ideas that come along the way, though I’ve never really had anything drastically change, it’s just the path from beat to beat may get more rocky along the way. That always allows me to see the bigger picture, and as deeper themes emerge during revisions, there’s usually an “a-ha” moment where those things crystalize and I know how to weave them into the critical beats.
Alexia: You’re also fantastic at writing emotion. It’s what hooks me so deeply—I care about and get invested in your characters. I’m guessing that you’re a good people watcher. Have any of your characters been based off of someone you know in real life, or do you create them as more of a composite of people you’ve met?
Mike: If they are, it’s not intentional! Except for the animals in my books, those are always based on my current or past animals. It starts with a visual -- I always try to cast an actor in a role from the very beginning. This lets me see their mannerisms and hear their inflection, which makes it much easier to write dialogue. From there characters get built in layers. The initial draft has a very loose character in terms of core motivation and quirks, it basically is just there to get the first draft completed and the basic story arc built.
After that, it’s much more fun. I usually just try to assign something very human about their tastes, and then see what makes logical sense to their character history. For example, in A BEGINNING AT THE END, Moira has left her life as a pop star, so it made sense that she would have some inner love for music but connects to it on a soulful level, which is why she listens to Billie Holiday rather than pop. In WE COULD BE HEROES, Zoe had to do something for entertainment, but she has no money and isn’t particularly deep, so it made sense that she’d basically only watch a free streaming service which only had schlocky public domain movies.
So it’s about assigning a quirk -- what they like to watch, eat, do, etc -- and then reverse-engineering how that fits their goals and personality to have something interesting. In my upcoming book SECOND CONTACT, one of the characters is a therapist who is constantly dealing other people’s problems. So I assigned her the hobby of video games, but then it made sense to bring that into a MMO space where she could connect with people on a community level but not deal with all of the personal damage she faces every day.
Alexia: What’s your biggest writing Achilles heel, the part in the whole process that you wish you were better at?
Mike: I wish I wrote first drafts faster and cleaner. So much of my writing process is built into revision, which I really enjoy. But that first draft is just painful to do. I’ve started doing this thing where I write by act, and I try to give each act several revisions so the characters and world really come to life. I started this with WE COULD BE HEROES and now I’m on my third manuscript working this way. I find it’s much easier to work out the kinks of early character/worldbuilding growing pains when you’re only dealing with act 1, and each subsequent act feels a little easier to draft because all of those character nuggets have already emerged. The first draft of that act 1, though, is just really, really painful to do and I often feel like I’m flailing despite having an outline because the voice and the character quirks and a lot of the worldbuilding rules aren’t set yet.
Alexia: I’ve always said the day I stop learning is the day I need to find something new to do. Which will be great because it’ll mean I’ve grown and changed! And growing and changing is what WE COULD BE HEROES embraces. What are you looking forward to embracing in 2021?
Mike: I’m looking forward to embracing other humans again after vaccinations! And dropping my daughter off at school or gym class or something where it’s just not all high-pressure intensity, all the time. So fingers crossed with that!
Also I would say it might be impossible for 2021, but I am really, really, really looking forward to going back to book conferences and comic-cons in 2022, not just to see my writer pals but enjoy things like cosplay and panels again.
Alexia: I'll second that hope! Seriously, thank you for writing WE COULD BE HEROES and saving my brain. Also thank you so much for being willing to answer some questions and joining me on the blog today. A huge congrats on your newest release and I know that I’ll be on the lookout for your next one in 2022!
Mike: Thank you so much! Feel free to interview me again next January as we get ready to release SECOND CONTACT into the world.
Alexia: Have no fear, dear readers, this fangirl already has SECOND CONTACT release on her calendar!
I've always been a writer.When I was young, I wrote (and drew) my own fan fiction before I even knew what fan fiction was. Most of this involved crossovers between my favorite franchises, because mashing up Robotech with Space Quest made total sense in my brain.
I knew I'd hit on something when I wrote a parody of The Grapes of Wrath in my high school English class. Entitled The Oranges of Evil, it featured many moments of "skitters" and a twist ending that turned the Dust Bowl into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin story. I had one classmate laughing so hard, she couldn't talk for several minutes.
In college, I took creative writing alongside my "practical" engineering degree, and I also began freelancing about the NHL for various sites. This led to a long career of writing technical/marketing copy and developing WordPress websites while covering NHL and international hockey for some of the biggest names in sports: Fox Sports, SB Nation, and Versus (now NBC Sports Network).
But I'd always been a storyteller at heart, and although I loved writing about my favorite sport while earning a living from tech writing, my head was constantly filled with stories. Today, I've found my niche, blending science fiction elements and themes with a more grounded and intimate story.
In my stories, there are no epic wars or fate-of-the-universe events; instead, they're tales of family and friendship and humor that just happen to have some time travel or an apocalypse.