Monday, April 2, 2012

Throwing Down the Words - An Interview with Justin Macumber - Part Two

D: Earlier you mentioned writing in all three genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Do you think there's a difference in your approach to writing in any specific genre? 

J: Well, yes and no. I mean, writing is writing. It's one word after enough, hopefully put down in such a way that they create a vision in your mind that make you think, make you feel, and transports you out of yourself. And no matter what the genre is, the central importance is character. Whether they're on the bridge of a starship or exploring a deep dark cave, you have to care about them and be invested in what they're doing. The difference is that sci-fi and fantasy usually don't take place in our world, of if they do our world is so changed it feels strange to us, so there's lots of work there to help the reader understand it, or at least feel comfortable enough that they'll go along with you despite the oddities. Horror, more often than not, does take place in our world, so we already start off on a firmer comfort level. The trick, then, becomes twisting that world into something that will scare your readers. I think the only genre more dependent on manipulating emotion than horror is romance. In horror you want the reader to feel like they know the world and understand it. That way, when you turn it upside down and throw them into the darkness, it's all the more upsetting and frightening. So, with sci-fi and horror, my job is to take the unknown and make it believable. With horror my job is to take the known and make it horrifying. Whether or not I'm successful at that is something other people will have to answer.

D: Why do you think science fiction and fantasy get to hang out on the same shelf in the bookstores, but horror, if it has shelf space at all, has to hang out by itself?

J: Because horror isn't the powerhouse genre it once was. Back in the 80s and into the 90s, horror was huge. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, John Saul, and more sold books in massive numbers. But then, somewhere in the mid- to late-90s, that started to shift. King got more into his Dark Tower series, which is an amalgamation of just about every genre out there, Dean Koontz shifted into thrillers, McCammon just sort of disappeared (he's back now, somewhat, with Subterranean Press), and everyone else just drifted into obscurity. That's not to say there aren't still people writing it. There are, and with zombies becoming such a huge phenomenon you're seeing more horror come out in that vain, but for the most part there just aren't any big hitter names anymore. Really only King is still a bestseller, but much of what he puts out now isn't straight horror. Is this because people don't want horror anymore, or is it because the authors who made it big wanted to stretch beyond that niche? I honestly don't know. And now, with the next generation growing up on stories like Twilight and other urban fantasy novels that use horror tropes in more tame ways, I wonder if horror isn't being watered down to the point it'll never be what it once was. We'll just have to see.

That said, if you want to read some interesting stuff, check out an author named Joe Hill. He's Stephen King's son, and I can tell you he didn't get book deals just because of who his daddy is. The guy is an amazing writer. His first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, is astonishingly good, and his follow-up, Horns, is damn near as good. He also writes a comic book series called Locke & Key that I cannot recommend enough. Great stuff.

D: With your gaming background, have you found any of what you've created for a role-playing session or campaign find itself in your prose?

J: No, not with my D&D stuff anyway. I unfortunately stopped playing years ago. I'm sure if I found the things I wrote back in my early days, I'd find stories directly impacted by my gaming, but now it's all purely part of my origin story.

D: What is your writing process? Pants-er or outliner?

J: Early on I tried to write by the seat of my pants, but after being burned a couple times by writing myself into corners and gaping plot holes I learned that I should be more careful and thoughtful about my stories. There's only so many chapters you can highlight and hit the DEL key on before you decide there's another way, you know? So now I outline like an SOB. My process usually goes like this: I get a basic idea. I then sit down and mull that idea over in my mind, try to figure out what the story is really about. Once I have a larger idea in mind I'll open a Word doc on my computer and start doing a rough list of notes about characters, some scenes that popped into my head, the overall story I want to tell, that sort of thing. When the story is actually a firm idea with actual shape to it and ideas, I go to my friends and talk it over with them, see what they think, if they can spot any early flaws, and have them ask me questions that force me to think beyond what I have so far. I'm a big believer in brainstorming ideas with other people, because too often our enthusiasm for the initial idea can cause us to overlook problems and ignore inconsistencies or logic issues. Other people won't, and I need that. Once I've brainstormed it and think I have the general feel of it, I open a new doc and begin outlining the book from beginning to end. I try to be as detailed as I can, but I also leave room for improvisation. Only when I have the outline finished will I open a new doc and actually start writing the story. Now, some people (and by people I mean other writers) have remarked that this sort of writing seems too calculated, that outlining removes the wonder and discovery that makes writing fun. To them I say, "Poop." Not only did I do all that discovery and enjoy all that wonder while I was brainstorming and outlining, but I always leave myself open to changing the story if suddenly a new idea hits me while I'm writing. I would never ignore a great idea just because it didn't fit my outline. My outlines are organic things; they change and grow and evolve as I write. I never feel like I'm locked down. Plus, just because I know where I'm going doesn't mean I can't delight in all the unexpected little things that appear along the way.

D: How long did it take for you to get from Word One of Haywire to completing your final draft?

J: From the first word being typed until the last edit was made for the publisher, it was about three-and-a-half years. Before anyone thinks I'm really slow (which I am), realize that within that time was a year or so in which I was trying to find a publisher/agent, and then another year when I thought the agent I found was handling it for me. The actual first draft of the novel probably took me four months or so, and the final edit was a month-and-a-half.

D: Let's get back to your new novel. What can you tell us about Haywire?

J: Haywire is the story of what happens when our own technology and brilliance are turned against us. In a future time when we've expanded into the solar system and settled across the various moons and planets, an alien race called the Hezrin invade and immediately begin a campaign to conquer us. We fight back, but our usual weapons of war have little impact, so we have to resort to nuclear options to fend them off. They return in even greater numbers, and again we use nukes as our only means of defense. Unfortunately, with a weapon like that you end up doing harm to yourself as well. Things look grim for us, but at our darkest hour a scientist steps forward with a technology that could turn the tide -- nanites. Using these microscopic machines, the scientist is able to take ordinary soldiers and turn them into super humans, with strength and speed far beyond anything dreamt of before. The nanites also act as an armor, a second layer of metal skin that can reshape itself to handle whatever situation the soldiers might find themselves in. These super soldiers, now known as Titans, take the fight to the Hezin, battling toe to toe with them, and eventually they drive the aliens out of the solar system. The Titans know, though, that eventually the Hezin will return once more, so they vow to chase them and fight until humanity is safe. This is the backstory to what Haywire is about.

One-hundred years later a Titan finally returns. Unfortunately she brings word that on the eve of their victory against the Hezrin after their century long war, the aliens unleashed their final weapon. It was a nanovirus designed to rewrite the Titan nanites and turn them into bloodthirsty monsters with one goal in mind -- the destruction of humanity and all they'd fought so long to protect. Now the Titans are coming, and she's the only one that was able to defend herself against the virus and get away. Her hope is to find a way to cure the Titans of their infection, or failing that, find a way to kill them. Haywire follows her struggle as she, along with a Titan scholar and her teenaged son, searches the solar system for a way to averting disaster. Arrayed against them are space pirates, federal agents, covert operatives, and ultimately the infected Titans. Will they succeed? Will the Titans be stopped? And what will they have to sacrifice along the way? Read Haywire and find out.

D: Your brother designed the cover of Haywire, didn't he? How did that come about?

J: Yeah, he did. My brother Scott is one of those SOBs that is good at damn near anything he tries his hand at. Music, writing, art, whatever. If he puts his mind to it, he can do it better than I can, and by a large margin. I actually hate that about him. But, his one fatal flaw (and all super villains must have one, right?) is that he can't seem to settle on one particular art form to channel his energy and concentration into. He dabbles in them all, which is good because it keeps him well rounded, but sometimes I wonder what he could do if he chose one and really put everything he had into it. If he does, I just hope it's not writing. That's MY thing, dammit.But yes, my brother did the artwork for Haywire. When I was writing an earlier novel that'll probably never see the light of day he did artwork for its cover, and even then he was talented, but it wasn't until I asked him to do the cover for a short story collection called The Ties That Bind that I saw what he was really capable of. Even now, today, when I look at that cover I'm blown away. It's as good or better than much of what you'd find on a bookstore shelf. The fact that I didn't have to pay a penny for it was the cherry on top. It really is amazing work. So, when it came time to publish Haywire, my publisher said that he had people who could do the cover or if I had someone in mind he'd be open to taking a look. I said that my brother wanted to take a whack at it, and a short while later I presented the cover you see today to him. I think it's really incredible work, and David was thrilled with it too. I'm honored to have my brother's art be the face of my story, and I know that there will be a lot of people who read it entirely because that cover caught their eye (pardon the pun) and drew them in. I can't thank Scott enough.

D: What's next?

J: Well, hopefully later this year my second novel will be coming out. It's entitled A Minor Magic, and it's being published by Crescent Moon Press. In a total departure from sci-fi, A Minor Magic is a post-apocalyptic story about Skylar, a young girl in Tennessee. When she was a small child the world was burned by a mysterious fire that ravaged the planet, killing most of the population and destroying our civilization. Those who survived never knew what caused the fire or where it came from, and in the years that followed they had to struggle just to survive. Among them was Skylar. Everything changes though, when one morning a decade after the great Burning Skylar unexpectedly develops magical powers that manifest in blue flames leaping from her hands. The elderly family that has been raising her sees this and believes she's somehow part of what happened ten years prior, so they exile her from the only home she's ever known. The book follows her journey as she tries to find her place in a world that's been destroyed, and tries to find out just who she really is and where she came from. Right now I'm finishing the first draft of my next book, a horror novel entitled Still Water. Inspired in equal parts by Silent Hill and H.P. Lovecraft, this is the story of a small West Virginia coal mining town and the ancient evil that's been sleeping for millenia in the mountains around it. Flood stories exist in nearly every religion and culture the world over, and Still Water posits the idea that what if there really was a flood a long time ago that was meant to wash the world clear of evil, but then what if not all of that evil went away? What if part of that evil and the water meant to cleanse it was locked away in a cavern? What would happen when that cavern was accidentally breached and the water holding the evil at bay began to drain away? That's Still Water. After that? I have no idea. I have ideas for about half a dozen novels I could work on, but I'm also thinking about getting back to some short story writing. We'll just have to see. If Haywire takes off and people demand more, I have other stories to tell in that universe. The same for A Minor Magic. I want to satisfy my audience, and I want to satisfy myself, so we'll see where this writing thing takes us.

You can find Justin online at his website at Moment's From a Writer's Life ( You can hear him on the following podcasts: The Dead Robots' Society, Fit-2-Write and The Hollywood Outsider.

His short stories and books, including Haywire, can be found at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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