I have hosted space operas on this site before, but never a sci-fi thriller.
That changes now with Michael Mammay’s sci-fi adventure, THE MISFIT SOLDIER. He recommends various sci-fi books, including sci-fi thrillers, and doles out excellent writing advice for those stepping into the writing and publishing journey.
Sci-fi is usually seen as plot-driven, but this is not true. Some of the best sci-fi books of all time have been character-driven. To me, the best science fiction explores relevant ideas that stem from our own contemporary society, and might impact our future. As a crime fiction author with a love for thrillers, I love a book that marries the best aspects of sci-fi and thrillers, marrying technology with non-stop tension.
I’ve known Michael Mammay through Pitchwars (which sadly came to an end recently). As a veteran Pitchwars mentor he has much wisdom to impart on writing in general, and sci-fi in particular.
1. What brought you to writing?
I remember telling my mother when I was in college—it was early on, maybe sophomore year—that I was going to be a writer. Then I didn’t do anything about it for twenty-five or so years. Late in my army career, my brother was experimenting with writing and I got back into it.
2. Where do you write? What distractions do you struggle with?
I do all of my writing in my office, no music, no background noise other than maybe my wife running on the treadmill downstairs. I get distracted by pretty much everything, so I try to cut as much as possible out during my prime writing hours, which tend to be about 1PM to 4PM on weekdays.
3. What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and how do you tackle it?
For me, the hardest part is deciding what to write. I’ve got a file with the ideas for at least ten books, but I’m completely incapable of working on more than one project at a time. I tried, and it didn’t go well. There’s also a commercial aspect to my writing at this point, so deciding what to write has to line up with what someone is willing to pay me to write. Thankfully those two things have tended to line up for me so far in my career. Once I know what book to write—once we sign a contract—all the angst goes away and I just write. But until that point, I struggle.
4. Could you mention five authors and their books you’d recommend ?
Just five? That’s hard. I’m going to leave so many things out. I want to be clear that these aren’t necessarily the five best books I’ve ever read. More like five books that are in my head right now. I tend to be really impressed with authors who write in the same genre as me, but do things that I can’t do. I’m not a great world-builder and I’m not particularly beautiful in my writing, either in imagery or in word-craft. These people are.
THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS by Micaiah Johnson
A MEMORY OF EMPIRE by Arkady Martine
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula Le Guin
NOPHEK GLOSS by Essa Hansen
THE FIFTH SEASON by NK Jemisin
5. How long did it take you to write your first book and how long to get it published?
I drafted PLANETSIDE in about nine weeks. I had written one (really bad) novel prior to that, but we don’t talk about that.
I finished the draft in maybe February of 2015, but the revision process was a little weird because I got injured to the point of bed rest in about April. I had the book completely revised by July and was ready to query, but I decided to hold it to try to get into Pitch Wars.
I got into that in August and did some light revisions which were basically done by the end of September, but had to wait for the agent showcase in November before starting to query. I sent out my first batch of queries in early November to a very enthusiastic round of indifference. I got exactly one partial request. Honestly, the response was so tepid that I thought it was dead.
And then in February of 2016 everything just took off. I got a partial request which turned into a full request the next day and an offer of representation the following Monday. That offer turned into two offers, and in early March of 2016 I signed with my agent, Lisa Rodgers, of Jabberwocky Literary. We did some more revisions and went on submission in June. After racking up some very nice rejections (editors are WAY nicer than agents in their rejections) we got an offer from David Pomerico at Harper Voyager. That became a two-book deal for PLANETSIDE and the sequel, SPACESIDE (which I hadn’t written at that point.)
6. What advice do you have for those new to publishing?
Advice for those new to publishing is hard, because it’s really a brutal process.
The simple fact is that you can write an excellent book that a lot of people would like to read and still not get any traction because there are lots and lots of people writing excellent books and there’s only space for so many in traditional publishing. Sometimes the process feels a bit random, and that can be soul-crushing.
So I’ll offer only this: write because you love to write. And if you love to write, try to remember that. The expectations that we put on ourselves for things that are beyond our control…getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting another book deal, making a list, selling a certain number of books…those things can suck the joy out of something that you probably started doing because you loved it. I just started drafting my next novel and the one thing that that reminded me was that every day where I write is a better day than every day that I don’t.
7. You’re a retired army officer who served in Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. You’re also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and have a master’s degree in military history. Does your background influence your scifi thrillers and their characters?
Oh absolutely. PLANETSIDE is basically an allegory for Afghanistan and the idea that if you send the military to solve a problem, you’re going to get a military solution. But don’t tell anybody, because you can definitely enjoy it at a surface level without even thinking about that, and more people tune in for the realistic combat scenes and the glimpse into the minds and realities of soldiers, which are things I also learned from my time in the army.
8. Is there a work of science fiction that you wish you’d written, and why?
Not really? I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say ENDER’S GAME, but for a weird reason. ENDER’S GAME is brilliant—one of the most enjoyable Scifi novels of all time—but I have a hard time recommending it these days due to some of the opinions later expressed by its author. So if I wrote it, I could recommend it more heartily, if that makes sense. But if I’m being honest, I don’t have the imagination for something like that book. I tend to write more grounded, realistic stuff.
9. How do you come up with character names? What makes characters memorable? Which of your characters have readers loved best?
I hate naming characters. I make them up at random, trying to ensure that I give them a wide range of ethnic origins to represent that the worlds I create are filled with all different kinds of people. Oh, and one other thing…and listen up, because this is the most universally good writing advice you’re ever going to get: Never give a character a last name that ends in s. I’m serious. Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.
I think characters can be memorable for all kinds of reasons, but the easy answer is that they’re relatable/believable. But I think the ones we tend to truly remember are the ones who have a great story, because the story is really all about the character. A character doesn’t become memorable in the first chapter (though one could argue that a brilliant character like Gideon, for example, starts pretty early in the book). They become memorable as they grow and change and face adversity throughout the book.
For me, with one series in the world, I think the obvious answer for character that my readers have loved best has to be Butler. I’ve had enough reviews tell me that they read the books for that character where I have to believe it at this point. I think I’d get a few votes for Mac. My personal favorite character that I wrote in the PLANETSIDE series was Lex Alenda from the very first book, only because she took me the most work to get right. So when somebody mentions her (and a few people have), it makes me smile.
10. Do you outline?
I didn’t outline early in my career. The first outline I wrote was for SPACESIDE, my second novel, and that was because my contract specifically said that I’d provide an outline. But I cheated. I actually wrote the entire book without an outline, and then outlined what I had written so that I could turn that in.
As it turns out, that is a pretty inefficient way to do things. These days I outline everything because I have to. That’s how I sell a book. I’m at the point of my career where I get to sell a book without writing it, but those pesky publishers seem to want some idea of what the book is going to be about. Hence, outlines. And I’ve learned to do it, somewhat. Now…do I follow them after I write them? Not so much. In practice, I tend to draft to waypoints. So I kind of know the end of the first act, the mid-point, and the climax. The stuff in the middle tends to drift off outline quite a bit. My characters go where they want.
11. What writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel?
Start with the big things. Put in the inciting event, the first act climax, the mid point, the climax. Just one or two sentences for each. If you want, that can be your outline. But you can also develop it more.
Start filling in the stuff between those events that you know. Once you get that in there, sit back and evaluate it, and see where the holes are.
Know the purpose of your outline. Is it for you to write the book, or is it to explain the book to someone else? The requirements for those things are different. If it’s for someone else, you have to explain things. If it’s for you, you only have to put in enough to jog your memory.
12. What is the world and setting of your new scifi thriller THE MISFIT SOLDIER like?
THE MISFIT SOLDIER is set in a future that includes space travel and war on planets throughout the galaxy. The two major powers have a treaty that prevents war in space, so it effectively pushes them into ground combat. The technology is based mostly on soldiers in power armor.
13. What is that one thing you’d like readers to know about before they dive into your new scifi thriller?
I’d like them to know that the story itself is more of a heist novel than a military sci-fi story. The loose idea came from the 1970s movie Kelly’s Heroes, which is, to this day, probably my favorite war movie of all time. So this story is more Ocean’s Eleven, less Starship Troopers.
Michael Mammay is a science fiction writer and a retired army officer. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His debut novel, Planetside came out in July, 2018, and was selected as a Library Journal best book of 2018. The audio book, narrated by RC Bray, was nominated for an Audie award. The sequels, Spaceside and Colonyside are available now. His next book, The Misfit Soldier, is forthcoming 2/22/22. Michael lives with his wife in Georgia. He’s also on Facebook and Twitter.
Are you a reader or writer of sci-fi books? If you haven’t read the genre, would you like to try it out? What are your favorite sci-fi books? Read any sci-fi thrillers lately?
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