I’ve known Michael Bailey for a long time now. We both performed with Pastimes Entertainment, a theater group that specializes in RenFaire shows. So we share a love for swashbuckling, swords, and staged violence. He’s also a fantastic writer, serving as an editor/reporter for his local newspaper for years before leaving the dayjob to help his wife run her costuming and geek accessory company (which my fiance also works for), and writing full-time. Needless to say, I was stoked (and a bit jealous) to see him do what he loves.
Last year, Mike published his debut novel Action Figures, a YA book full of super hero action and adventure in novel form. It’s pretty cool. You can read my entire review here, but know it was definitely a page turner and I never read YA novels. Not since I was forced to in high school. It’s that good.
Here’s a quick synopsis of Action Figures:
Carrie Hauser’s life is a little crazy right now. Her parents have just gotten divorced, her mom has uprooted her to the town of Kingsport, a lethal high-tech mercenary wants her dead, and a group of teenage superhero wannabes need her help taking down a rogue artificial intelligence threatening to wreck her new home. What’s a girl with super-powers to do?
Mike was kind enough to step away from his furry cats and dog (it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds) to answer a few quick Qs about Action Figures, his writing, the self-publishing industry, and getting into the mind of a 15-year-old girl.
What inspired Action Figures?
The short, but overly simple, answer is: a lifetime of reading superhero comics.
Now, the more complicated answer…
Whenever I get a new story idea, I’ll explore it to see if it actually works, and if it doesn’t, I’ll file various elements that do work away for later use in something else. Action Figures is a composite of three or four less successful ideas, some of which have been in my head since high school.
Creating super heroes sounds like a lot of fun, but there are so many out there, how difficult was it to create unique heroes and villains for your book?
I don’t worry about creating unique characters, because it’s all been done before. Super-heroes haven’t been fresh and original for years, and I knew I had no hope of doing something radically different, something that no one has seen before, so I decided to work within the familiar tropes and instead focus on making the characters interesting as people.
I have to admit, I love the faux-science of Pysche’s powers and how real life medical issues are connected. It was a clever way of tying that into the real world.
I’ve always loved super-hero stories that play with the idea of what it would really be like to have fantastic powers. I like the idea that these powers aren’t a free lunch, that there is some price to pay, which also gives the characters limits on their abilities. Characters without limits get very dull very fast.
Many male writers get blasted (and rightfully so) for writing very simplistic, one dimensional female characters. Add on top of that you had to write a lead character who’s also a bit younger then yourself. But Carrie is an exciting, complex, and very believable teenage girl. Did you have trouble writing her and why do you think some male writers struggle writing leading ladies?
I can get into Carrie’s head with shocking ease. I don’t know how it works, because I’m not putting serious effort into channeling a 15-year-old girl, it just happens. I’m lucky in that I’ve met several young ladies who fit the Carrie mold: young but very intelligent, confident, and mature, so I have some excellent templates.
I think male writers fail because they’re too focused on writing women rather than writing people. They start to think of women in (no sexist pun intended) broad generalities – women are more emotional than men, they don’t communicate directly, etc. – and forget that individuals frequently defy gender stereotypes, so they end up writing women who adhere to an unrealistic formula that doesn’t reflect real life.
This will make more sense to folk who have read the book, but how does Stuart afford to eat so much? Does Matt pull out wads of cash from his trenchcoat for him?
Stuart has well-off parents who provide him with a generous allowance. Funny thing, the question of where the kids get their money has come up quite a bit, and I’ve let that sit as a non-issue so far because it’s not important to the story, but in book three the characters are going to start hitting that age when their parents will push them to get real jobs, so they’ll be finding their places in the job market soon enough.
One of the best parts of this novel is that it’s aimed for YA, but adults can really enjoy the novel, too. Was that the game plan going into the writing or was that a happy accident?
Completely planned. The great thing about the modern YA market is that it’s very accessible to adult readers. The best YA books out there don’t shy away from more mature themes and content, and don’t dumb-down the writing, and I think that’s because authors are making the smart choice not to write childish books. They respect young readers’ intelligence and ability to process more mature stories – unlike some parents, who want to guard their kids against anything complex and uncomfortable.
You’re close to finishing the sequel to Action Figures. What can you tell us about that book, and the future of the series, in general?
Book two introduces Dr. Enigma and Black Betty, two sorceresses fighting over a Necronomicon-esque book with the power to destroy the world. The story gives me a chance to expand the series’ setting a little more. Super-hero worlds are a great mish-mash of genres – action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy – so there’s a lot of potential for a wild variety of stories.
As for the series’ future, it’s pretty well set; I’ve plotted out the major arcs already, and I know exactly how the series ends, so now it’s a matter of getting the main characters to that point. In book three, which is already in the works, the Hero Squad is going to get slapped around hard. A lot of their preconceived notions about the adults in their life are going to be challenged, they’re going to learn some disturbing truths about the path they’ve chosen, and they’re going to have to solve their own problems without any help from their mentors in the Protectorate.
Some of the events in book three will set up for book four, which will pit the Squad against a major villain, and they’re not walking away from their encounter unscathed. Later on, I plan to reveal where Carrie’s powers came from, and the price attached to them.
Obviously, the Action Figures stories are influence by your love for comics. Can we expect an Action Figures comic adaption in the future?
I’d love to do a self-contained story in comic book form, but I don’t think it would work out unless the novels gain a strong following. The reason I pursued this project as a prose series is because another teen super-hero comic book would get lost, and I wanted this project to stand out.
I know you tried the traditional publishing route for several years. What made you jump onto the self-publishing boat and what have you taken away from attempting the traditional route?
Long story short, in 2012 an agent expressed a great deal of interest in Action Figures, and did something no agent had ever done before: she worked with me to help develop the first book. She gave me a lot of great feedback and detailed criticism, but in the end she passed on the project, without giving me a clear reason why.
I’d grown used to receiving rejection letters, but this one hit hard, because it felt like I was finally going to break out and see one of my books published. I didn’t write for months, didn’t even try.
During that time, I read a lot of articles talking about how self-publishing was experiencing a turnaround, and was becoming a legitimate outlet for truly talented people who were sick of being overlooked by traditional publishers. To give credit where it’s due, the final kick in the pants came when you put your first Jack Hawking short out. Your positive experience gave me the incentive I needed to try something different, since the “normal” way of going about it had failed me so spectacularly.
For the longest time, self-published authors were very much looked down upon as “lesser talent” in the world of literature, but that stigma seems to be changing. Have you ever run into anyone who’s said “You’re not a real author” because of that? And what’s your take on the current and future of self-publishing?
Confession time: I used to have a very low opinion of self-publishing. My early exposures to self-published works were, without exception, terrible. People who knew I was a writer would give me copies of their self-published novels to get my opinion, and each and every one of them was awful. I never got past the first chapter, which was enough to tell me these people had no idea how to construct a story, sometimes no idea how to construct a proper sentence.
There was also, I admit, some knee-jerk jealousy involved. Here I was, putting years of effort into breaking into publishing the “right way,” and then someone shoves their novel at me, despite the fact they have no discernible talent and skipped right over that long, arduous, and often discouraging process of paying one’s dues. It wasn’t a rational reaction on my part, but there it was.
It took me a long time to separate the message from the messenger and realize self-publishing’s potential, but my past experience gives me an understanding why readers as a whole are twitchy about giving self-published works a try; there is a LOT of god-awful garbage out there, more garbage than quality material by volume, and it casts a bad light on all indie authors.
I think self-publishing is slowly but surely gaining respectability, but I expect its reputation will take a while yet to improve. As the saying goes, the good thing about self-publishing is, anyone can do it, but the bad thing is, anyone can do it, and as long as there are no quality controls in place, the good writers will have to work harder to show the world that indie authors aren’t all a bunch of hacks who can’t cut it in the world of traditional publishing.
As for the “real author” part of the question, no one’s ever said that to me, but I have some sales revenue reports that nicely contradict any such accusation.
What advice do you have for other writers who are looking at self-publishing as a way to get their work out there?
The most important thing any aspiring writer can do is embrace brutal honesty as their friend. They need to show their story to test-readers who will mercilessly tear apart any flaws, and either go in and fix them; come to the hard realization that writing might not be their best creative outlet; or forge ahead with a weak novel, and brace themselves for a lot of disappointing sales figures and critical readers who won’t hold back anything.
Aspiring indie authors also need to treat the entire process with as much dedicated professionalism as possible. If they’re serious about making a go of writing as a full or side career, they have to do whatever it takes to polish their book, and that means getting a professional to handle editing chores, and a professional to handle cover art duties. Shortcuts might save time and money, but they will also compromise the quality of the final product.
They also need to understand that their job does not end once the book becomes available. Indie authors must also act as their own marketing and PR rep, which adds to the workload and takes away from writing time, but it’s a necessary evil. “If you build it, they will come” is a lousy marketing strategy.