I went for a walk to post a letter this morning, and I was thinking during my walk, as you do, about how I probably need to refresh my beta readers group. They originally signed on to beta read my Gryphon Clerks novels, which I'm not writing now (I won't say I'll never go back, but for now, I'm not writing stories in that world). I've noticed an understandable reduction in enthusiasm and participation from those folks, especially since I've been writing so much lately (and they're all busy people). So I'm going to be looking for some new blood, people who would like to read my stuff relatively early in the production cycle and comment on what did and didn't work.
That led on to another thought: so, how do I define what I write? The common advice from people who are making a lot of money writing is that you need to find your niche and stick to it, but so far I haven't found it, and I find that advice boring in any case. The realm of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is broad and diverse, and I love exploring it; I may even wander out of it someday.
So far, this is what I write, more or less in order of increasing recency:
- Nonmagical secondary-world sociological speculation, with a strong mystery component (City of Masks).
- Science fiction exploring how more-or-less plausible future technologies impact people and society (the novella Gu, and a number of recent, as yet unpublished, short stories, including "Taking Pro," which will appear in Futuristica 2 in November this year). So far, all set on Earth rather than in space. I love space opera, but I haven't yet written any.
- Lightly steampunked secondary-world fantasy (the Gryphon Clerks series, which, as I say, is on indefinite hiatus; one is arguably almost a romance).
- Contemporary urban fantasy with a touch of technothriller (Auckland Allies; I've just finished drafting the third of what looks like being a six-book series).
- A number of short stories featuring various kinds of magic users, for an eventual themed single-author collection, Makers of Magic. Some published, others not. Some are, and some aren't, in secondary worlds. Some funny, some serious.
- Lyrical fantasy set in post-Zelaznian worlds of wonder (mostly short pieces so far, most not yet published apart from "Something Rich and Strange" and "Gatekeeper, What Toll?"; I'd put the forthcoming SF-ish fantasy novella Brother Blue in this category, too).
- Sword-and-sorcery, with humour ("Axe Stone: Dwarf Detective" and "There's a Tattoo, But the Robes Hide It," plus the forthcoming novella Hand of the Trickster).
- Several assorted other short stories that don't fit any of the above (and aren't yet published): a time travel story, a supers story, a solarpunk story set in the present day, a couple of pieces of historical fantasy set in our world.
And here are some future possibilities that don't fit into any of the above, with an indication of the stages of planning:
- Three secondary-world, nonmagical adventure/romances (idea, rough outline, detailed outline). May or may not end up in the same world, though there's no reason why they shouldn't be, and it seems like a good idea.
- A probably secondary-world steampunk fantasy novel(la?) in which the magic system is such that a form of feudalism is still active, and the characters end up in rebellion against it (detailed outline).
- A space opera series with a bit of a post-cyberpunk overlay (rough series outline and setting notes).
- A mid-future novel, or maybe series, exploring a post-scarcity world (detailed, but incomplete, setting notes and first chapter; no outline).
- A mashup of noir, cyberpunk and shamanism, not sure how long (beginning written, and a rough outline which I may or may not follow).
- An expansion to novel length of the supers story I've already written (mentioned above), about genetically enhanced kids who have to choose whether to work for the government who raised them or against it. (Rough outline.)
- A secret school where all the kids have psychic powers of one kind or another, kind of a cross between Julian May's Galactic Milieu setting and Sherri S. Tepper's True Game setting, with a touch of X-Men, but probably on contemporary Earth. With sports? (Idea.)
- An urban fantasy with different kinds of psychic powers. (Idea.)
- The story of a non-neurotypical engineer (don't call her a mad scientist!) and the superhero she loves, told in tweets, posts, emails, user manuals and specifications. (Idea.)
- A couple more time travel ideas, including one based on the paranoid delusions of a famous early-19th-century lunatic. (Ideas.)
- A straight detective novel where the murder victim is the judge on a cooking reality show contest, and the suspects are the contestants from 10 years before, at their reunion. (Idea, fairly well developed, but not to the point of outlining.)
- A comedy-thriller in which a retired female agent becomes a mentor to a young man, rescues him from a life of crime and makes him a confidential courier - and then they must both confront issues from their pasts. (Idea.)
Yeah, just call me Mister Pachinko Brain.
So what's the constant in all of that genre diversity? Is there a core of what it means to be a Mike Reeves-McMillan story?
I hope there is, and I hope it's this:
- In any genre, I'm more drawn to the side of it that has hope and a sense of wonder, rather than to the cynical side. Some of my SF speculations do tend to come out downbeat, but they're not cynical, and the characters are still people you can empathise with - even as you dislike their choices and regret the consequences of those choices in a complex, difficult world. You won't see full-blown technopessimism, dystopia, or any kind of apocalypse (or horror, or very dark fantasy) from me.
- My fantasy characters are usually admirable people who take costly action for reasons they believe in; I write "noblebright," not "grimdark". But they're not squeaky-clean cardboard cutouts, either. They have their flaws and their damage to deal with, and sometimes they make the wrong call at a critical moment.
- I enjoy ensemble casts in my novels (you can't really do an ensemble cast in a short story). They fight and bicker among themselves, but ultimately pull together for the greater good. I've been told I do good dialog, and that my characters have distinctive voices and seem "real".
- Many of my characters, in all genres - I think slightly over half, definitely including protagonists - are capable, intelligent women who don't take any crap from anyone.
- The stories may or may not have a romantic element, but when they do, the partners are admirable people who deserve each other, by which I mean that the women are not stupid and the men are not cruel. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
- Even in stories that are not primarily humour, there's often something to laugh at in the dialog, the characters' fumbling attempts to come to grips with their lives, or the situation. I like to have fun writing, and believe that leads to fun reading.
- The worlds are often beautiful and filled with wonder, excitement and possibility, even if there's also violence, conflict and risk. Grittiness and grimness do occur, but not as a prevailing tone, more as a source of contrast.
- The "what-if?" ideas are unusual, surprising, and carefully worked out. In particular, I give a lot of thought to how they would affect both individual people and society as a whole, and use that to drive the story.
- While I don't often do beautiful language for its own sake, I do use language consciously and, I hope, skilfully. I think that's important, since it's the medium I work in; just as a painter needs to know how to handle paint, and a sculptor how to handle clay, a writer needs to know how to handle words. Not only is the language carefully chosen and structured, but you'll seldom find typos, homonym errors or punctuation issues even in my first drafts.
So if you think that's the kind of thing you'd like, and you have the time to read early drafts and give me feedback, get in touch (leave a comment, or drop an email to mike at csidemedia) and I'll add you to my beta reading pool.
And if it's the kind of thing you'd like but you don't want to beta read, make sure you're subscribed to the mailing list so you know when I publish something. There are at least three books and, I hope, several short stories coming later this year. My existing work can all be found from here.