Interview with Megan E. O’Keefe, author of ‘The Scorched Continent Series’
In Detan Honding, Megan E O’Keefe has created a loveable rogue of a con man with a brilliant line in astute wisecracking observations. However, Steal the Sky published by Angry Robot is not Megan’s first outing into writing, so I wanted to explore not only her lively style of writing, but also her journey through the publishing process.
You have referred to being ‘Raised amongst journalists’. Has this influenced your desire to write?
It did, but journalists write non-fiction. I did do some journalism connected to the yearbook at school, but mostly my love for science fiction and fantasy came from playing Dungeons and Dragons. That’s what eventually got me into wanting to write great stories.
How did you make your way in the science fiction/fantasy field as an author?
I did quite a bit of storytelling related to Dungeons and Dragons. But I’d never really thought about writing stories until about 2013. I hadn’t been reading science fiction and fantasy for a while because I thought things were starting to get a little bit more competitive in the genre. Then I found a copy of Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. That’s when I discovered things had changed in the genre.
I looked Brandon up on the internet and found he did writing podcasts. I began listening to that and the way all the different hosts approached stories and how the industry worked. So I decided to give writing a go.
While I was listening to the podcasts heard about the ‘Writers of the Future’ competition and entered it.
You’re not the first writer who’s talked about listening to Brandon Sanderson’s podcasts. In fact the last person I spoke to who really enjoyed the podcasts and developed their writing from them was a crime writer.
He and all the people he has on his podcast come from a variety of backgrounds. They’re all very free with information. I think that to have all this information shared with you is encouraging to someone who is just starting out. Everything the writers have learned is just out there on the podcasts.
It’s not an easy industry to be in because it’s very competitive. I know you’ve had to work very hard to get the first novel published. You’ve used Wattpad, but I’ve never talked to a writer who’s used this platform before.
I did it as a sort of experiment. That particular story ‘Another Range of Mountains’ is novella length and is the story I wrote that won ‘Writers of the Future’ for me. So when I got the rights back for it I had a choice. I could send it out to have it reprinted. self-publish it, or as I had just discovered Wattpad and knew some people who were having some success with gaining a readership there, I decided to put it up on Wattpad and see if people were interested.
It’s been fun. It’s a really great community. Everyone is kind of a writer/fan. So everyone’s really excited about words.
Was it helpful?
I know some people who use it as a Beta reader system. But as my story was originally complete and published at that point, I didn’t get much feedback. But it was nice to see what people thought of that story, particularly at that stage in my career.
After winning ‘Writers of the Future’ how did you progress from there?
After I won ‘Writers of the Future, I sold another short story to ‘Shimmer’ and then I went to Phoenix Comicon in June 2014. I met Mike Underwood, the sales and marketing manager from Angry Robot (we had already met at previous conventions). He knew about my novel and asked me to send it over when it was ready. So I polished it up. At the time I’d already been talking to the agents at Jabberwocky. They had also asked me to send the manuscript to them when it was ready. I wasn’t sure what to do, because a simultaneous submission is frowned upon. So I asked my friend Wes Chu, who is also an Angry Robot author, ‘Can I do this?’ He said ‘Yes. Go for it’.
I sent the manuscript into Jabberwocky. Sometime in October I got an e-mail from both Sam over at Jabberwocky and Mike at Angry Robot. This was all within twenty four hours of each other. They both asked if I was going to be at the World Fantasy Convention at Washing D.C., because they both wanted to talk to me about the book. I was really excited and told them I would be there. I ended up getting an author letter from my agent that weekend and a few weeks later I signed with Angry Robot. So it was pretty quick once things actually started moving.
Is attending conventions helpful for writers?
Conventions can be helpful for a lot of reasons at the different stages of your career. When you’re first starting out there are a lot of writers’ workshops at conventions where you can submit a story or a piece of a novel and you have the opportunity to have professional writers who’ve been in the business a while, as well as your peers, critique it. The feedback is incredibly helpful. There are also the panels where the professional writers are usually very forthright and willing to answer questions and give general guidance.
When you’re getting ready to submit you can talk to a lot of writers who are at your level career-wise; people who are at the stage where they are getting ready to submit or are learning to submit. You can share information about different markets, where to find information, for example editors and people who can make sure you’re not being taken advantage of. But you might not know any of this exists if you don’t go out there and talk to people doing the same thing you want to do. So conventions are good for social networking and moral support when you’re at that stage.
Later on when you start making a few sales and you have a bigger project like a novel you want to market, you can talk to editors and get a feel for what they’re looking for.
A lot of conventions have events called ‘coffee clutches’. It’s usually a small gathering where they’ll be one editor from a big name publisher and maybe 10 other people. So you can ask more detailed questions than you might be able to in a bigger situation and find out what they actually like. For example, an editor might have had too much of humour and does not want any more. So if that’s what your book’s about it would be advisable not to send anything out to that editor. It can help accelerate things and give you moral support. Although I am of the belief that a good story will sell no matter what your networking connections are. But those connections might just make things move a little faster.
Moving onto the novel. You’ve chosen an interesting voice. It’s very conversational and flippant. You have written an ensemble novel, although you hear a great deal though Detan’s viewpoint and a couple of other key characters. The plot is complex because of political manoeuvering, conspiracy and an overarching con in play. So how do you begin to write a novel like this?
I did not start with my usual method where I like to have a solid outline in place and go from there. But I had just come off my first big novel project which I had wanted to do and I was a little burnt out on excessive planning. So I decided to sit down and I had the idea of a con man who had been arrested and was sitting waiting to be interrogated with a bag over his head, but was pretty calm about it. I wanted to know why he was so calm.
For this reason the first draft was totally ‘seat of the pants’ in three and a half weeks for 70000 words. The final draft was about 117000 words. So what I’d written was basically an elaborate outline at that point. But most of the bones of the story were already in place. So then I went through and reverse outlined it and found out where things didn’t fit. For example, where the emotional beats were heading, where things came together, and where I didn’t want things. Thesre was a lot of revision for that book.
Although I don’t usually draft that way it helped with Detan’s voice, because he has a really rhythmic flow to the way he talks. I think just going through it as quickly as I could enhanced that first draft.
Why did you decide to have more than one point of view?
The book is about deception. I thought it would enhance it thematically if I were to have different points of voice. Certainly characters are seeing things one way, while other characters are seeing it in a completely different way. Different people have different sets of knowledge. This just enhanced the underhandedness and sneakiness that was going on.
Because Steal the Sky is a complex book and awful lot of work has gone into it. The problem for a lot of writers is that they’re working on their own. One of the key issues they encounter is the sitting down and writing. Do you have a system for getting the work done?
I do. It is a little flexible, because I do work for myself at home, so my time is pretty much my own to manage how I see fit. Usually from about six to eight am is sacred writing time. I will sit down and revise and put down new words and do what I need to do for the day. To be honest my most creative hours are three to four in the morning. So often, because I do work for myself, I will allow myself to stay up quite late.
I have a writers’ group that meets every Saturday from about ten am to two pm. So we’re there quite a while. There’s some useful peer pressure in the way that I might think ‘Why am I the only one not typing in the room?’ So I’m typing for a couple of hours.
Do you exchange ideas?
Yes, quite a bit. It’s an interesting group in that we all come from different backgrounds. There’s a playwright, the other is primarily a visual artist, but she’s a painter. She is an educator for the blind, but she also has a rich epic fantasy background and is a huge fan of ‘The Wheel of Time’ series written by Robert Jordan. We all have different tastes which clash sometimes.
This is interesting because some people find writing groups incredibly helpful and other people don’t. I suppose it depends on the quality of feedback you’re getting from the other people?
It does, and also the personalities. Writing can be a very personal thing and when you put it out there it can be difficult, particularly if it’s to strangers. You’re putting your baby in their hands and asking them to tell you what’s wrong with it. So you have to be able to communicate clearly, kindly and honestly about what is not working.
With fantasy you don’t do research as you might in, for example, a historical novel. But with your book there are still some laws of physics to deal with. In your book you have airships and a gas that is used for lift. How did you derive people’s sensitivity to this gas and how did you work out what transport they were going to use?
The sensitivity is based on the degree to which the person can move the molecules of selium gas. So you’ll see it is a prismatic molecule in the way it reacts to the light and you’ll see all the methods of moving it around. What happens to the molecules depends on how slowly or quickly it’s moved around and how fine-tuned your ability is to move the gas around, or whether it be just changing colour, or forming it into a shape and getting it into the airships. So it’s all based on movement. So this gives me a number of ways in which the gas can be used with the ‘sensitives’ or people who can do things with the gas.
The Empire like their ‘sel senstives’ to be fairly monotonous in ability. But of course there are deviant abilities which give me a lot of fun working out what they’re going to do.
As far as the physics of the airship goes. I have some background as a private pilot. So I brought a lot of that to bear.
The problem with most fantastical airships, when you imagine something like a Spanish galleon, a typical sailing ship and you put it in the air, it’s very difficult to steer. It will basically drift along with the wind. So you have to have some sort of aero foil with aerodynamic surfaces on it so you can direct the power you’re using to move it with propellers. I drew up a lot of diagrams until I had that right.
Yes, if you start creating your own rules they have to be consistent.
Absolutely. You have to figure it out. Some things get tricky in the way that you would want to convey them to a modern reader. For example, there is a higher level of oxygen in their atmosphere than there is in ours. Most science fiction fans would understand what that meant, but the people in my world have not way of knowing that’s true. So how do you communicate that?
The answer is to leave little clues. For example, their insects are bigger on their planet because there is more oxygen.
But within every science fiction novel, you need characters that feel real. What amused me was the way Detan starts to pick up allies. ‘New Chum’ who Detan meets at the spa was a great character. Was he the type of character that suddenly appeared out of thin air, or was he there on the first draft?
He wasn’t there in the original draft, but I really liked him and I wanted him to play a bigger role. I brought him out a little more on revision. So he actually ends up playing a fairly big role in the next book.
Do you know at the moment what the whole story arc of the series is?
The draft of the second book is done. I have all the outlines for book three. When I first signed the contract I thought ‘Yes, Angry Robot has bought all three books. Now I need to make it happen.’ So I sat down and wrote the last chapter of the final book. This meant I always knew where I was going. I thought it might be a good thing to do, and I’m glad I did it because it helped me keep an eye on where things are going and where I wanted all the story arcs to end up.
This answers a question I’ve always had about a publisher buying a series of books and what the author has to do to deliver them, without writing themselves into a dead end at any stage.
Yes, exactly. I knew they were interested in the first book, when my agent e-mailed me and said ‘Send me the synopses for books two and three to show the publishers.’ So I said ‘Sure, let me go and make that up really quickly. I hadn’t imagined there’d be books two and three, but I can do that.’
What other projects do you have planned once you’ve finished the trilogy?
I have a grey room, a waiting room for plot ideas in my head. There are a lot of projects I want to work on. I recently sent my agent the first chapter and a synopsis for five different books that I wanted to work on that are not related to ‘The Scorched Continent’ series. My agent then organised them in the order in which he wanted me to deliver them. So after ‘The Scorched Continent’ I’ll be moving on to a more traditionally science fiction book and then it’ll back to a world fantasy and so on.
You don’t find shifting pace or subjects between books a problem?
No. But I’ve had to do a lot of research for the more traditional science fiction book. But I do like the variety and switching. I love new ideas. That’s what attracted me to science fiction. The experimentation and building strange worlds.