Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Michael Carroll Speaks!

So here we have it! The first in what we hope will be a long series of interviews with artists, writers and all round cool people.For anyone who has been to HiEx, Mike should need no introduction. He's a spectacularly good writer and also a good friend of ours- as well as being responsible for the majestic looking HiEx website.

And here we go...

Tell us about your books…
The New Heroes (published in the USA under the title Quantum Prophecy) is a series of superhero novels – and short stories – for the “young adult” market. To date, four novels have been published and the fifth is scheduled for publication next summer. I’m currently working on the sixth… The plan, should it all come together, is for eight novels in total.

The first three books (The Quantum Prophecy, Sakkara and Absolute Power) tell the story of two young teenage boys who grew up in a world very much like the real one, except that until ten years ago there use to be superheroes… All the superheroes (and supervillains!) disappeared following a great big battle. Our young heroes, naturally, start developing superhuman abilities of their own, and this triggers a sequence of events that, ultimately, leads to a battle for world domination!

We learn pretty early on in the first book that the old superhumans didn’t all die, they simply lost their powers. That’s the “first phase” of the story, and the third book wraps up most – but not all! – of the plot threads.The second phase begins with the fourth novel – Super Human – which is set about 23 years before the main storyline of the first phase, back in the days when many of the old superhumans were still in their teens and early twenties… And still had their powers.
It basically tells the story of how the world of the first phase came to be, plus it plants a few seeds for the future.
The fifth novel carries on from the fourth, but I’m not saying a word about that one, other than that it’s called The Ascension and it’s tremendously exciting!The sixth novel… Well, it’s part of the second phase too, but it’ll be quite a bit different to the others. That’s all I’m saying!
How long have you been writing? What got you started?

I’ve been writing since… um… a long time ago. My first published short story appeared in 1990, and my first novel in 1993. That was a YA novel too, and it’s scary to think that the thirteen-year-olds it was aimed at are now thirty.
As to how I got started… I’ve always wanted to write, from as far back as I can remember. I don’t remember ever actually making the decision to be a writer – it’s always been a part of me.
But, as I’m forever telling other would-be writers, wanting to write is not the same as writing. When I was in my early teens I wrote some absolutely rubbish short stories, and more than once I started a novel. I don’t think I got more than a few pages into any of them.
One I recall quite clearly was my unofficial novelisation of the first Judge Death story from 2000 AD: I was very impressed with the character of Judge Death and thought it would be an ideal way to delve into the history of Judge Dredd.
That one was hammered out on my mother’s old portable manual typewriter… You young people today with your word-processors! You don’t know you’re born, you lot! The portable manual typewriter… Man, it was tough going. To get some idea of what it was like, try sending a tweet on your smartphone while wearing oven gloves and a blindfold. The keyboard didn’t have a one or a zero: instead, we were expected to use lower-case L and capital O. And – here’s the kicker for anyone who’s never used a typewriter – when you got to the end of the page you had to take it out and put in a new one. Plus there was no Undo!
Anyway… That Judge Death novel didn’t survive more than a couple of pages either.
I didn’t really get started writing until I joined the Irish Science Fiction Association in 1989, and I only found out about the association because I saw a flyer advertising the appearance of Harry Harrison – my all-time favourite author – at an upcoming meeting. This is where all the links begin to join up, guys… I discovered Harry’s books because his novel The Stainless Steel Rat was adapted in 2000 AD.
Once I joined the association I submitted a short story to their fiction magazine FTL, and three months later I somehow became the magazine’s editor (and shortly after that, chairman of the association).
Around that time some members of the association decided to run a convention – Octocon, which still takes place every year in October – and they advertised for people to help out. One of those people was Leonia, with whom I immediately fell in love and subsequently married (best decision I ever made!).
At the second Octocon in 1991 I met the writer Michael Scott, and mentioned to him that I’d “always wanted to write a novel.” Michael responded with, “Well, why don’t you?” I didn’t have an answer for that… That was the key event that turned me from a wanna-be writer with a small handful of rather badly-written stories behind me to an actual writer working feverishly on his first real novel. Which also turned out to be rather badly-written, but I didn’t realise that then!
So it all started with 2000 AD!

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m finishing up the pre-development work on the sixth Quantum Prophecy novel, plus I’ve got some strips for 2000 AD in the pipeline, and I’ve just finished an adult novel based on John HigginsRazorjack graphic novel. That’s not a novelisation, mind you: it’s an original tale inspired by John’s excellent work! It’s called Double-Crossing and it’ll be coming out from Com.X next year, alongside Al Ewing’s wonderful and incredibly disturbing novel Wire Mother, also a Razorjack novel – hopefully, they’ll be just the first two of many in an ongoing series!

Following the sixth Quantum Prophecy novel, I’ll be laying down the plans for the final two novels in the series. I’m so looking forward to that I can barely contain myself! The seventh book ends on the mother and father of all cliff-hangers, and the eighth one... Well, I’ll just say that it wraps up the whole storyline in a way that no one is going to see coming!

In an ideal world what would you like to be doing?
I’m doing it! Writing is the best job in the world! Ideally, though, I’d like to be doing what I’m doing now, only with more money. It’s not that I’m greedy, it’s just that all of the money in the world is mine. Most people don’t yet seem to have realised that.

What is your biggest frustration as a writer?
Gaah! Where do I start? There are so many frustrating things about this job… It’s hard to pick just one! See, even though I said it’s the best job in the world, it does have negative points. For example: when a celebrity comes along with a book someone else wrote for them and it tops the best-seller lists. That’s annoying – they’re already rich and now they’re taking money away from real writers!Also annoying: when a fictional character on TV has written a book. In those cases, their books are always best-sellers and they always get to plug the book on Oprah.
In real life, 99% of writers earn less than the minimum wage, there’s almost no promotion, there are no swanky black-tie launch parties, and bookstore signings run the very high risk of absolutely no one turning up to meet the writer (that has actually happened to me!).
Equally annoying: When a publisher gives a brand-new writer a seven-figure advance which completely blows the budget for the next couple of years, leading to established writers – whose books were plodding along quite nicely until then – suddenly finding themselves dropped. Grr! (Still, at least there’s the satisfaction of watching that brand-new writer’s books go straight into the bargain bookstores!)
But my biggest frustration as a writer… When a publisher tells you the bad news that a book didn’t sell as well as they’d hoped, so they won’t be taking the next one. That’s bad, but what’s even badder is when the publishers invested exactly zero money in promoting said book.
I mean, that’s their job! My job is to write the words, their job is to make sure the book sells. If it doesn’t sell, it’s their fault, not mine! The quality of a book has very little to do with how well it sells: we can all name absolutely rotten books that are massive best-sellers.
Of course, it’s important to understand that it cuts both ways: when a book sells really well, it’s almost never because it’s a good book – it’s because the publishers have got a good marketing team and they’ve invested a lot of time and money into promoting the book.
Therein lies a great danger, though… See, even though the author’s name is prominent on the cover, we don’t do this alone. Very few authors are so good that they can produce a perfect manuscript right out of the box: Good books need good editors to kick them into shape. But when an author’s books becomes a huge success the idea starts to form that the success is entirely theirs, that their words are sacred and should not be altered. When that happens, when the author becomes more important than the book, the quality of the finished product starts to slip.

What is or has been a particular high point for you?

I’ve had a lot of high points: Having one of my stories picked to appear in a school textbook, being named by a very well-known literary critic as his favourite living Irish writer, having my first story appear in 2000 AD, seeing someone on the train reading one of my books and laughing out loud at the funny parts…

But probably the biggest high point was a couple of months ago when I received an e-mail from a woman in America: she said that her son was a very reluctant reader, way behind everyone else in his grade, and they had tried everything to get him interested in books. Nothing worked, until they found the Quantum Prophecy series. He ploughed through the first book in only a couple of days, and then begged her to buy the rest of the series. Now, she said, her son is a voracious reader, his grades have shot up, he’s paying much more interest in school – he’s now top of his class – and, even better, he’s turned from a sullen, sulky loner into a bright, out-going young man who is “a lot more pleasant to be around!”
I can’t claim credit for all of that, of course, but it’s nice to know that my books provided the spark. That’s why I write. That’s why I put in eighty-plus hours a week! Not for the fame or the money, but for the satisfaction of knowing that there are kids out there, most of whom I’ll never meet, who are reading my books, enjoying them, and – hopefully – discovering the joy of reading.

Did your education help or hinder the work you do now?
I reckon it helped… I should point out that I left school at sixteen so I don’t have a lot of formal education, but I had a couple of great English teachers in secondary school who really helped me to appreciate the written word. For most of my formative years I read only science fiction, but Mister Murtagh and Mister Pender taught me to expand the boundaries. There are good books that don’t have monsters, robots or aliens in them! Astonishing!
I do often wonder how my life would have turned out had I stayed in school and then gone to college (not because I have any regrets, but because I’m a writer and my job is to wonder about everything all the time).
What is your writing work regime if you have one?

I generally get up at about ten, and work through until my wife gets home at six in the evening. Then I work from eleven that night until about four the next morning (and I get a lot more work done in those five hour at night than in the eight hours of the day – mostly because the phone doesn’t ring!). At the weekends, I generally do about eight or nine hours each day.
It all depends, though, on what stage I’m at in a book. For each book, I generally spend about six months in “pre-production”: working out the plot, designing the characters, pulling together all the necessary research, and so on.
For the plot, I start with a bunch of ideas and constantly go over and over the story, looking at every part of it from every possible angle. I do this in the word-processor, writing notes to myself. By the time I get to the end, I’ll have the entire story worked out, right down to certain exchanges of dialogue. The development document for Absolute Power, for example, is about 45,000 words. The book itself is only 65,000 words.
After the pre-production stage comes the first draft. That’s always, always a very intense time: I almost never leave the house and I’ll often put in a hundred hours a week or more. I don’t stop until the first draft is done. At the beginning, I’ll be writing maybe two or three thousand words a day, but by the time I get to the end I’ll be hitting five or six thousand. The last day is usually one very long session: my record is 18,000 words in one twenty-hour sitting!
When the first draft is done, I set the book aside for a week or two, then I come back to it with a fresh eye and start marking all the parts that need to be fixed. I can get pretty ruthless at this stage, cutting out huge chunks of text (there’s probably over 150,000 words of New Heroes stuff that’ll never see the light of day!). The second draft is where I fix all the broken parts. Then I go over it one more time and do some minor tweaking for the third draft.
After that, the book goes off to my editor (that’s the “official” first draft!). He’ll get back to me with a list of suggestions and observations about the plot: what’s working and what’s not, what could be improved, and so on. I should be honest her and tell you that when my editor suggests a change to a certain passage I almost never follow his ideas… Not because he’s wrong – he’s usually right that it needs to be changed – but because his suggestion and observation will force me to look at that passage from a different perspective, and that challenges me to come up with something even better.
Once that official second draft is done, the book is finished! Except, of course, that it’s not… There’s the copy-editing stage where typos are caught and minor errors in the flow are found, followed by the “this is your last possible chance to make changes” stage. And then the proof pages are type-set and they have to be checked too.

What else other than writing is important in your life?

My wife, my family, my friends, my cats… Plus there’s my far-too-big (but, paradoxically, still not big enough) collection of CDs, movies, comics and books. I don’t read as much as I probably should – when I’m reading I feel guilty for not writing, even though deep down I know that reading is just as important as writing for a job like mine.I’m a keen but not very talented computer graphic artist: for the Quantum Prophecy books I create graphics of all the major characters (you can find most of them on the website). I’ve had no training and rarely know what I’m doing, but it’s a lot of fun and a good distraction when I’m working on a plot (sometimes the only way to solve a tricky plot problem is to push it to the back of the brain and let your subconscious work it out).

I also still dabble a little with computer programming. I’ve been out of the business for eleven years now so I’m nowhere near as good as I used to be, but I’ve recently written a couple of programs that have proved very useful for writers, especially my Name Generator! When writing you can lose a huge amount of time trying to come up with a good name for a minor character – but Mike’s Name Generator has a database of thousands of first and last names, and can generate billions of combinations – it’s the most useful program I’ve ever written!
My Fake Word Generator has also been quite handy. It strings together random digrams and trigrams (common two- and three-letter combinations) to form words that aren’t real but often sound like they are. I used that a lot when writing Razorjack: Double-Crossing to create alien-sounding names.

Where can people find out more about you?

Visit my websites at www.michaelowencarroll.com and www.quantumprophecy.com – all you need to know about me and my books can be found there!

Thank you Michael!

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