- The three-minute approach to naming in our stories.
- Writing humorous science fiction and how a well-rounded individual makes a better writer.
- For self-published writers, the only impetus to keep going is self-generated.
It took me an embarrassingly long period of time to realize the project I actually enjoyed should be the one I worked on.
Welcome to the twenty-second episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Michael Ronson about his writing, humor and approach to the craft.
Arthur: I had a lot of fun reading your books. In previous interviews, I’ve discussed the importance of names in our stories. In your books, almost every time a character was introduced, I had to read their names several times – because I was laughing – to make sure I was reading it correctly. Names that are sticking out, besides Captain Space Hardcore, are Master Hoffenhoff, and Pip Tinkle. How do you come up with your character’s names? Is there any importance to them?
Michael: The names of my two protagonists – Captain Space Hardcore and Ebenezer Funkworthy – were actually made by a friend of mine. I remember that we were walking somewhere and coming up with as many utterly ridiculous character names as we possibly could, going back and forth, trying to outdo each other. Those two were the ones that made me laugh the most. Captain Space Hardcore stuck because it’s such a blatant, first draft, childlike name for a hero. It’s so earnest and obvious, it’s like a ten-year old’s idea. It’s like calling someone ‘Detective Hank Protagonist’ or ‘Inspector Rex Vendetta’; it’s such a blunt, first thought that’s trying to tell you everything about the character that it amuses me still. It’s kinda similar to the naming of characters in ‘Rick and Morty’. You have characters called stuff like Mr. Poopy Butthole or Birdperson and you can just see that it was almost the first thing that was suggested in the writer’s room and they just went with it.
So with the naming of characters I tend to go with a pretty immediate gut feeling. I don’t stray too much from the first thought, which is usually a god-awful idea for any writing but I’ve mostly stuck to it since I find that, with the incidental details of a sci-fi world (planet names, species names, ship names), it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and overthink something that nobody really cares about. I tortured myself for ages trying to think of ship names for writing the current book. Do I go with the esoteric Iain M Banks ship names which are strange little sentence length poems? Maybe a Star Trek style, one-word that sounds generally positive? But since it’s a comedy, surely the name itself should be some kind of joke. I found myself falling down a Google rabbit hole of interesting naming conventions in all of sci-fi, which would have been a lovely way to spend an afternoon, but not really that productive. In the end I gave myself three minutes to come up with something, and whatever my best thought was at the end of that time is what I went with. The good thing about those names is that after you settle on something, you write it so often that it just becomes normal through repetition. I barely ever think about how my main character’s name is Captain Space Hardcore. When I do think about it, I’m usually in the middle of sending emails to literary agents and publishers and at that moment, my ‘first thought/last thought’ naming technique doesn’t always feel like it’s paying off.
I remember an episode of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Screenwipe‘ where he talks to a variety of TV writers and they talk about naming characters. Some of them said that they absolutely agonized over names and really got into the subtle differences between naming someone ‘Richard’, ‘Dick, ‘Rick’, or ‘Ricky’. What character traits separates a ‘Tom’ from a ‘Tommy’? Meanwhile others just blurt out the first thing that comes to mind and trust some invisible process in their mind to have churned up something suitable.
I’m a blurter. (At least that’s what it says on my Tinder profile.)
I always enjoyed the character names in Dickens, which lay out exactly what the person is going to be like from the first second. You almost don’t need a physical description of a Mr. Pumblechook, or a Mr. Jaggers or a Ms. Havesham; it’s all right there. Now, you’re not ever actually going to meet someone who introduces themselves as Chevy Slyme, unless you spend your days hanging out with Captain Planet but it isn’t about realism, it’s about economically getting across as much information to the reader as you can.
And yes, I was drawing a parallel between myself and Charles Dickens there. My ego knows no limits. I’ll try to compare myself to Cormac McCarthy later, you just watch me.
I think there is a lot of value in being as well-rounded as you can be, and it only ever helps your writing.
Arthur: There’s a lot of humor in your writing. It’s hilarious. For example, the use of “abbreviations” in the beginning of TIME TROUSUERS, or the irony in going to rescue a spaceship when they weren’t the ones who called for help.
“Listen, doc, I’m the kind of chap that shortens the word ‘situation’ to ‘sitch’. What does that tell you? Don’t answer that. What it tells you is that we don’t have any time. Do I need to say it three times? I can’t: there just isn’t the time. God, but I wish there was. So tell me- wha sit?”
“That’s short for ‘what’s the sitch?’ I can’t waste time explaining all my abbreviations! If I did we’d all be W.B.P.K.C.I.L.C”
How do you find situations to use for humor? Was it your original intent to write something that was “funny,” or did it just turn out that way?
Michael: It actually wasn’t my intention to write something funny. Many would say I’ve stayed true to that.
I started out writing a grand and serious sci-fi novel that was essentially a noir-tinged hunt for a missing person set on disused space station that was going to take the protagonist in a journey through the station modeled on Dante’s Inferno, with every level themed around that layer’s sin until he reached the bottom. It was completely straight, had no jokes in it, had characters with non-ridiculous names making hard choices, it contained themes, at least three metaphors and it was modeled on something both old and foreign.
At the same time my friend decided to keep me company in this creative endeavor, and he wrote a version of the first chapter of the first book. He wrote an opening about some guy called Captain Space Hardcore being chased by some daft thing called a gammonshark. Ridiculous nonsense.
He didn’t pursue it much beyond the half a chapter he outlined so, when I ran into a bit of blockage in writing the Great and Important Work I would sometimes add to that chapter, play around with it. It was a way of keeping the creative process going but in a no-consequences area of another very stupid story. Because I had decided that this chapter wasn’t going to be anything, I was freed to throw a bunch of daft ideas and jokes in there because who cares? This is just playtime. Before I knew it, I’d finished that chapter and a couple more besides. When I went back to the ‘real’ book I was writing it was with an internal groan, and every time I logged a couple thousand words of that (enough to excuse myself to return to the ‘silly book’) I was much happier.
It took me an embarrassingly long period of time to realize that the project that I actually enjoyed should be the one I worked on. Work should be hard and draining, surely. You know something is worthwhile by how gruelling it is. Eventually I set aside the serious book and focussed on the silly one and I found that while the thing didn’t just write itself it did come far more easily, was more enjoyable to write and it felt like I’d found a voice that fit me.
As for how to find humorous situations, I’m mostly working in tropes since I’m writing comedy sci-fi, so you can pretty much make a list of familiar science fiction devices and situations and think of any way you could twist or subvert them. After the first book myself and a friend made a large document of sci-fi cliches and just batted them around for awhile. Some of them (‘time travel’ would be a good example) open up a huge array of comic possibilities immediately that you just need to process and parse out while others might just be quick, throwaway gags.
So, a good example of finding humor in a variety of situations might be the first book where I know that my protagonist is going to have to interview a number of suspects of a murder. That’s a good premise for me, because there are about a thousand recognizable permutations of that in books, TV, plays and so on that you can have your characters and your tone collide with. So you could parody a good cop/bad cop gritty interrogation scene, or a Poirot-style scene where he gathers everyone in the drawing room to reveal the killer, a lie detector, truth serum, and so on. If you have a good grasp of your own world, your characters and your comic sensibility, you can sort of shuffle through these situations and sense if there’s something there for you to subvert or parody or make silly noises in.
But you can’t rely on tropes altogether or your work’s just going to be derivative. You have to write situations that aren’t just rip-offs unfortunately.
Finding a situation and seeing what’s going on in it is a fun process to write, especially at the start of a book, or the beginning of a section where you’re creating something from scratch. Since I have two characters bouncing off of each other I can have them explain the situation to each other as I create it. So, for instance, when I write cold opens to each book I usually start in medias res, in a situation that’s already going wrong. I usually don’t really know the nature of the catastrophe is, but I have one character open their mouth and that’s the start of it. So I might just put down some line like, “Do you really think it was wise to shoot the President, sir?”. And we’re away. That becomes the reality I’m working in. It’s a little like an improv game, where every time a character speaks they have to add to the situation. So I know the next line in response has to add to and escalate that first one. “Of course it was! Don’t you see, he was going to kill us all.” Add another couple lines and before long you have a convoluted, out of control situation to play in. Not every one’s going to be a winner (as you can see from that example) but do that a few times and you’ll have a few fun ideas to play around with.
It’s a little like an improv game, where every time a character speaks, they have to add to the situation. So I know the next line in response has to add to and escalate that first one.
Arthur: To write “funny stuff,” one must be well-cultured and aware of modern events to reference the humor to. Do you set aside time for this kind of research? Or are you just a naturally hilarious guy?
Michael: Anybody who’s had the misfortune to meet me in a social situation can tell you that I’m not a naturally hilarious guy. Maybe I’m breaking the mold for science fiction authors, but at a party I can usually be found in the corner, standing quietly, often facing into it like I’m re-enacting the final scene of The Blair Witch Project. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be a party. I sometimes do that in one-on-one conversations.
But in regards to making yourself aware of culture and events, I think there is a lot of value in being as well-rounded as you can be, and it only ever helps your writing. I remember listening to an interview with a comedian (can’t remember who, apologies) who was talking about doing a lot of improv early on in their career and getting so into it that it was all that they did in their days. Improv class, standup, writing standup, talking with other comedians and so on and so on in a cycle every day. Eventually their teacher took them aside and told them to just take a break, just go to the zoo or something. They said you can’t reflect anything comedically if nothing new is going into your system. If all you’re processing every day is comedy then you’re going to stagnate, you’ll only reference things from a tiny pool of experiences, become too referential and your own comedic style will become too cerebral and inward-facing.
So I do believe that there has to be a basic input-output system. You need a broad base of knowledge first and foremost to be a rounded person, but also to use in your writing. There’s no piece of information or interest you can develop that will be actively detrimental to your writing (unless you develop an interest in heroin, which can become a bit time consuming) so it’s all grist for the mill.
However since you mention references, that does make me think of a general concern I have, and that’s the use of references in my own writing.
I write humorous sci-fi. On the one hand that’s enormously liberating. Do you want to write a completely off-the-wall scenario? Go ahead. You can write about a moon populated by werewolves that never change back into human form because they live on a full moon every day. You can write about a sentient planet that’s populated by ten-foot-tall bald gorillas who communicate only through flatulence. Think it and it’s yours. However, one thing that it cuts you off from is reference humor. That’s difficult. If you’ve ever seriously hurt your back you’ll know that one thought swirls around your head all day: ‘My god I use my back for everything‘.
It’s the same for references and humor. When I’m with friends, probably a good seventy percent of the laughs any of us get in conversation are in some way derived from a reference; pop culture, literary, celebrity, topical, political, whatever. Once you decide that your story is set in the 31st century or a galaxy far, far away, you cut off that possibility. You cut off that limb. Nobody’s dropping in contemporary movie or music references in the future. That’s obvious, but you realize about thirty pages into a comedy book just how much you rely on some shared point of contact.
In a way, that’s why I started creating supplementary material and adding to the character of Michael Ronson. I wrote parody versions of author interviews, made up fictional bibliographies, made up a biography for the guy just to have that other type of joke present in the book. The Michael Ronson material allows me to have references to books and media, a parody right-wing blowhard to play around with, references to publishing trends and all the stuff that would be out of place in a Buck Rogers space romp.
I write humorous sci-fi. On one hand that’s enormously liberating. Do you want to write a completely off-the-wall scenario? Go ahead. You can write about a moon populated by werewolves that never change back into human form because they live on a full moon every day.
Arthur: What kind of experience are you trying to create for your readers?
Michael: Since I’m writing humour, the obvious thing I’m shooting for is laughter, of course. That’s your baseline. I’ll take a guffaw, a wry smile, a snort, even an eye-roll generated by a bad pun. So I’m looking to generate those pretty consistently over the course of the book, but I think I’d be doing a disservice to the reader if that was the height of my ambition for any of the books. If all I wanted was laughter, I’d spend my days chasing people around with a feather duster, but the police say I can’t do that any more.
Over the three Space Hardcore books, I’ve essentially decided that my approach is this: I want to sneak up on you slowly and make you feel something (again, a practice discouraged by the police). I want to open with ridiculous, absurd scenarios that have a high concentration of jokes, and then involve the characters in a plot that allows them to enter into a number of comic set-pieces you’ll hopefully want to read. In every book (including the third in the series I’m writing now) I try to make the arc of these set pieces get gradually darker, to introduce actual stakes, and to ease up on the comedy a little. Hopefully, as we enter into the third act, you want the protagonists to succeed and return to the state of breezy, zero-consequences fun we started off at. Hopefully, at the end of a book you surprise yourself by actually caring about events and characters that started off as trope-y caricature-y fun. That’s the ambition.
Maybe it would surprise someone who saw the names of my two protagonists or a summary of any of my plots, but for each book I always have a breakdown of each character’s arc and a list of thematic goals. I think that if it’s just parody and silly jokes, that’s too disposable, there’s nothing for it to stick to. There has to be some substance, some genuine feeling behind it, even if it’s just there for me.
With the second book, for example, it’s a time travel adventure about a time-bending villain making our hero go back to past events in his life that have now been changed for the worse, making previous adventures he barely managed to win into death-traps.
In a first draft, these death-traps were not rooted in his previous adventures. They were a series of high concept ‘Saw’-style death-traps with time-travel twists and they just weren’t working. It was only after I found the thematic through-line of time travel as a stand-in for memory that I realized that I was writing about someone revisiting their memories and finding that they weren’t actually the hero they thought they were. That’s when I re-framed these death-traps as being his memories that have been corrupted. Once I did that, the book came to life for me. This was at a time in my life I was doing a similar thing; taking stock of some of my own life choices and realizing I had not always been the best protagonist of my own story.
A reader doesn’t need to know this, but for me, the book was only possible, and only came together once I gave it an actual real theme, that was rooted in something I was feeling. I probably could have strung together a more straightforward parody of time travel movies and so on, with jokes sprinkled throughout, but had I not found the real root of what I was trying to get out, I don’t think it would have turned out like it did: a book I’m actually pleased with.
The book was only possible, and only came together once I gave it an actual real theme, that was rooted in something I was feeling.
Arthur: There is discussion among comedians who use small cafe’s and comedy clubs to practice their jokes to make sure they are “funny” for the big audience. Do you do anything similar in your books, so you know it’s going to be fun for your readers? Do you have a “test audience” for your work?
Michael: It’s tricky. Since the act of writing is essentially lonely and insular, it’s almost impossible to get feedback while you craft a joke or scenario. When I write a joke down there is no reaction. That annoying little paperclip doesn’t pop up and tell me what jokes are absolutely killing, the room is silent and (ever since I got rid of that haunted mirror) nothing in the room laughs at me. So I’m missing half of the process. Most of the time I’m adjusting jokes to how well they play to an audience of me myself and I, and that’s a process that inevitably leads you in a journey up your own rectum, never to return. I’ve got my own sensibility and if I only feed into that, it’ll get more specific, I’ll keep writing jokes for myself and eventually it’ll become some kind of self-referential code, decipherable only by me: an enigma code made out of dick jokes.
So you do need an outside audience, which is when you have to test the patience of your friends by making them read your work.
But you can’t really gauge their reactions the same way. You don’t get the instant feedback of seeing what exact word they’re on when they laugh, or what phrase particularly tickled them, since you can’t stand over their shoulder as they read through your second draft. You have to go by the feedback they give at the end so the minutiae of what works is lost somewhat. I mean, I have gotten incredibly drunk and read a whole chapter at a friend of mine, but that was as insufferable as it was cruel. I think that counts as a human rights violation. That was literary waterboarding and as such the feedback he gave me could not be acted upon.
So it is a learning process. You learn what you’re writing for yourself and what will be funny for an audience. I’ve tried to learn the difference between ‘writer’ jokes and ‘reader’ jokes. In my first book especially there are a few of the former: jokes that are fun for the me while I write the thing but come across as self indulgent to the reader. For example, under each chapter I’d put a little blurb of what will happen in the chapter:
In which our hero rushes to defuse the bomb, and a familiar figure watches from the shadows.
That kind of thing.
It’s a bit of a pulpy anachronism, but that’s essentially what I’m writing so I thought it would be a fun device. To give it a twist, I thought I’d start off by having these little summaries reflect the events of the chapters, but as the book goes along, I’d have them start to divert from the events and start telling a story all of their own, completely unconnected to the real plot, so by the end those summaries are detailing the climax of a plot that has nothing to do with the real plot.
That is a what I mean when I say a writer idea. It’s a gratifying and clever notion that amused me at the time, but I guarantee no reader ever noticed it. Nobody reads those little summaries and when they started going strange I’ll bet anybody reading it just skipped over them. I highly doubt that anyone put them all together. So there is a difference between what’s fun for a writer and what’s fun for a reader.
Left to my own devices I’d have my characters take up chapters talking about wacky little events in galactic history or listing alien species and their funny biological quirks or trading dozens of elaborate insults or running down lists of people with ridiculous names. Those are all just indulgent things for me to do and each one is essentially a list of one-off jokes. None would move the story or inform the characters, but they’d be gratifying for me to write. Learning to separate what amuses you in the writing from what would amuse others is an important lesson and I look forward to learning it one day.
The real pain is trying to find the ebb and flow that should be there over the course of the book. If you sit down and write 2,000 words of story with about ten solid jokes every day you can build your story like that. But if you’re just putting out jokes at regular intervals it gets wearying after a while. If you watch a one-liner comedian do a set, they will inevitably throw in a section where they do a long-form story, because a steady tick-tick-tick of jokes becomes monotonous after a while. Comedy writing is the same, you have to change it up, even have long stretches with a different tone, parts that focus on only action so that you don’t become maddening. That’s the real challenge that you need an audience and beta readers for, because I’d just stick a joke in any gap I can find, and that’s not a fun read overall.
Learning to separate what amuses you in the writing from what would amuse others is an important lesson.
Arthur: How do you receive feedback on your writing before the work is published?
Michael: Since I don’t have a real editor or publisher behind me, I rely on friends and internet people for feedback.
I’m lucky enough to have incredibly cruel friends who want to hurt my feelings whenever possible, so when I give carte blanche for them to tell me that my writing is bad, and that I am a bad person for doing all that bad writing, they take me up on it with scarcely contained glee. That level of vitriol is pretty useful. I do try to encourage blunt criticism, since that’s the main kind that’s useful and I try not to be the kind of delicate Romantic poet type who faints dead away whenever someone impugns my choice of words. Criticism is a two-way street and nobody will want to give you the time and energy it takes to pore over a first draft if you can’t take a little light ego bruising.
If I have the money and I can find someone on freelancer.com, or a similar site who will look through the manuscript and give it a thorough edit, that’s incredibly helpful, but it can be prohibitively expensive, especially if you’re funding everything yourself.
I’ll also put a few chapters up on some writing forums and subreddits. You can’t put your whole manuscript up obviously, but I find if you put a feed a few sample chapters into the internet hive mind they tend to tell you about some tics that you might not be aware of, so you can do another read through and edit with those in mind. This can be fraught with danger, though, since humour is so subjective and because people on the internet (and I’m just going to be blunt here, and say it like it is) can be big old meanies, the feedback you get can be a little dispiriting. Watching someone simply not get a joke is a frustrating thing. Especially when it’s yours. But you have to take it in stride, take the good with the bad and, above all remember not to argue with people on the internet for that way madness lies. When you find yourself litigating one of your own jokes on a forum to ‘Jokerskarz420‘ in a thousand-word long diatribe, you need to stand up, take a breath and walk far away from your keyboard. Your jokes do not become funnier if you explain them loudly, angrily, and at length. That’s a lesson I learned from the last time I went speed dating.
Your jokes do not become funnier if you explain them loudly, angrily, and at length. That’s a lesson I learned from the last time I went speed dating.
Arthur: You’re a self-published writer. What do you find to be the most difficult about self-publishing?
Michael: There are a number of things. Self-promotion is a huge one for me (which I’ll talk about more in a later question). Another big challenge is deciding when the book is actually done. I could still be editing and tinkering with the first book today, editing and tightening bits and making sure it’s absolutely perfect, just another seven drafts and it’ll be nearly done. Or you could be the opposite, do one draft, spellcheck it and put it out there immediately, confident that it’s probably good enough. You’re your own quality assurance team and you will always either be too neurotic or too confident. It’s all in your hands. You decide the quality and if it even exists at all.
I think a whole host of challenges can be chased down their holes to one main existential concern that’s the root of it all. That is: there is no reason to do what I’m doing.
Those aren’t just my family’s sentiments either, it’s a pretty objective fact. Nobody’s commissioned me, I’m not employed by anyone to produce this, nobody’s crying out for it, no agent is bugging me about a deadline. If I stopped now and forever, very few people would commit ritual suicide in the streets, in fact I don’t think anyone would notice. The only impetus to keep going is self-generated. That blade cuts both ways. You have to want to create something, and also have the discipline to want to produce it at its highest possible level of quality.
I’m like a man in a cave, on a remote Hebridean island, carving a beautiful bust of Jon Voight out of a block of his own frozen urine. It’s a hard, creative task, that almost nobody will see, that borders on being completely pointless, so you really have to love Jon Voight, urine, or preferably both. You really have to love creating the thing itself. You have to love making something. You have to love the process.
I really do think there’s beauty in doing something unprofitable to the best of your ability.
It’s quite a hard thing to do, especially when you’re writing comedy. I work hard on my books but they are at their base silly and disposable things. I’ve had friends come in before to see me staring at a page, staring deeply at it, brows furrowed, my fist rammed into a frown, looking like Beethoven composing a masterpiece. But all I’m doing is trying to find the funniest way to describe an old man slipping and falling into a bowl of custard.
But here the important part: there truly are better and worse ways of describing that, and if you put in the work and focus your craft you can find the pinnacle of describing that stupid, stupid thing. You can make the readers smell the mix of vanilla and shame. You can make them hear the ‘splorp’ sound of a wrinkled posterior hitting the skin of the custard as the geriatric man lets out a yell that is half distress and half resignation. You can transport them viscerally into a world where a man on a tile floor has sopping wet corduroy trousers and somewhere, nearby a trifle is missing a key component.
You have to do what you’re doing as well as you can even if it’s useless.
The first time I read that Oscar Wilde quote “all art is quite useless” it annoyed me. It seemed dismissive and pompous and wrong-headed. After all, he made art, was that useless too?
But I’ve bounced it around my head for a while and now I tend to agree with it and find great liberation in it. Art IS useless, that’s why it’s art. I’m not building hospitals or curing diseases, I’m writing about a Space Captain. It’s a useless act. Embrace it. Be freed by it. If it is a useless thing make it into the best useless thing there is. Pour all of your efforts into it and elevate it by doing it at the very best of your ability.
The only impetus to keep going is self-generated. That blade cuts both ways. You have to want to create something, and also have the discipline to want to produce it at its highest possible level of quality.
Arthur: Did you ever send your work to traditional publishers? What was some of the feedback from publishers?
Michael: I do. They do not seem thrilled whenever I do that, and they send robot-generated form letters back at me to tell me I can stop whenever I want. I can’t say that any publishers have given me any detailed feedback beyond the emphatic closing of a door. It’s to be expected. I’m writing niche throwback sci-fi parody comedy and every word of that description is more unmarketable than the last. Publishers seem to be in the market for YA stories of awkward outcast teens saving their dystopian futures from evil fascist regimes who might also be vampires. I don’t write that. They say ‘write what you know’ and I’m not a magical teenager burdened by destiny. I have seldom denied this.
So unfortunately, they just don’t seem to want what I’m selling. I imagine publishers look at my manuscript like Ikea would look at a child’s high-chair that I had crafted from rat skulls and butt plugs. They have no use for it, they don’t want it, and they’re a little offended that I even took the time to make it, expecting them to distribute it under their respectable name.
In a way, going to traditional publishers has bolstered my love of self-publishing. I am as niche as niche can be. If you run through a list that publishers have on their website of what they want, it’s general trends and pigeon holes. A thousand calls for ‘YA fiction’ and ‘Supernatural Romance’. If you’re a bit odd and off the beaten path, you’ll never fit into that box and if you try you’re going to have to break some of your own limbs to squeeze in. I look at the absurd oddity you can find in the self-published world (up to and including short form dinosaur erotica) and I’m so glad there’s a place that these specific voices can be expressed, the good and the bad and wherever I fall on that spectrum.
You’re your own quality assurance team and you will always want to either be too neurotic or too confident. It’s all in your hands. You decide the quality and if it even exists at all.
Arthur: One question that comes up a lot among writers is how to get “praise” when marketing their work. you’ve dedicated a page in your books to such praise, and I’m curious on how you did this. How did you solicit them to read your work?
Michael: It was pretty simple. I made all of them up. Those are all fake pieces of praise.
I’m actually quite glad that they look real, since that’s what I was trying to achieve, but if you read through them again, you should see that each of them is backhanded, outright insulting or just plain crazy.
For context, I have several pages in my books titled ‘What the critics are saying‘ or ‘praise for Michael Ronson‘ as one might see in any bestseller. But the pull quotes say things like:
An absolute Tour de France.
-Forest White-Acre, The Daily Review
As gripping and well put together as the Stanley 189765 MaxSteel Multi-angle Vice.
-Jeff Delaney, Vices Ahoy! The Vice Lover’s Magazine
A towering achievement. Ronson is at the height of his powers and destined for great things. History will remember the name Michael Ronson.
-Michael Ronson, unprompted
Sometimes the publications are fictitious, sometimes the people are, but each quote is entirely made up.
It’s not my intention to deceive with this (though it might look a lot like that). Rather, I just wanted to find all of the small, incidental parts of a book that I could turn into jokes.
Some of them are just little absurdities you see over and over on those kind of pages (how many times have you seen “this is like X meets Y…on acid!” in a review?). Some of them are comments on underhand techniques in marketing (“This […] book is […] great”). If you put them all together they’re meant to combine to give you a sense that, even before the story begins, this author lives in a kind of heightened neighbouring reality to our own, where these publications exist and this pompous author would take barely veiled insults and put them in the front of his book as a boast.
I really like those gothic novels like Shelley’s Frankenstein or Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner where the whole story presented as truth from the very beginning. The conceit that the text is a collection of found papers that we’ve put together, that just so happen to form a narrative. I love that stuff: where as soon as you open the book cover you’re entering into a slightly different world and everything is in the reality of that book.
Maybe those horror novels are odd comparisons but I had those in mind when writing things like my fictional praise, or my made up bibliography, or my ‘interview with the author’ where I claim that the my characters have a voice of their own and they’re driving me insane, or my fictional biography where I claim to have invented plagiarism. It puts the book in a separate universe where there’s also this ludicrous, bloated and egotistical version of Michael Ronson living this separate life where he’s an ignored but prolific writer of dreadful novels who hates his life but believes he’s the greatest. I really enjoy creating that framing device around the story itself. It’s a place to do another type of humour.
So, how do you solicit people to review your work? I am not the person to ask. The only person I have successfully solicited is myself, and even then, he hasn’t said one nice thing in any of his reviews yet. I don’t think he’s a fan.
For each book I always have a breakdown of each character’s arc and a list of thematic goals.
Arthur: How do you promote your work?
Michael: If there’s a part of the work of being a self-published author that I’m truly terrible at, it’s the self-promotion. And that’s me acknowledging that the world has moved on and that I need to go with it, I’m not waiting for it to cycle back around. I know that I still reside (in my heart) in an age where a brilliant writer (preferably living in a hot-air balloon or lighthouse or simply an ivory tower) would pen a piece of work, set his quill aside, and send the manuscript off to a publishing house that will take care of the whole ‘marketing’ and ‘distribution’ noise, while he busies myself with neglecting his wife and seeking inspiration in the nearest opium den.
It’s not like that any more, which is a shame for the opium trade. Now, you have to be your own hype man, PR team, web presence, approachable twitter brand, website manager, frequent redditor and, uh, I dunno, instagrammer? Snapchatarino? As I type those terms they are becoming outdated. I am a living fossil. Bury me where I stand.
Every time I approach one of those, I can’t help but think of that Kyle Kinane bit, where he’s talking about being a comedian these days, logging in to Twitter like he’s punching a timecard for his shift in Denny’s. ‘Here we go, making topical jokes on the days #events to attract users to my brand’. That’s a sense I can’t shake, being a non-social media inclined person self-publishing a book. Every site you read tells you some variant of ‘Build a social media presence. Become well known in a the forums! Gain followers on twitter by taking part in Throwbackthursday and other hashtag games.”
Those are all viable and valuable pieces of advice, but for someone who has basically been an anonymous Twitter egg, a lurker, a non-participant from the start of the internet, it feels disingenuous to me to start joining in all the fun, knowing that my whole reason for saying anything is self-promotion. But that’s my hang-up, and it’s something I’m just going to have to deal with and get over at some point.
But this series of interviews has been helpful for that. Authors more organised than me talking about their mailing lists and promotional practices is very useful to hear. So now that I’ve finished the first draft of this third book I’m going to set aside some time and energy to put something like that into place. Being a self-published author means that promotion is a part of the job, not a nuisance that gets in the way of the job. It’s a different way of regarding your own work, but a necessary one.
How do you solicit people to review your work? I am not the person to ask. The only person I have successfully solicited is myself, and even then, he hasn’t said one nice thing in my reviews yet. I don’t think he’s a fan.
Arthur: What is your editing process?
Michael: Long and pretty arduous.
- First, while I’m doing the first draft, on any day that I’m feeling blocked I’ll go back over a previous bunch of chapters and edit them so that I feel like I’ve done something with my day. Even if no big word count has come out of the day. Editing is a constant process as I write.
- After the first draft, I’ll leave it to sit for about a month. Do nothing with it at all. Push it from your thoughts. Stare at a wall. Don’t think about it, don’t look at it. Treat it like that haunted painting in your attic: the more attention you feed into it, the more it shall consume you.
- After you’ve washed it from your mind do a straight run through. Read it as a reader would and highlight any bits that make you cringe (there will be many). At the end, re-write those. Hate yourself. Admit you are a hack. Punch a mirror. Move on.
- Next, bring in friends or beta readers. You’re at the stage where you are too close to the project so glaring holes or inconsistencies will be invisible to you now. Have a bunch of people pick over it. Encourage honest (harsh) criticism. Receive it. Cry into a pillow. Punch the shards of a mirror. Make adjustments. Do not argue with your criticisms.
- I write with two main POV characters. Read only their bits and make sure they make sense tonally. If you’re juggling characters their tones will start to blend together. They should know only what they can know, their voices should be distinct. Logic-check and tone-check.
- Do a final run-through, noting any place you feel like a joke COULD go. Fill each of them with something. Don’t be lazy. Fill the gaps. Once it’s done, it’s done.
- Do a word count. Shave a couple of thousand words off of that, and make that number your goal. You WILL have over-written. You WILL have over-explained. Cut that out.
- Go to a word cloud site and put your whole document in. The words that appear largest in your ‘word cloud’ are those you use most frequently. Pay attention to them. If you see stupid, or rare words pop up, do another read-through with them in mind. Terminate without prejudice. Realize that you are a hack as you delete the twentieth ‘very’. Know that you are worthless as you look at the thirtieth ‘suddenly’. Punch a new mirror and realize you are not an artist. No manuscript needs two thousand instances of ‘orgasmically’. I learned that the hard way and now I am orgasmically good at editing my own writing.
- One last read through. Are you sick of every single word? Good, then you’re done. Publish that bastard. You’ve got to do that, or else it will be that thing you re-read every year, shuffling the words about. Release it. Treat it like a terminally ill relative. You’ve got to release it to set it free.
- Buy some more mirrors.
- ‘File’, ‘New’, ‘Blank Document’
- Start again.
- This time you’ll get it right first try.
One last read through. Are you sick of every word? Good, then you’re done.
Arthur: A lot of authors talk about the importance of outlining (links so Sean and others) for planning their story. In THE LIFE AND WORK OF MICHAEL RONSON, you discuss letting the characters tell you what will happen.
I make the characters and they tell me what they’ll do. The characters are absolutely alive and they speak to me. All I have to do is to listen to them. In fact (chuckles) sometimes I wish they would shut up a little bit. They talk to me all the time. All the time.
Is this sort of writing by stream of consciousness? Your stories are well-plotted thus I ask how much outlining do you do? What is the process for planning your story structure?
Michael: I think it’s a balancing act; planning the story well but also having the space for that kind of spontaneity where it does feel like the story is writing itself. I think there’s a temptation to break everything down and know all the beats before you write word one. I know a lot of people who make huge sprawling plans for their novels, and if that works for you, plan away, but it’s always felt like a slight trap to me. I worked with someone who had written 100,000 words of backstory purely on the magic system that his urban fantasy novel will use. I’m in no position to judge anyone’s process, but I think it’s clear that that man is clinically insane. All that work and not a single word of actual story? It’s nice to know exactly how someone will summon scorpions from the nether dimension, but 100,000 words of that seems like overkill and that’s where planning turns from something valuable and into a stalling tactic.
So I do like to plan and get deep into structure as well, but I also like to try to guard against the kind of over-preparation and extensive re-writing that can detract from the pure cathartic energy of the first draft. That’s something I try to preserve.
The first draft gets a lot of flack. People call it the ‘vomit’ draft’ and talk about ‘purging’ it from your system just as quickly as you can like it’s a piece of rotten mackerel that’s giving you volcanic diarrhoea. Make no mistake, any first draft I do is rough stuff, but I think there’s an unmistakable energy and verve to it that you absolutely can edit out or plan away.
In the first book I was writing the climactic battle, and though I had the rough shape of it in my head, I didn’t know the details. In the process of writing it I realized that I could echo the action of the very first chapter, that throwaway cold open that was only meant to set the tone and introduce the characters. When it clicked for both me and my characters at the same time that the present scenario could echo the opening was just a great creative moment for me, and though I edited the book a number of times from top to toe, I was always loathe to change too much about that particular passage since I really felt like some ineffable quality of the excitement I was feeling at that moment was coming through to the reader and I didn’t want to smooth that out. I think if you plan every beat you can take some of the joy out of those moments of spontaneous connection. But you do absolutely have to bring a firm structure in at some point.
My second novel was about time travel (pro tip- DON’T WRITE TIME TRAVEL) so I knew going in that I was going to have want some narrative complexity, revisiting of earlier incidents, have an ending that goes right back to the start, all that good, mind-bending, time travel stuff.
It ended up with a relatively complex structure where I had three past incidents to serve as set-pieces, each of which was established in an ‘interlude’ chapter between the main story which was then revisited in the main narrative one section after it was set up. I had diagrams and flow charts of how it worked and I went over it a number of times to iron out inconsistencies, so in regard to the overall narrative I planned it out a whole hell of a lot.
The thing is, when I was writing the set pieces themselves, I had not planned how the main character was going to ‘win’. I knew he had to for the story, I knew I was deliberately setting him up in a scenario I designed to be impossible, but I didn’t know how he was going to do it. In each, I painted myself into a corner then tried to get him out of it in a satisfying way. In that way, I felt like I was balancing the two things: having a well-plotted book that had a sound three act structure, while building into it the kind of challenges that meant I’d have to write my own way out in a panic.
In practical terms this is how each first draft of each novel has been written:
- Just start. Even if you have no overarching story or theme ideas, start writing your first chapter.
- Find wherever your story is taking you. Unless you’re just navel gazing the first few chapters will lead you towards some kind of action.
- Once you have your setup and a notion of where the story is going plan the rest of it. Do as much detail as you feel. Now is the time for spreadsheets and charts and a corkboard with lots of string linking pictures and scribbled post-it notes.
- Write to the plan and finish the first draft.
I wouldn’t call this a particularly revolutionary method but for me, it cuts down on the time spent thinking and planning about nothing at the start of a project, it gets you off to a good start, builds in spontaneity and the organic process of finding your story and then brings in the rigours of structure when you know what you’re shooting for.
Just start. Even if you have no overarching story or theme ideas, start writing your first chapter.
Arthur: You mention in THE LIFE AND WORK OF MICHAEL RONSON: “Fiction must be a new experience for reader and author. Any writing that does not scare you is not worth writing. Throw it away for it is truly worthless.” What is the “scariest” thing you’ve ever written?
Michael: I have to admit, that when I wrote that, I was being a little facetious. I was trying to write a parody of the kind of grand pronouncements that authors make about writing that tend to strike me as a little silly.
When I would procrastinate sometimes, I would look up writing advice. It’s the kind of activity that makes you FEEL like you’re doing research when you’re really doing nothing at all, so I’d go through the pithy words of wisdom of my betters gathered together in that great literary form; the listicle. I found in reading them that there’s a certain type of histrionic quote that always rankled me. Here’s one that’s emblematic of the kind of quote I’m talking about and also, that one I think I was parodying:
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
With all due respect to the well renowned artist above, that’s bollocks. If every fibre of my being does not quail and scream in joy and pain every second I touch ‘pon the page of poesy I should not write? No, Anais Nin, fuck off, Anais Nin. Calm down and have a cup of tea. Sometimes you have to make a character cross a room. Sometimes you’re tired and you just need a character to say the functionary thing they need to say to make the plot move forward. You should try to do those as well and as inventively as possible, but to expect rapture in every moment of your writing is naïve, self-aggrandizing and misleading.
There’s a grand certainty in a lot of these pieces of writing advice, an unassailable smugness and didactic pronouncement that made me a bit angry. Even writers I really love and respect can come out with that kind of pronouncement, like Vonnegut telling writers to never use a semicolon. Love your work, Kurt, but to hell with that. Write whatever you want, enjoy the freedom that is writing and chuck the maxims of great thinkers into a great big hole where they belong.
So I had to make fun of that. In the sections where ‘Michael Ronson’ is giving advice, I’m trying to parody that. To complete the section you quoted above, I go on to tell the notional young writer that “My forays into children’s fictions have been Lovecraftian voyages into a plane of terror beyond the reach of mortal minds.” I’m trying to take the pompous advice and push it into becoming caricature. The whole concept of me telling someone that if their own prose doesn’t terrify them that they should get rid of it, is just what it should be: laughable.
To answer your question properly, I can’t say that anything I’ve written has actually scared me. Given that I write fairly light, pulpy romps, I’d have to be an incredible coward to be scared by anything I’d put to the page thus far. However, I do know the slightly connected feeling of have your characters dictate their own actions, which is an uncanny sensation. If you’re really in the flow of your own writing when the answers are coming before you even ask the questions, and you’re just seeming to let your characters speak out, that’s a very rare and strange feeling, and attaining that state for however long you can is the reason to write.
I do believe that in most cases cutting away the excess fat from any writing (serious or comic) is usually the key to editing it into an improved form.
Arthur: In THE LIFE AND WORK OF MICHAEL RONSON, you mention that brevity is the essence of writing. In Episode 9 of INTERVIEWS FROM THE VOID, Bryan Aiello mentioned the same. Many writers start out trying to produce beautiful prose, perhaps writing pages and pages of description for a forest before we use only one paragraph to describe the final fight scene in said forest. How have you learned to use brevity in your writing, and what words or phrases to keep in and which to cut?
As you can tell by my rambling non-answers so far, brevity is something that I struggle with. I do believe that in most cases cutting away the excess fat from any writing (serious or comic) is usually the key to editing it into an improved form. You want to trust your reader, you will probably have used one of your own personal cache of overused adjectives and you’ll probably have over-described the scenario just so it’s crystal clear to the reader what exactly you have in your head. The usual advice of ‘kill your darlings’ is almost always the way to go.
However, speaking right now I’m looking down the barrel of my over-written first draft and as usual, my reactionary brain is telling me that cutting things down isn’t always the answer. So since it’s on my mind right now, if I might, I’d like to make a brief argument against always aiming to be concise in your writing.
There’s a school of thought which says that you should boil down all of your ideas – jokes included – into their most concentrated forms, paring everything extraneous away.
I understand that, but in regards to brevity I always think of an interview with the comedian Stewart Lee regarding his antipathy towards using Twitter. He was saying that at the time Twitter was being lauded as a great proving ground for comics, since the constraints of the medium forced you to make a coherent joke in the smallest possible space, getting rid of all the useless flesh around them. He disagreed. He cited an example of a stand-up he remembers (whose name I forget right now) who liked baroque and suggestive turns of phrase. His example was this, little half-sentence lead up to a story:
“I walked into my local branch of HMV, as is my right as a free man-”
That little addendum, ‘as is my right as a free man’ is technically chaff. It’s just adding words to what is already just a piece of set-up. It’s not the joke, it doesn’t feed into the joke, it doesn’t supply much of anything structurally. A good editor would cut that out as meaningless. However it tells us so much about the person IN the joke. It tells us that he’s defensive, idealistic, perhaps nationalistic, reactionary, histrionic and so on and so on. You can draw a lot from it.
It’s a pointless little extra that adds so much colour to the character, and in the process of editing my own writing I’m constantly bumping up against this dilemma – is this little five word diversion worth it, or is it just excess fat? Is it indulgent to keep it in, or is it needlessly stringent to keep it out?
One of my favourite jokes from the first book (if I can be egotistical enough to select and dissect one of my own jokes) is something roughly similar to this like this:
“I took the man in. He was a dressed in a fine tunic daubed in the royal colours. He wore a perky cap and a suspicious look on his face. In one hand he held a steaming cup of tea and in the other hand, he didn’t.”
Absolutely needless, meaningless and worthless. It adds nothing. Why tell us about a hand only to note it has nothing in it? Ten out of ten editors and nine out of ten dentists would recommend cutting it, but I love that. I love the meandering nature of it. I love the added comedy you get out of picturing someone look at one full hand, register something, then look at an empty hand and register that with equal weight.
If you take the extra words and colour away you can turn these jokes into little machine where you see all the parts moving. If you ever watch any late night chat show monologue, they’re just a stream of those brittle clockwork jokes. You can see what kind of punchline it’ll have from the rhythm of the setup almost. You can tell what kind of joke it is with the sound off.
Good god. Can I convince you that this is some kind of meta joke? I’m answering your question about being brief by writing a small essay in favour of being indulgent. Right. Let’s actually answer your question: what can I usually cut?
One of the things that are always up for a trim are physical descriptions. Making a joke about someone’s appearance is easy and you can just sit there and pump out cutting little bon mots all day. An early draft of the second book had a long, looooong paragraph where I introduce the villain and all I do for a whole page is make fun of the guy’s face.
It’s an easy joke to do, which is why there’s a temptation to unload as many jokes as you can at that point, but almost never ends up working. After a few jabs, it just ends up drawing attention to the artifice of comedy fiction: I have made an ugly man so that I can do some ‘ugly man’ jokes. It’s like having someone have a stupid name just so another character can deliver a joke about it. You’re setting up your own shot and if you do that too often, you end up looking like the fool. You can’t have characters delivering zingers, and other characters being taken aback at their wit, because you’re puppeteering everyone and you just look like you’re congratulating yourself.
Another thing that I try to cut way back on, as I go through the edits are the speech modifiers, the “he gasped”, or the “She yelled”. When you’re having your characters delivering jokes there’s always an inclination to lead the reader a little bit by the hand and try to sell the gag more by really pumping up what a character’s reaction or delivery are. I cringe to think of some early drafts I’ve written, where I’m not too far away from writing something like “’What?!’ Tim shrieked, his eyes bugging out on stalks, his voice becoming the high whine of a castrato with a stubbed toe.’” It’s the writing equivalent of a laugh track. While I don’t pare my dialogue down to a Cormac Mcarthy minimalism, I always have an eye on those parts, since my worst instincts come out in there.
Physical action is a constant worry too. A fight scene, or any kind of action is a risky area. Since you usually have sat and pictured the scenario as precisely as you could so it makes sense there’s a temptation to go into granular detail when you’re putting it on the page – the way a body moves, every blow that’s traded in a fight, all that stuff. It almost always falls flat on the page and you can rack up the word count insanely quickly to communicate something that should be brief and impressionistic.
A really good exercise, I’ve found, is to read bloated paragraphs out loud, record them and listen back. There’s just something about saying it out loud that means you feel those overlong parts immediately.
You can rack up the word count insanely quickly to communicate something that should be brief and impressionistic.
Arthur: Omniopticon did a great job on your artwork. What was the process like finding an artist for your books and designing the art?
Michael: I knew from the beginning that the art of these books would be important. I needed to tell the readers that they were getting some pulpy sci-fi, and the best way to do that is to have one of those wonderful, SF paperback covers. I love those old seventies covers drawn by artists like Frank Kelly Freas where it shows you this crazy, colourful, world you’re going to step into. The surreal, SF / pulp aesthetic was a very specific tone I wanted to strike and I knew I couldn’t cobble it together on my own, or buy a stock image, or try to make some monstrosity myself in MS Paint. It needed to be a real artist.
I really think I lucked out by finding Omniopticon. I found him through the site Artcorgi.com, and commissioned him to do a book cover through that site’s standard process. He got in touch with me asking what I wanted, how many figures I wanted to include and what kind of style I was going for. I answered these and gave a little sample of my writing, so he could see what he was lending his talents to. There was a little back and forth as to what I wanted (I provided a few style examples and images I was looking to emulate) and from then on it was smooth sailing.
Every week or so he’d get back to me with something and I’d suggest tweaks, another week would pass and a newer version with those tweaks implemented would come my way and we’d do that until the cover was finished to both of our satisfactions.
It’s such a fun process that I now save it to be something I do at the end of my first draft, as a celebration.
Pro-Tip: DON’T WRITE TIME TRAVEL.
Arthur: What is a question you’ve always wanted to be asked as a writer? And what is your answer?
Michael: I’m always interested when a writer goes outside their own comfort zone and tries something completely different and how that works. So, I guess what I’d like to ask of other writers (and myself, for the purposes of this question) is “what genres would you like to attempt outside your own and why, and what genres do you think you are incapable of and why?”
That occurs to me an awful lot since writing comedy can be an act of dissecting and undermining pre-existing tropes and cliches. Comedy dissects and demolishes, it’s the core of satire, that urge to tear something down. A lot of my time is spent setting up a well-worn situation and then letting the stupidest version of that play out. Since that’s a writing muscle I’ve developed over time, I often wonder if I would be capable of writing something as formulaic as a Lee Child-style thriller, something that relies on formula and does them well. Reading that answer back to myself, that might sound like I’m saying ‘I’m such a relentless comic mind I couldn’t possibly be constrained by a potboiler plot’ but that’s not what I meant. I’m a big fan of the Ian Rankin ‘Rebus’ books, for example, and they deal in tropes and cliché areas an awful lot – a cop on the edge, a gifted detective being sacked by his superiors, a grizzled detective taking on a naïve rookie – but he does it so well you don’t notice it. I often wonder if, writing four consecutive books of sheer mockery, if I’d be able to write something that uses these kinds of cliches and elevates them rather than deconstructing them to the point of absurdity. So for myself, I think I would do quite poorly if I tried to write a crime procedural, which might simply mean it’s a challenge I should set myself.
On the flip side of that, I’ve always wanted to give straight horror a go. I think that horror and comedy share a lot of DNA, both on the page and the screen. They both rely on building a situation for a quick, emotional payoff that’s almost involuntary, they often rest on incongruous imagery, and logic that almost fits but doesn’t quite, they bend the rules of our reality for their intended effects, and both have clowns in them.
There is a thin and indistinct line between the two that’s interesting to me.
Something what is chilling if seen for a moment becomes stupid if you look at it for longer. Michael Myers ducking behind a hedge row after half a second is a jump scare I still remember from my first time watching Halloween way too young, but if you hold that shot for a few seconds longer, then it just becomes a man in a boiler suit, wearing William Shatner’s face hiding in foliage. It’s just a couple of seconds to make something funny.
To take another example from Halloween, there’s a part in that film where Michael Myers wears a sheet over his head, like a prototypical ghost. When he appears at first it’s scary since we know he’s a killer, then it goes on a while longer and the sheer stupidity of his costume makes the scene funny, then it circles back again and the discomfort of the girl he’s menacing makes it scary again. I think the same could be said of a lot of horror and comedy, they could switch positions very easily depending on how they’re handled. A little girl telling a Catholic priest that his mother is famous for fellatio in the afterlife is a funny situation, I don’t care who you are. A clown in a storm drain is both at the same time. Bill Murray stuck in a hell of one repeated day, killing himself and probably others for years could easily be horrifying. So there’s a line between what’s funny and what’s chilling that’s really interesting to me.
I think it’s the reason that all of those re-cut trailers you see online tend to pull from horror films and comedy films in particular. You know the ones: the Shining, but as a family comedy, Dumb and Dumber re-cut to make the Jim Carrey character look like a serial killer. They’re cool little exercises in editing, but I also think they expose a core similarity between those two things and the fact that if you re contextualise a horror scenario it could be extremely funny and vice versa.
The third Space Hardcore book is called ‘Punch the Devil’ (you’ll never guess what happens in the plot) and it has some monstrous imagery. While I always do play it for laughs, I wondered how far I’d have to go and how much I would have to change things to make some of my creatures and scenarios genuinely unsettling. So maybe after I have a trilogy of sci-fi parody I’ll try my hand at horror.
There’s a line between what’s funny and what’s chilling that’s really interesting to me.
What an incredible interview. Thank you so much, Michael. Such a cool perspective on the writing craft. When you write that horror book, let me know. I’ll be the first in line to buy it.