Michaelbrent Collings is the award winning author of The Sword Chronicles, The Ridealong, The Colony Saga, and many more. He gave Booknista the lowdown on his latest novel and his experience as a writer.
Was anything in The Sword Chronicles inspired by reality—was the Empire inspired by a real location, or any of the characters inspired by real people?
You know, I don’t think there was any one particular thing or place or person who inspired it so much as I really enjoy watching anime, and a lot of really good fantasy anime manages to bring together both technological and fantasy elements. I was watching one of them and I thought “let’s have a world where there is magic that actually makes their technology function.” And there are all of these kind of epic stories, [but] they’re always about invaders. And so I wanted to write an epic story where there’s only one empire. I thought “what kind of world would it be if you literally had a closed system, no one could leave, and what kind of leadership would evolve from that—what kind of needs would that government have?” And playing with that was just really fun.
This first itself book was actually quite long, and divided up into four sub-books, so to speak. Why did you decide to organize it that way as opposed to publishing three books and making it a short trilogy?
I had done one serialized series, which was The Colony, and in that I did write shorter books and I ended on cliffhangers. But that was a very specific situation, and it was a very calculated situation. With The Sword Chronicles, I always preferred the first book [to be] self-contained, and then the later books might go back and say “remember that thing in the first book? Well now you’re going to look at it in a different light.” And that’s a lot of fun, to find out the world you thought was ten pieces big is actually a thousand pieces big.
I really do appreciate a book where you get to the end of it and you’re not enraged because you can’t read the second one and find out what happens to your favorite character right away.
And if you could go back and change anything in the book, would you?
You know what? I probably wouldn’t. And here’s why: A lot of my books I went back on a year later, and I’m like “oh my gosh! I must have been hit in the head with an anvil when I was writing that!” But my son came up to me and held up the book and he was half way finished, and he’s not a huge reader either—he does not devour books the way I do—and so he held up the book and said “this is my new favorite book.” And he’s exactly my target audience. And so because I hit it with him, I’m not changing it. I’m so proud that I got a book that my son likes!
I know you’ve written in a bunch of different genres (YA fantasy, screen writing, horror); what has been most challenging or surprising about writing fantasy as opposed to any of those other genres?
Well it’s not necessarily challenging, but it definitely requires a bit of a change to my mental state, and it’s something I really enjoy. I write very active stuff, and the rest of my writing is horror, it’s thrillers, it’s suspense, it’s things where people tend to be on the run, and they tend to be moving.
If you’re really running from a guy with a hatchet who’s chasing you through the woods, you’re not going to sit down and have a lengthy dialogue about the meaning of life.
In The Sword Chronicles, and when I write fantasy, I do get people who get to sit down and discuss the choices that are being made and the courses of action that they’re taking.
Out of all the different genres that you’ve written in, is there one that you enjoy the most, or that you feel has been the most rewarding or interesting?
Well, I tend to write a lot of horror, and a large part of that is because I start getting irritable emails when I stay away from horror for too long! But I do gravitate towards horror, and the reasons are twofold: number one, I grew up around it.
My father was one of the world experts on Steven King, and so he was constantly reading a scary book or watching a scary movie, and I just kind of grew up in that.
The other reason is I think in horror you get to discuss big, metaphysical ideas. In horror you’re talking about god, and the devil, and Dracula’s a vampire—and vampires have the potential to live forever—so what about an afterlife in that situation? You can discuss ideas that are just on a much grander scale than in any other genre. That said, I think all genres have their own specialties; they have their own special skills and the things that make them valuable. And then they have the things that they just don’t do as well.
Is there one story that you really want to write but haven’t, or don’t think you’re able to?
Well, there’s one that I’ve kind of been noodling around with since I was, like, twelve. it’s kind of an apocalyptic tale where vampires are discovered, more or less. I was scared of vampires when I was a kid, and my dad told me about the mathematics of it;
if a vampire has to feed once or twice a month to supply itself, and everybody it feeds off turns into a vampire, the whole human race is gone within a year.
And so I thought about what if that happens. What if we lose? The whole human race is gone, and after that we’re just kept as breeders for blood supply. And what would happen if there was a prophesy about a man who grew up in this captivity and would save them? And someday I think I’ll write that, because that’s a fun thing; first of all because the bad guys win, and the first half of the book is all about “hey, we weren’t good enough to keep it at bay.” The whole second half will be these discussion of faith, and of what we believe, and of things like that, in addition to being a fun story about vampires!
Do you have any favorite authors, or authors who have particularly inspired you in your work?
Um, yeah, I definitely do. You know, there’s Dean Koontz, I think is a fantastic writer; he writes top notch suspense-thrillers, and they are very uplifting, oddly enough. I really appreciate not just the story-crafting, but the worldview he chooses to share. I love Stephen King; I kind of grew up appreciating it as part of my DNA. I really like Orson Scott Card; I think he’s one of the best contemporary story tellers that we have had in the last fifty or so years. And then there’s a huge list; part of the fun of being me is I get to enjoy hundreds of different authors that can all be my favorite while I’m reading them.
Now for a fun question: if you could choose one of your books to be turned into a movie, which one would you choose?
You know, that’s an interesting question for me, because most of my books are also screenplays. Because I sort of grew up learning both of those at the same time, so whenever I write a book I immediately turn it into a screenplay.
And I was actually just on the phone with my (movie and screenplay) manager about a movie deal that’s being put together for one of my books.
As far as which one, like if I could choose any of them, it would probably be a choice between The Colony Saga, which again is this serialized zombie apocalypse, because those zombies are so scary and so fun and they have some really cool quirks that no other zombies have, or The Loon, which is a story about this maximum security penitentiary for the criminally insane, where the crazy people escape but can’t leave because there’s a blizzard, and so the staff has to kind of hunker down and survive. And then they discover the real problem is the monster in the basement. So it’s kind of like every single thing that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong. And it’s just—it’s a really fun popcorn story.
I don’t suppose we can get any details on which one of those screenplays might be getting the movie deal?
Not yet. I wish I could, but I don’t want to jinx it either, you know?
So, last few questions: First, do you have any advice for new writers, or people who want to break into this field?
Yes. There is a difference between someone who wants to write, and someone who wants to write professionally. If you want to write and be a competent writer as a hobbyist, I think that is the best of all possible worlds. Because you get to pick it up when you feel like it, put it down when you’re done.
If you want to be a professional writer, you have to act like a professional: you don’t ever get a day off. I was an attorney for almost ten years, and I would get up at six in the morning, go to work, come home around six at night, play with my family until ten, everyone goes to sleep except me, and I would write until two in the morning. And it was really hard. I was really cranky some days! But the reality is, if you want to have a living as a writer, you have to treat it as a second job for a while, until that job starts making more than your first, and then you get to choose which one you want to do.
So, if you’re going to be a writer as a professional, you have to be your own most demanding, meanest, harshest boss, and you have to write every single day.
On top of that, what do you think qualifies someone as a successful writer?
That’s different for everybody. I think one of the keys you have to start off with is “what do I want to accomplish? Do I want to have fun and write?” Then be a hobbyist. “Do I want to win a certain award?” Then everything you do should push you towards that award. “Do I want to be able to support a family?” Then, as soon as you’ve done that, you are successful. And you can then, of course, establish new goals. But a lot of people do go in there thinking “I’m going to be a successful writer!” But that doesn’t mean anything.
Success is a rainbow. Every time you almost get to where you think you want to be, success moves!
You’ll never be satisfied. But what you can do, and be very satisfied about, is set a goal, do everything you can to meet that goal, and then once achieved, you can reassess your life and say “what do I want to accomplish now?” And you’ll be driven forward by that success, rather than being depressed by the success you haven’t had.