Mike Chen writes science fiction with feelings. His debut novel Here and Now and Then was part of Bookbub’s Best Science Fiction of 2019 and the Goodreads Choice Awards shortlist. His upcoming book A Beginning at the End (January 14, 2020 from Mira/HarperCollins) has received multiple starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and more. Mike also covers geek culture for outlets such as Tor.com, StarTrek.com, and more, and posts many photos of his dog on social media. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram @mikechenwriter.
Tell me about your writing process: schedule, environment, inspirations, magic tricks, etc.
Well, I have a day job and a feisty 5-year-old daughter, so my writing process is basically whenever I can around that. I write a lot on my phone (and I read a lot of ebooks on my phone) because Google Docs allows for anywhere/anytime access. This works in whatever block of time is available, so if I’m waiting at a doctor’s appointment, I can edit a short section, and if I’m in bed, I can draft for 30 minutes or so. At some point, I imagine I’ll have a little more structure to my schedule, but I think it’ll have to wait until my daughter is a little older and doesn’t want my company anymore! As for actual process, I just need quiet (only video game soundtracks or instrumentals if I have music), though someday I’d love to have a dedicated home office just for writing.
Walk me through your publishing process from “final” draft to final product, including who does what when, and marketing that you do as the author.
It’s pretty standard. There’s the editorial process with my editor; then the marketing/publicity side gets involved. I do a lot of freelance writing for geek and pop culture media (e.g. Tor.com, StarTrek.com, TheMarySue.com) so I’m always game if I need to write an essay or something specifically for publicity purposes, but it’s generally out of my control; I just nod and smile when asked to write something or show up to an event.
A few steps back from that, I find that I’m not one of those writers who can sell with just a sample chapter and an outline. Writing a full novel from that is far too daunting, but you don’t want to sink too much time and energy into a manuscript that won’t go anywhere. For my second contract, I’ve found a good happy medium to be writing a fairly polished first half and a detailed synopsis for editorial acquisition. That way I get a good sense of character and world but I haven’t worked through the time necessary for a full manuscript. And if/when they buy it, I’m in a good starting point to finish it off because so much of the groundwork is already done.
Talk about your support system online and IRL, especially your biggest cheerleaders.
My agent Eric Smith is my biggest industry cheerleader. He’s probably the biggest cheerleader in publishing, honestly. He cheers everyone on, which is always good to have in those moments of self-doubt (there are many). He’s also very editorial, which I appreciate in an agent. He lets me bounce ideas off of him and provides early critique reads, even for projects he’s not involved with. Oh, and he lets me know when there are good sales on video games, which is very important!
My wife and non-writer friends are all very supportive but the logistics of this industry are so unique and weird that it’s hard for them to empathize with the specific minutia of it all. I think for all writers, it’s really important to get peers whom you can vent to in private, and I am lucky that I have those. There are too many to name, and I’m afraid I’d probably accidentally leave someone out, but if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see me interacting with a lot of them—cheering each other on but also talking about geeky stuff like Star Trek and video games.
How does life influence your writing and vice versa?
Well, I realized the other day that many of the relationships and characters I’ve written about are lifted unknowingly from personal experience. There are moments when you draw on that intentionally, like a scene that looks like the coffee shop you like or the character that tells a joke that your spouse did. And then there’s the realization that a shade of a character is totally someone you know. I think every writer deals with that, so everyday life certainly influences my writing. I think it’s impossible not to.
From a conscious perspective, a friend told me a few weeks back that my writing was “hopepunk,” which is a term I recently discovered. A lot of my worldbuilding choices and character demographics stem from crafting a world that I want to see. As creators, we have a choice to bring some level of normalization into the real world via exposure in our imaginary world—I think that’s very vital. Even if a story isn’t overtly political, the messages imbued in it are inherently charged with a political point of view.
What do you love most about your creativity?
I remember the first creative writing class I took at UC Davis. I’d already done some journalism at that point in my life, but I felt this strange sense of freedom creating a fictional world. That creativity was unlike anything I’d ever felt, and I ran with it. My teacher told me to keep writing at the end of that class, and obviously I did.
That teacher, by the way, is named Wendy Sheanin and she’s an executive at Simon & Schuster. She’s the first person I sent an advance copy of my debut.
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