We are the Dead by Mike Shackle
What led you into writing?
I’ve always loved reading for as long as I remember – whether I was devouring The Secret Seven’s adventures or losing myself in the latest Marvel Comic and that fascination with stories has stayed with me all my life. I remember writing a tale about a character called The Ultra Warrior when I was 11 or 12, inspired by a Punisher comic I’d been reading. My teacher printed it in the school magazine and loads of parents complained about the violence. He stood up to them and said that it was a good story that deserved to be included. But really as a child/teenager, I wanted to be a comic book artist. I’d spend my days drawing the X-Men or creating my own characters. I produced a six-page comic about The Ultra Warrior, that was heavily inspired by what Frank Miller was doing at the time. His book, Ronin, still is one of my favourites
Then life and adulthood came along, and the need to work, earn money, go out and have a good time got in the way. I still consumed huge amounts of books and did the odd doodle, but my main creative focus was the day job, as an art director in an advertising agency, and then the night job of having a good time with my friends.
The characters still lurked in my mind though. There was a vampire killing swordsman who’d pop up every now and then with snippets of a tale in my mind, and some spies who wanted to get up to no good. I tried a few times to write books about them, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I gave up after a few pages.
Finally, about ten years ago, encouraged by my wife, I sat down and made a serious attempt to write a book, learning as I went, getting better each day and loving every minute of losing myself in my own worlds.
How does a typical day look?
I still work in advertising, so I have to write around that – plus I have a family that I want to spend time with! To make it all work, I get up at 4.45am, then start writing at 5, getting two hours of solid work in before the rest of the world comes alive. I then write during my lunch hours, on the train home, and if deadlines demand, after the kids go to bed (but my brain is pretty mushed up by then.) I get to write a bit more at weekends, but I still make sure my family get a bit chunk of my time – even if my mind sometimes drifts elsewhere.
In what ways do your characters test your abilities?
When I started WE ARE THE DEAD, I’d intended one of my main characters to be quite a stereotypical hero – good in a fight and handy with a smart one-liner – but when it came to writing her, I hit a wall. She refused to do what I wanted her to do. It was only then I realised that was her personality to refuse the call to arms — I wanted her to be a hero, but she was a coward who’d always run instead of fight. She became a joy to write then. There’s nothing more fun than sticking a coward in a war she wants no part of and watching her find her courage.
What’s your setup?
I have a great space at home to write. It’s quiet and I’ve got all my favourite books around me. I write on my trusty Macbook, using Scrivener to draft with. I tend to jump around quite a bit, especially in later stages of the draft and it’s just brilliant at allowing you to do that. I use the hated Microsoft Word for edits because that’s the industry standard – there’s a lot more swearing at that stage.
What lasting effects have your favourite authors had on your writing and style?
We all stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. I can see bits of Joe Abercrombie in my writing, with some Peter Brett, David Gemmell and maybe Pierce Brown thrown in, but there’s a lot of Jack Kirby in there too, a bit of Frank Miller, Tarantino, Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas, U2, David Bowie, Kasabian, Peaky Blinders — even a couple arguing on the subway can influence me. I think the secret is to soak up as much of everything you can. It’s not about being influenced by other authors as much as being influenced by life (of which art and entertainment is a big part of.) I try to soak up everything around me, and then let that come back out in my work.
What do you do for inspiration?
If you’re going to write professionally then you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You have to sit down and do the work. I can get in the mood quite quickly, no matter where I am. I have special playlists to tune my brain in and then away I go. If I get stuck and get ‘writer’s block’, it’s my mind’s way of telling me I’ve gone wrong somewhere with the story. When that happens, I trace back my steps until I can see where I need to course-correct.
The truth is that inspiration is a fickle beast. When you start a book, it’s the adrenaline charge of excitement that gets you going, but that runs out quickly as you get into the marathon of writing your tale. Your head can play tricks on you as well, telling you what you’re writing is no good, then a jolt of ‘inspiration’ will try and coax your attention to a different project so you can feel that rush again. That’s why a lot of us start writing books and never finish them. You have to learn to ignore those thoughts and keep going.
But the best kind of inspiration is when you’re typing away and suddenly things happen that you didn’t plan. The muse is simply whispering sheer delight into your mind and you can’t get it down on paper quick enough.
What repeating themes do you find yourself pulling into your stories?
Hmmm. That’s a tricky one. The theme for WE ARE THE DEAD came as a reaction to what I was seeing go on in the world. It’s in a pretty shitty place at the moment and I was wondering where the heroes had gone, and who was going to come and save us. The truth is that there aren’t any. There’s no Aragon coming to do the right thing. It’s ordinary people that have to step up or we all go down.
I think that’s why Superheroes are so massive at the box office now. In a world of grey, we need see clear cut heroes and villains. We all want Captain America or Iron Man to come in and save the day. In real life, we get liars and cheats for leaders, who care nothing about the people they govern.
How do you wind down?
I hang out with my family and play with my kids, I watch soccer (Chelsea FC is one of my great loves) I run when I can, watch TV, read – the usual stuff. I also like drawing and painting. It uses a very different part of my brain that almost feels like not thinking at all. Often, I’ll try and sketch out scenes from my stories or characters to get a better feel for them as I develop ideas.
What sort of challenges do you regularly overcome while world-building?
I used to be a ‘make it up as you go along’ type of author. That’s fine for the first book, but it caused problems with the second as more characters came along and the world grows. I hate making up names in particular and end up riffing off people I know. I’m definitely not someone who has the whole world worked out in intricate detail before I start writing. I also believe that you only need enough information to keep the reader engrossed in the story. Too much information can be as off-putting as too little.
What’s the most useful advice you could give to an aspiring author?
I was about to give up writing at one point. I’d written three books and had really nice rejections for all of them and I was feeling defeated. I believed I’d never make that step up. Then I discovered a podcast called The Bestseller Experiment. It’s a brilliant resource for anyone who wants to write. On the show, they interviewed Joe Abercrombie, and he said, ‘The long you dance naked in the rain, the greater the chance of getting hit by lightening.’ It made me realise that they only way I could guarantee to never get published was to give up. If I continued, I always had a chance. I had to remind myself that I wrote because I liked telling stories. Getting published was a nice bonus to that if it happened. So my very unoriginal bit of advice is ‘never give up.’
Tell us about the book you’re promoting.
WE ARE THE DEAD is an epic fantasy full of crunching revolutionary action, twisted magic, and hard choices in dark times. It’s about what happens when the bad guys win and there are no heroes left to save you. Set over 8 days of blood, it’s a non-stop thriller of a fantasy.
The official blurb reads:
The war is over. The enemy won.
Jia’s people learned the hard way that there are no second chances. The Egril, their ancient enemy, struck with magic so devastating that Jia’s armies were wiped out. Now terror reigns in the streets, and friend turns on friend just to live another day.
Somehow Tinnstra – a deserter, a failure, nothing but a coward – survived. She wants no more than to hide from the chaos.
But dragged into a desperate plot to retake Jia, surrounded by people willing to do anything to win the fight, this time Tinnstra will need to do more than hide.
If Jia is to get a second chance after all, this time she will need to be a hero.
With all the grit of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Ed McDonald, this is fantasy with the sharpest of edges.