I recently interviewed Robbie MacNiven, a fascinating young SF/fantasy author from Scotland. Those of you who are fans of JukePop Serials definitely know who Robbie is–he is the author of Werekynd–Beasts of the Tanglewild, which is the top-voted serial in JukePop Serials history. This alone would have been enough for me to seek an interview, if only to learn the secret of his success! However, it turns out that Robbie and I have much more in common than merely being fellow JukePop authors. He is, like me, getting an advanced degree in history, and also like me was bitten by the writing bug at an early age.
What follows is my interview with Robbie. Enjoy!
Where did you get the idea for Werekynd—Beasts of the Tanglewild? Can you tell us about the development of the story?
Werekynd was born, as many novels are, from a short story. In 2011 I was beavering away for a range of forthcoming anthologies, writing several werewolf-based horror pieces. Near the end of the year I came across a fantasy small press running a submission window which was about to close and, in a keyboard-mauling panic, stitched together various scraps from my other works and “fantasyfied” them. This curious halfbreed I named Crow Valley, but my hasty work was in vain – it was rejected and swiftly fell by the wayside.
That was until late 2012 when I discovered Jukepop Serials. They wanted stories, of any genre or cross-genre, and they were willing to pay. It was while wondering what to submit that I unearthed Crow Valley. There was an opportunity, I realized, to expand both the background and the story itself. Thankfully the original’s open ending and fantasy setting left me with plenty of blocks to build upon.
I began a rough world-building process, drew up some overarching plot arcs and identified the themes I wanted to explore. With that smudged, semi-legible roadmap in hand, I continued the story of the werekynd, taking them beyond Crow Valley.
Do you have a process for writing each chapter of the serial? How much do you plan in advance, and how much do you do spontaneously?
I’d say chapter writing is 60% spontaneous, 40% planned. I know where the story is going overall, but a good deal of the subplots and character interactions develop naturally (re. unintentionally). This is unusual for me, since I normally write to quite a tight plot structure. I worried initially that as a serial Werekynd should be full of elaborate, monthly twists and turns. I discovered however that that’s the beauty of serial writing – the overall arc is important, but the main thing is that you tell an interesting story with every installment. I feel as though that takes a fair bit of pressure out of having to constantly update each month.
Who’s your favorite character in Werekynd, and why?
Ferdano, the Protectorate envoy, Saarl, the turncoat longtooth and Vega, the brutal pack leader, all undergo fairly considerable changes throughout the story, and I think that’s why I quite like all three. Overall Vega, perhaps surprisingly, is my favorite. He’s cunning, doesn’t take any s**t, but ultimately still abides by his principals. The fact that he goes from Ulthric’s nemesis to an experienced pack leader who is willing to settle past differences shows his inner strength.
On the comic relief side, Roddick gets some favoritism just because he’s so constantly in dismal situations. It may surprise you to learn he still has an important role to play before the story’s end…
How did you get the idea to submit to JukePop Serials? Had you thought of doing a serial before?
I came across JukePop on a fanfic forum I occasionally frequent. Since 2010 I’ve been trying to build a writing résumé of short stories, targeting small and independent presses. JukePop immediately stood out to me because a) they paid and b) they offered a very unique and, for a small press, very strong platform for my writing. My first stories were fanfics, and the way they were posted online in installments meant I’d already experienced serial writing, albeit almost without realizing it. The fact that I’m now getting paid to write with my own setting and characters really is a dream come true!
I read your blog post (“The Day the Numbers Got Their Revenge”) about how you became the #1 top-ranked story on JukePop Serials. It’s fascinating, but for those who haven’t read it, can you tell us a bit about your process for promoting Werekynd?
JukePop authors basically receive payment equating to how many people read their stories online. Therefore JukePop writers are strongly encouraged to self-market their work. There’s lots of excellent advice for marketing writing online, and it isn’t hard to tick the basics of promotion. Get your friends and family to read it, pedal it on social networking sites, ect.
There are loads of great stories on JukePop with their fan bases already established, so I knew if I was to hit #1 I’d need to tap into something outside of the friends/online sphere. That’s where University came into play – as a full time student I’m part of two writing societies, with plenty of other classes and activities on the side. Uni is all about networking, and I realized that I had a huge untapped reserve of votes just waiting to propel Werekynd forward. So over the month of March I mobilized them and the rest, I guess, is history.
You’re the top-ranked author at JukePop, and on the sheer strength of your numbers you’re not likely to be dethroned any time soon. How do you feel about this? Do you feel pressure to match this success?
Even months on it’s a strange feeling knowing Werekynd is JukePop’s most voted-for serial. As you point out, I’ve got enough support to mean I won’t have to do another publicity drive for the better part of a year. Pleased as I am by that success, I don’t feel this approach is properly in tune with the spirit of JukePop. I intend to tie up Werekynd by August and then cease to update it, meaning it’ll drop off the leader scoreboard and open things up for the next generation of authors. Commercial writing should be viewed as much as a business as an art form, but drawing out the remaining chapters just to rake in a bit more cash is pushing my principals.
On an equally important note, now that I’ve decided to end Werekynd I can stop stressing about getting votes in and really focus on creating an ending that’s satisfying. The whole voting system pioneered by JukePop is great but yes, it does create a certain pressure and can skew priorities. Perhaps when Werekynd is tied up I’ll try my hand at a second serial without any marketing effort, writing installments just for the pure fun of it.
Let’s talk about Heavenbloom. That’s a fascinating idea—a sci-fi story involving a biplane squadron. Where did this idea come from?
In late 2010 I’d just started University, and was coming to realize I had a lot of spare time on my hands. I was also just beginning to discover Steampunk as a genre. My general understanding of it was “old stuff in modern usage” – very crude I know, but from this was born the idea of early 20th century technology imported into a borderline fantasy/sci-fi world. I was able to tap into my love of history to try and give an authentic dogfight feel to aerial combat in a place tailor-made to create dramatic flying sequences. As my first even published work Heavenbloom will always have a special place on my list of writing credentials.
I notice you’re very much into history, as I am. What do you find compelling about history? What are your favorite events, periods or subjects to read about in history?
To me history and writing are twin siblings. What is history but man’s catalogue of great and small stories, retold down the ages? From a writer’s point of view, the past is an unfathomably vast wealth of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. Truth really is stranger than fiction.
As a history student I have a healthy interest in all past eras. My special love, however, is for the Early Modern period, which I draw very roughly from the Reformation in 1517 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. As with a lot of boys growing up, I was initially drawn to the battles and epic sagas of the past (military history remains my favorite subject), yet over the years that interest has expanded into all spheres of the period, social, political and economic.
You are a comparatively young writer (21). How do you see the field of writing and publishing from your vantage point?
It’s a battlefield strewn with the ruined carcasses of those who thought it would be an easy road to fame and glory. Seriously though, writing is a tough trade that gets tougher the younger you are. In many ways this is unavoidable – often great writing can only come from experience. But here in Scotland only one of our twenty best-selling authors is below the age of 40, and she’s 35. That tells you what you need to know about youth and writing. You’re going to have to wait and practice, and hone your skills. Is it fair? Well no, but life generally isn’t, and it’s not as though you’re being forced to write. Always do it for the love first and foremost.
Ideally, what would you like your future as a writer to look like?
Getting a novel published would be great. My ultimate goal would be to make a career out of my writing, but of course that’s a long way off. The only way to get there will be hard work!
Although you’re young, you’ve achieved some considerable success even at this early phase. (I mean, you’re published—that in itself is achievement). What advice do you have for younger writers who are just starting out?
Young writers have to be as on their guard when it comes to “success stories” as anyone else. You have to accept that you’re probably not the next J. K. Rowling, and that if you really do want to be you’ll have to work your butt off. You’re not going to be an overnight success, they basically don’t exist. Behind almost all those “sudden hits” lie years of hard graft.
Ultimately my advice to fellow newbies is simple. Firstly, read and write a lot. Secondly, be patient. Publishing is an incredibly slow business, as is learning the craft of writing. A lot of it just comes from pure life experience. Thirdly, don’t be downhearted when you hear tall tales of others your age who’ve already achieving writing success. To get good you have to really focus on yourself, and sharpen your own skills. Finally, remember that there is hope. If you accept that there’ll be years of hardship and learning curves, and if you write first and foremost because you enjoy it, then you will be published at some point.
Tell us about your works in progress or any you have planned.
My main work in progress is Crucible of Faith a histfic thriller set during the Scottish Revolution of 1638. I’m currently halfway through the first full redraft, and scouting for agents and publishers big and small. On the sidelines I have a pair of horror shorts waiting to be resubmitted to small presses after their initial rejections. Not one of my stories has ever been accepted first time! But the fact I’ve had eight published over the past year proves one of the great rules of writing – it isn’t about how often you get knocked down, it’s how fast you get back up!
Thanks, Robbie, for giving us some of your time! This was a fun interview to do and I’m happy to showcase Robbie’s work. (He’ll also be interviewing me soon!) If you’re curious, here’s where you can find his stuff.