Tell us about your book.
WE COULD BE HEROES is a character-driven superhero book that see a supervillain (Jamie) and a superhero (Zoe) accidentally meet up in a support group, then discover that they’re much better as friends than enemies — and that the only way to discover how they both got their powers is by teaming up. It’s a story about the trust that needs to be built in order for unlikely friendships to develop, and how people are much more complex beneath the surface. It comes out on January 26 from Mira/HarperCollins.
What advice do you have for aspiring API creators?
Don’t be afraid to place your identity in your books front and center. This is something I struggled with early on. As Asians, we’re taught to NOT talk about ourselves, and I initially felt like putting any Asian characters in my book would come off as a sort of wish-fulfillment. But I realized quickly that the only way to break that cultural cycle is to have all sorts of representation across fiction and media. And there’s room for all types of stories. Personal stories are just as important as political stories, as having representation in personal stories really helps to normalize that we exist across a spectrum of identities and histories.
What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?
I’m usually inspired by the media I’m consuming at the time. Usually, I’ll see or read something and my mind asks “What if?” That’s where story ideas come from. The tricky part is making sure that the ideas are actually sustainable and not just a cool beat. For HERE AND NOW AND THEN, this was mostly inspired by a Doctor Who story (School Reunion). For A BEGINNING AT THE END, which was originally drafted in 2011, this was an early season of The Walking Dead. For WE COULD BE HEROES, it was the Marvel Netflix series. In general, it’s the idea of taking these SFF stories I love and leaning into a character moment, then a whole idea explodes out of that.
Tell us about your writing journey and how you got where you are today.
I have an engineering degree, and my day job was being a technical writer for quite a few years. At the same time, I worked as a freelance sportswriter covering the NHL, and there’s still quite a bit of that floating around the internet. I took creative writing in college, and I circled back to that in 2008-ish. It took several manuscripts for me to figure out how the beats of storytelling, and I shifted from contemporary family stories to family stories against sci-fi backdrops. I’m lucky that the market really turned for those types of stories over the last five years. For those keeping score, I got my agent with my 3rd queried manuscript, and I go into more detail about that process here: http://www.mikechenbooks.com/2018/07/a-look-at-here-and-now-and-thens-query-letter-to-support-keepfamiliestogether/
What advice do you have for writers?
The biggest piece of advice that I tell writers is to keep an open mind with all constructive criticisms. We all have our natural strengths and weaknesses. I knew early on that dialogue was very natural for me, but plotting and worldbuilding were not. So I addressed both specifically — with plotting, it was reading books on structure (Save the Cat changed my life), and worldbuilding is still a struggle, but I’ve learned a process that works best for me to get it done. But I kept an open mind the whole time, taking suggestions on these weaknesses and keeping an open mind on how to improve myself. I tell everyone that every single writer I started with either got an agent or quit; the ones that got agents kept plugging away and improving. So if you keep at it, it really is just a matter of time, but in order to do that, you need to synthesize constructive criticism.
Also, criticism is VERY subjective. I think you should examine every piece of constructive criticism and decide if it really applies. If you see the same thing repeatedly, then it’s likely true. However, sometimes it’s just someone’s opinion. So consider everything but feel free to discard it if it doesn’t feel right.
What are you currently reading?
I don’t get to read nearly as much as I’d like to because deadlines + day job + pandemic parenting makes it all very difficult. But I’m finishing HENCH by Natalie Zina Walshots and then I’m going to jump into THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Alix E Harrow, whose THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY was my favorite book of 2019 (and 2019 was an epic year for books, so that’s saying a lot).
What’s your favorite part of the creative process?
I write in layers, with the first layer really being a skeleton draft mostly of dialogue and stage direction based on my 3-act outline (I use the Save the Cat beat sheet). This is really difficult, like pulling teeth, because the identity and voice of the characters are really just starting to emerge, along with the details of the world. The draft AFTER that is the most fun, when I feel like I know the characters well and I know where the plot details really well. Then it’s just about digging deep and enjoying being with the characters and letting them “speak” to me about what they’re doing. It’s cliche to say that they can “surprise” me, but it’s totally true — once I know their voices, I find that there are always moments when they intuitively do something different from the beat sheet, and I experiment with how that can push the story in a different direction.
How do you deal with critiques of your work?
It’s still really hard. I have a few trusted beta readers/critique partners, and I appreciate how they can be constructively honest with me (my friend Sierra Godfrey and I have an agreement to be “diplomatically brutal” with each other). But there’s still this anxiety when I get critique that I’ll get exposed for being a total fraud. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
If you went on a desert island and could only bring two things, what would you bring?
Is it cheating to say a tablet with my ebooks and music? If we take that as one, then I’d say my acoustic guitar as well.