Michael Mammay: Five Things I Learned Writing Planetside

A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…

War heroes aren’t usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it’s something big—and he’s not being told the whole story. A high councilor’s son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there’s no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won’t come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

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READ OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE

You often hear that to be a writer, you’ve got to be a reader. I support that. I go out of my way to read new releases in my genre so that I can learn from them, help promote the good stuff, and so I can be fluent when talking to readers and other writers. People notice, by the way. Readers notice that you’re lifting up other books, and authors notice that you’ve read widely. Hey, if nothing else, knowing that you’ll promote them will get publishers and authors to send you free books.

But the book that probably had the most influence on PLANETSIDE was GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn, which is definitely not science fiction. I was taking a bit of a writing break after deciding not to further revise a novel I’d been working on, just taking my time and sulking. You know, as one does. I was also reading a lot, and I picked up GONE GIRL on the recommendation of a friend. I hadn’t even read a chapter when it hit me. That voice! Flynn’s first person narrator just hit me in the face in the best possible way.

I’d had a kernel of an idea for PLANETSIDE, but up to that point I’d always written in third person. A chapter of GONE GIRL, and I knew immediately that I had to tell my story in first person. I sat down, wrote one short chapter, and sent it off to a few people I trust. That chapter doesn’t exist anymore, because the story went a different direction, but the reactions of those readers does. I remember one clearly: “Wow! This reads like it was written by a totally different writer! Uh…no offense.” I didn’t take any offense.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS IN ORDER TO START

A novel has to have a beginning, middle, and end. But it doesn’t have to have all of them when you start writing. If the idea is burning in your brain, sometimes the rest will come to you once you start putting it on paper. I started writing PLANETSIDE with just a character, an inciting event, a setting, and the idea for one of the big twists. The rest came along the way. I started writing in November of 2014, and I didn’t even know the major conspiracy in the book until I woke up with the idea on New Year’s Day. It’s a good thing I came up with it, obviously, since it’s the driving element in the book, but I’d never have gotten there just staring at a blank page. There is no way I’d have dreamed up that twist if I hadn’t put Carl Butler into the environment and had him interact with it. I got to a point where it became clear that people were hiding a key thing he didn’t know, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I did.

Is that dangerous? I mean, maybe. Maybe you start writing and the big idea never comes. But danger is relative. Sure, you may not finish the story. But it’s not like someone is going to toss a box of angry badgers into your car with you if you have to start over. Note: If someone *is* going to toss a box of angry badgers into your car over your writing, you need to get different friends. At worst, you’ll lose some time, but even that isn’t wasted. Any time you’re writing, you’re learning and growing, and that’s not nothing.

WRITE THE SHIT OUT OF IT

So maybe this one is obvious, but I just wanted to say ‘write the shit out of it’ somewhere publicly, and what better place than here? It’s kind of a mantra. In this case, I have a specific application. PLANETSIDE was done, and I was about a month out from querying agents. It was a good book, and I think it would probably have still netted me representation, though I can’t say for sure. Then I had an idea to change the third act and make it better. I noodled it out, then I pitched it to one of my very smart writer friends. I was excited. She was less excited. She told me she couldn’t see it. This isn’t any knock on her. She’s a brilliant writer and superb with plot and pace, and what I proposed didn’t make sense to her. I didn’t let it deter me. I told her I was going to write the shit out of it.

Reader, I wrote the shit out of it. I rewrote two chapters and wrote three new ones. It just flowed. Once I finished, I sent them to the reader. She read them and told me I was going to get a book deal. She couldn’t see it when I pitched it, but once I had it on the page, she knew. It wasn’t a huge risk on my part. I had a finished book, so if it didn’t work, I could always pull up the old version. The point is, I had an idea that I believed in enough to write it even in the face of someone saying ‘eh, maybe not.’ You will face this a lot. You’re going to tell people about an idea, and sometimes they’re going to tell you that it doesn’t fit the market, or that certain genres don’t sell. A lot of the time, they’re going to be right. But sometimes they aren’t. Writing the shit out something fixes a lot of other problems.

LET YOUR CHARACTERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

Something I pride myself on is realistic dialogue. I hope that when I write, my characters sound the way that people really sound. One trick I’ve found helps that, and really helped in PLANETSIDE, is letting characters have their say. I fully understand that I might sound like I’m a sausage short of a Grand Slam breakfast here, but hear me out. You can’t force it. If you go into a scene with the dialogue already done, it can come out stilted—forced—because it doesn’t fit. If you go into the scene knowing the character and let them react according to their personality as the scene develops, it reads as natural.

One place this had a big impact on PLANETSIDE is in chapter 7. My main character, Carl Butler, is a grizzled old war veteran, and in this scene he was visiting the commander of the hospital, Doctor (Colonel) Mary Elliot. The way I initially conceived the scene, Butler was going to go in, pull some macho bullshit and get a key piece of information he needed to continue his investigation. A funny thing happened when I put those two characters in a room, though. Elliot wasn’t having his nonsense. She’s a woman who rose to a high rank in a challenging field, and when Butler pushed, she pushed back. The scene ended with Butler not getting his information, and being thrown out. More importantly, though, Elliot, who I thought was a bit player, announced herself as a bigger factor in the story. The story got better because of it.

FIND EARLY READERS THAT YOU TRUST

I use a lot of readers. Some of them are beta readers, some of them are critique partners. Some of them read for me every time I write, some are one time readers. I make a point of trying to have readers with a lot of different backgrounds and viewpoints. I try to get a mix of men and women, experienced and less experienced writers, along with other areas of diversity. I love them all. I’m good at taking criticism of my work. Every time someone says something, it makes me think. I always take it as ‘how can I use this to make my book better?’ The answer might be that I can’t, and I might discard the note. A lot of times, I can.

One specific note about PLANETSIDE that had a major impact was when an early reader, a woman, mentioned that most of my characters were men. I looked at it, and she was right. About eighty percent of the speaking parts were male, and there was no great reason for that. In the next rewrite, I changed the gender of three characters. In two cases, it had very little impact on the story, but the other one changed things a lot. When you read the book (because you’re going to read the book, right? Right? Please?) you’ll meet an important character named Lex Alenda. Originally she was a dude. The thing is, as a male, she wasn’t a good character. The male version served as a foil for Butler, somebody to make plot things work, but he had no heart. The current Alenda is one of the most important secondary characters, and her relationship to the protagonist adds a ton of depth not only to the story, but to his character as well. If I hadn’t made that change, I never would have figured that out, and the story would have been weaker for it.

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Michael Mammay is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a masters degree in military history, and he is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia, where he teaches English to high school boys, which is at least as challenging as combat.

Michael Mammay: Twitter | Website

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