Brian McClellan: Five Things I Learned Writing Uncanny Collateral

Alek Fitz is a reaper, a collection agent who works for the supernatural elements of the world, tracking down debtors and solving problems for clients as diverse as the Lords of Hell, vampires, Haitian loa, and goblins. He’s even worked for the Tooth Fairy on occasion. Based out of Cleveland, Ohio, Alek is the best in the game. As a literal slave to his job, he doesn’t have a choice.

When Death comes looking for someone to track down a thief, Alek is flung into a mess of vengeful undead, supernatural bureaucracy, and a fledgling imp war. As the consequences of failure become dire, he has few leads, and the clock is ticking. Only with the help of his friend Maggie—an ancient djinn with a complex past—can he hope to recover the stolen property, save the world, and just maybe wring a favor out of the Great Constant himself.

It’s a hell of a job, but somebody’s got to do it . . .

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REAL LIFE CAN BE THE BEST INSPIRATION

Uncanny Collateral is a book about a collection agent that works for the supernatural elements of this world out of an office in a little town outside of Cleveland, Ohio. My last job before becoming a full time author was working for a collection agency in a little town outside of Cleveland, Ohio. See any similarities? Nah, me neither.

The idea came to me one afternoon while I was having lunch in the parking garage outside. I was, as you can imagine, very bored and prone to daydreaming. What if the Lords of Hell used collection agents? What if vampires did? Heck, what if the bureaucracy of the world was set up in such a way so that any supernatural element that makes deals with humanity is forced to turn to a third party whenever someone doesn’t pay up? You can’t just have the Tooth Fairy stealing into homes in the dead of night with a pair of pliers, after all. You have people who do this job, and those people are somewhere between Harry Dresden and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE

Some of you may know me as a guy who writes big, fat flintlock epic fantasy novels. I made my career with the Powder Mage Trilogy—the shortest of which clocks in at a whopping 165K words (550 pages) in length. So when I sat down to write this new thing in a genre that typically floats around half that length, my initial instinct was always to go long.

And I went super long. I wrote several first acts that were each 40K words. None of these drafts satisfied either me or my agent. I fiddled. I changed the tense from first person to third and then back to first. Nothing seemed to fit. I finally sat down and just started writing without any goal or structure in mind. As the first couple of chapters flowed by, that structure began to take shape organically in the back of my head and I realized that I didn’t want to write just a typical urban fantasy. This book needed to be something that hit hard and fast, able to be read in a couple of sittings. No dissembling or wandering, no multiple viewpoints. It finally clocked in at 45K words, which is either a very long novella or a very short novel, depending on who you ask. If you ask me, the length is perfect.

THE BAD GUY IS NEVER WHO YOU THINK IT IS

Working for a collection agency always made me feel a little icky. I was now the guy on the other end of the phone calling innocent folks in the middle of the day demanding that they hand over their hard-earned money. But even with that icky feeling, I never really felt like I was the bad guy. Those innocent folks I called in the middle of the day had still signed (often stupid) contracts with my clients. I had people swear at or threaten me. I was abused, disregarded, and hung up on. I was hung up on a LOT.

The thing that always stuck with me was how debtors never blamed themselves for being talked into getting a fourth credit card or a cell phone from a carrier no one has ever heard of. And they rarely blamed the company who had hired me to collect the money. Nope, they definitely blamed me for having the gall to call them up on a Tuesday afternoon asking them to fork over $150 for that ad they placed three years ago. I enjoyed this whole process so much that I came up with a character whose job it was to track down people who’d sold their souls and then had the audacity to run for it.

And then my character punches those stupid people in the face.

SELF-PUBLISHING IS MORE WORK THAN MOST PEOPLE WILL ADMIT

I’m not a stranger to self-publishing. Since my second book came out, I’ve been writing supplemental stories in the Powder Mage Universe and putting them out for cheap. They give the readers a little something extra to explore in-world, they give me a nice little side income, and my publisher stays happy knowing I’m strengthening the overall brand.

Uncanny Collateral, however, is my first self-published stand-alone. I’m not able to lean on an existing fanbase, or piggy-back releases a couple months after my latest traditionally published novel. I didn’t even have a font to copy for the cover. Even with my previous experience, starting from scratch turned out to be a whole lot of extra work and cost quite a bit of money. It has really made me appreciate the support system that I get from my publisher—and it’ll definitely help me enjoy the higher royalty I earn putting this out myself.

THE RUST BELT IS SUPER UNDER-REPRESENTED

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s set in my hometown. I grew up in Geauga County, Ohio, but like anyone who was raised in the boonies outside a big city, I just tell everyone I’m from Cleveland. I don’t mind admitting that I have that Midwest chip on my shoulder when I see that every big story happens in a big place. LA, Chicago, New York, DC. As a storyteller, I get why the action happens in those place, I really do. But it still annoys the hell out of me. I set out to write a story about a Cleveland guy working a Cleveland job.

And the crazy thing is how many people come out of the woodwork to tell me they share that Midwest chip and how happy they are to see an Ohio story. I’ve been talking about this book for a couple months now, and I’ve gotten a not-insignificant amount of fan mail based just on the blurb. As a rust belt kid, that really does warm my soul.

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Brian McClellan is an American epic fantasy author from Cleveland, Ohio. He is known for his acclaimed Powder Mage Universe and essays on the life and business of being a writer.

Brian now lives on the side of a mountain in Utah with his wife, Michele, where he writes books and nurses a crippling video game addiction.

Brian McClellan: Website | Twitter

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