Writing Wednesdays with Michael Haase: Interview with Jim McDoniel, author of "An Unattractive Vampire"
Staff Writer By: Michael Haase
Jim McDoniel is an author you should know. His debut novel, "An Unattractive Vampire," won the Sword and Laser contest on Inkshares.com last year and was published this year. With its consistent humor, wonderful characters, and thrilling story, "An Unattractive Vampire" has quickly become one of the most successful novels on Inkshares with momentum to spare. The novel has earned its success; I highly recommend heading over to Inkshares and ordering a copy for yourself.
Jim McDoniel was kind enough to lend me some time to answer a few questions about who he is, how he writes, and what advice he has for other writers. Please enjoy the interview below.
Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you first realize that you were a writer?
Not until like four years ago. I've spent most of my life since the age of eleven wanting to be an actor. However, when I got to college, my theater department was very avant-garde and political with few opportunities for a guy who just wanted to do comedies. So I decided if they weren't going to do shows I wanted to be in, I would start writing them myself and so I signed up for the playwriting classes. Still, I was still an actor who occasionally wrote stuff (that went unpublished and unperformed) than an actual writer. That is until five years ago when I decided through a series of events to focus on writing this novel. After that, I became just a writer and I really haven't looked back. (Though I still get "Why aren't you acting anymore?" from family and my parents friends.)
Who or what are the most major influences on your craft?
First and foremost, probably Terry Pratchett. He is pretty much the king of what it is I do. After that, Mike Mignola the creator of Hellboy, Mel Brooks just cuz, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, H.P. Lovecraft (minus the racism), the old universal monster movies, and the Halloween book from my elementary school library that I directly pulled a character from years later.
Are there any particular books that you would consider to be essential reading?
Not really. I mean, there's Lovecraft (again, you have to set aside his extreme racism) and I suppose Dracula and Frankenstein and other early monster fair like Carmilla. And on the comedy side, there's Douglas Adams. They're classics, but I wouldn't say you HAVE to read them. You can pull lessons from whatever you're into.
How did you discover Inkshares, and what made you decide to enter your novel into the contest?
I was at work listening to the Sword and Laser when they announced their book contest. By this point, I was on draft six or eight and was winding down on my second set of agent submissions with an eye toward shelving my manuscript for the time being. To be honest, I wasn't sold about entering the contest, crowdfunding sounded a bit too much like self-publishing and I knew that was not for me (I don't have the media savvy or social chutzpah to put myself out there THAT much). I asked my coworker what she thought and she said something along the lines of, "Don't be stupid. Of course, you should do it." Still not convinced I asked my best friend and she said agreed.
Basically, it came down to something Neil Gaiman once said in an interview about always taking steps forward toward your goal. I reasoned (rightly as it turns out) that Inkshares would be a definite step further on the path to a career in writing from where I was.
At what moment did you get the idea for "An Unattractive Vampire?"
I was waiting in line for a show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival when I began eavesdropping on the conversation two women were having next to me. One of them was a librarian and telling her friend about this thing called "Twilight" where vampires sparkled in the sun. That night, I went home and rage googled everything I could find about Twilight. A few weeks later, I was walking around and envisioned a bit about a vampire being mistaken for a werewolf because he wasn't sexy enough. That bit led to another. Then another. And then the idea/title of "An Unattractive Vampire" popped into my head and I decided that could be a possibility for a book if I ever wanted to write one (this was three to four years before I really started working on it.)
How long did it take you to write the novel?
It depends on how you judge such things. I generally say about five years, from the end of 2010/beginning of 2011 when I decided to actually make a go of writing it until it was published this March. The first draft took about seven months, with second and third drafts by the end of 2011. By the end of 2012, I had a fifth draft and started sending it to agents without success. I did another round of revisions at the beginning of 2014 and sent out more agent queries. And then in 2015 came Inkshares and all the official edits with a production team. So again, five years. However, if you go from idea inception it was more like eight or nine.
Was there any research involved in writing your novel?
There was some, though probably not as much as it seems. A lot of it was just going to Wikipedia and looking at lists like "Vampires in Asian cultures" or "Lists of grimoires." I knew much of the information already from a lifetime of watching movies/history channel documentaries about monsters and ghosts and the like, including the one that Tom [Merritt} and Veronica [Belmont of the Sword and Laser] were in. I also listen to a number of podcasts that helped. I found out very late in the game that my description of the African Adze was wrong from a monster/conspiracy/mystery show I listen to called Blurry Photos. Lore is another good one for facts and information. Probably the things that took the most actual research were the city of Akkad (which turned out to my surprise to be a "lost city" which had been destroyed by a curse and might be located beneath Baghdad) and, believe it or not, New York.
Your main character, Yulric Bile, is an old vampire, but quite unique in terms of his abilities. Are there any particular influences for how you developed him as a character?
His appearance has always been based on Kurt Barlow from the 1970s Salem Lot movie, an image that has stuck with me through the years. As for his powers and abilities, most of them are cribbed from the classic Dracula powers: transformation, enthrallment, becoming mist, etc. I also gave him a few others because as an evil immortal, I reasoned, he would never be satisfied with the power he had; he would always need more. Of all the vampires, I believe he traveled the most which is why in the novel he is able to find them all. There's a whole history of him moving to the Middle East around the time of the Crusades, finding Arru in her forgotten temple, nearly being killed by Saladin, being discovered by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad and being taken to China as a curiosity, and eventually escaping and finding his way back to Europe. Also, I made him a Saxon, because I have a fondness for Nordic/Germanic "barbarian civilizations." (I mostly play Dwarves on World of Warcraft.)
Have you written anything else, or are you working on any new projects?
(Stress laughs) Yeah, just a few. In addition to novels, I work a lot in audio drama. My main project is a post-apocalyptic tale called Our Fair City where a former insurance company serves as the all-seeing/all-controlling government for a world of mad scientists, molepeople, and meatwalls (also a few normal people trying not to be killed by corporately sanctioned MURDER agents or the occasional zombie outbreak.) I've also written other radio plays. I had a take off on Poe stories "The Crypt of Arabella Dodd" performed live at the Whiskey Radio Hour and two of my pieces ("Last Transmission" and "The Fairy Wood") have won the Midnight Audio Theatre's playwriting contest and have been or are being produced. I'm working on scripts for a horror/comedy web series that is a take off of Reading Rainbow. I'm also working on a graduate degree in writing (hence the stress laugh) so I'm really busy working on short stories and other pieces for that. And of course, there are the next novels. I have a third draft of one that I will probably start revising again once school is done for the summer and three more first drafts that I've started.
Your success with your novel is quite admirable, as is its story. Any advice for aspiring writers?
Write and persevere. Most people have an idea for a story, but they'll never actually sit down to write it. Of those that do, most will quit before it's done. Of those who finish the first draft, most won't bother to revise or edit it. Of those who revise and edit it, most won't bother sending it out. Of those who send their piece out to agents or publishers, most will give up after the first rejection. Of those who don't give up after the first rejection, most will quit after receiving all the rejections. The people who succeed (not including me, I was very fortunate with Inkshares) are the ones who write a book and are rejected and then write another book and are rejected and then write another book and then maybe find someone who likes their stuff. (This is also great, because when an agent or publisher says, "Have you got anything else?" you have two more completed novels to show them.)
In order to stay motivated through all this rejection, I recommend reading and listening to author interviews. Being able to point to things that people you admire do and say, "Hey, I do that too!" is really helpful.
Many independent authors push for even the simplest reviews to be made of their work for sale on Amazon. How important are these reviews to you as an author?
From what I'm given to understand, EXTREMELY. Amazon is the elephant in the room of publishing and they base how they promote books on their website based on the number of reviews they receive. Not the quality of the reviews, merely the quantity. You have to get somewhere between 50-75 in order to appear in their Newsletters I believe and if you get past 100 there's some more promotion that you receive. Mind you, if you are an established author with a major publisher, reviews on Amazon aren't as important, people already know your work and are waiting to buy it. But for new authors without that established readership or ones with smaller/independent publishers, having visibility on Amazon is huge.
In other words, GO REVIEW MY BOOK ON AMAZON!
If you could have a conversation with any author in history, who would it be and why?
Hmmm. I'd probably have to say Poe. Although I'm not sure I'd actually talk to him. I'm far too shy for that. But I would follow him around on the day that he died so that I could solve the mystery of what exactly happened to him. Then I'd come back and tell NO ONE! ONLY I GET TO KNOW THE TRUTH! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Did you suffer from any writer's block or doubt while writing "An Unattractive Vampire," and if so, how did you get past it?
Writer's block, not really. By the time I sat down to write it, I already had the important beats planned out so I always knew where I was going. Doubt and lack of motivation or a desire to write certain scenes, ABSOLUTELY. Especially when working on a first novel, by yourself, you are responsible for your own deadlines and you don't know if anything will come of it or anyone will like it or if its even good. Then you come to a scene that's standing between point a and point b and you really want to write point b, but you HAVE to write this transitional scene first and you just don't wanna. Honestly, motivation, especially for a writer without any sort of deal or previous credits is the killer.
Basically, I've found I just have to push through it and write. The longer I put off writing a scene because I don't know where its going or I don't know what to do or I'm just not feeling it, the harder it gets to make myself write it. If the scene sucks, I can always fix it. The one time I tried Nano Wrimo, I spent a whole days work writing a chapter and then crossed it all out, because in writing that really long scene I realized how that scene needed to go, and the next day, I rewrote it with that in mind (I did not do Nano Wrimo the way you are supposed to.) Likewise, some of my favorite parts of An Unattractive Vampire were ones that I absolutely did not want to write, but I did and I fell in love.
How different was your novel from the initial submitted manuscript and the final published work?
Extremely. I added six whole new chapters in the second half/third of the book. Also, a chapter that had been deleted from earlier drafts rose from the undead and stuck back in. On the other side, I cut a lot of subplots and details that were just overly complicated. (In general, simpler is better.)
Are there any other authors or books out there you think deserve more attention?
Probably. Christopher Moore, while a very successful author who does not need help, is surprisingly not as well known in sci-fi fantasy circles as you would expect, probably because his books of comedic contemporary fantasy end up being shelved in fiction rather than science fiction/fantasy. Jonathan L. Howard and his Johannes Cabal books, maybe. The tricky thing is, most any author I could name is with a major publisher/has an agent/etc. and so is far more successful than myself or many Inkshares authors. So, they don't really need my help. Even if I think they don't receive attention, the fact that I know about them enough to name them means they are probably doing fine. I would say that if you really wanted to help, head over to Inkshares and support an author just getting started.