Interview with Micheal Lee Nelson, author of “Ceres 2525”

What inspires you to write?

I am a contrarian. Over 40+ years of enjoying reading and watching scifi, I often had the thought: “One day if I write a novel, I’d do this that way…”  I had reactions to “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” Star Trek, and some major themes of the scifi genre in general, which helped me slowly build my galaxy/worlds in my mind.

What happened to me is, these “what if” questions about the past and future of mankind have percolated in the back of my head for a long time, questions inspired by the genre, my contrarian nature, and my observations as I simmered through life. I needed to catch fire!

Then along the journey, I conceived of my own kind of heroic character. He is like my imaginary friend, and he tells me these crazy stories! I got excited thinking of him and how he would live in this speculated future of Earth I imagined! I wrote it down. I told others, showed more still. They caught my enthusiasm for my character, my story. They encouraged me to share it with you, the reader, the sci-fi fan, the world! They got me fired up to write more!

I imagined, what kind of MFL, main female lead character, would Ceres match up with best? One day I was writing a kind of fanfic, casting about for a character hook and saw a great example come on TV, the “Lord of the Dance” on HBO. There we go: Tall, Irish, Redhead, Dancer. Great character hook. I imagined what might the classic Irish folks become if there was a colony full of them on some dangerous planet? I think I created a good foil for Ceres. She has abilities of her own that complement but fustigate his. He can be all Mr. Bond James Bond on the asteroids but she works from a different skillset that baffles him.

So the basis of ongoing inspiration is, I am creating this grand Galactic setting that I enjoy world building. I have these great characters who live there (yes in my head) They go on being themselves and the interactions are high drama and action and great dialogue… so I often leave bed at 11 pm and run to the computer to jot down notes for a scene that just popped in my head out of space. Some of my best work comes that way. *Poof* Thank you, God.

When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote some fanfic to entertain myself and some online gaming friends. I had created my main characters previously for an RPG. When we started forming a guild to play online I put my characters in to that new game’s scifi setting.

The guild, TCON, The CONSORTIUM, had some great role players, and they started little storylines to pass the time before launch. I wrote my characters into those group Roleplay stories. I ended up writing almost daily, some new post of what my characters did in the (game) world. I got a lot of great feedback from the others doing their roleplay writing. So I wrote an iconic “duel” short story to introduce my character. That short story eventually became the “Act One” action scenes to start my novel Ceres 2525.

Once I got rolling, I had this character I came to love, living in my head. I HAD to tell his story, to make him live in your heads.

Now that Ceres 2525 is flying, I have over 20 story ideas on file for future book projects. I enjoyed writing and launching my first novel. Now I’m hooked! I want to be a full-time novelist, like my friend Jon Batson. I just keep writing.

What makes this particular Genre you are involved in so special?

I am in Science Fiction, though the tags #military and #Christian both apply to my work. I have been a fan of #scifi for over 40 years. I appreciate how some of the technical gadgetry in books and movies of the 20th century have happened today. We used Star Trek communicators (flip-phones) until we redesigned them to be sturdier (cellphones).

I love how “old scifi” inspired generations of scientists and NASA astronauts who have now gone to locations once only dreamed and written of, starting with the Apollo moon missions and soon to go back, and on to Mars robotically.

I think that is the greatest value of scifi and it is underappreciated in the world. That it fuels the imagination, making not just fiction writers think about “what if…?” but making scientists think about those things and eventually DO those things. Scifi stretches man’s limits, by showing us the only real limit is our limited imagination and technology of today.

Do all authors have to be grammar Nazi’s?

I am not. I’m a fair proofreader, and poor typist. But I let Word red-underline my first corrections, ProWritingAid finds many more, and my “alpha” and beta readers catch those that get past those shields. Then I pay an editor to polish it.

For the writer, it is progress, not perfection, and an A-team of backup. I am not a fan of Grammar Nazi’s. In the guise of claiming “constructive criticism” we have devolved into allowing cyber bullies to destroy some people’s work and reputation and drive them from creating.

Amazon book’s preview function allows potential readers to make enough of a decision on the quality of the work vs intrigue in characters and story before buying. I prefer to be positive and point out to people their strengths, but their need for help with proofing and editing, not to destroy them myself.

Do you set a plot or do you prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I start out with an outline. Since I see the story in my head like a movie, I did a huge storyboard on the wall, just like Pixar when creating a movie.

I printed pictures iconic to a scene and wrote ideas of what’s happening in that chapter below them. I moved them around, got the big plot ironed out, even made a huge cut, realizing some of those were book 2, which I #amwriting.

Now that I have that chapter and the main points to hit in there, I go freeform and “pants” it from there. I really enjoy it when my head is deep in there, knowing everything about my worlds, knowing my characters and his abilities. I write him into a corner. It’s hard, but sometimes I don’t know how he’ll get out of trouble… until I’m mid-sentence and it just comes out of my fingers. Somehow he tells me, and good ideas come from space. That is great fun, and usually turns out to be some of the best scenes, which my author critic circles enjoys the best too. *clue*

Such ideas did reroute the book somewhat. But the best things about my alien inventions from Book 1 came out this way. By the time I got to the end of the book I had learned enough about them that a particular idea popped up to tie it together in a really awesome creative way. I invented something new for #scifi this way. I love that.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own, or pay someone to do it for you?

I will do proofing as I go and as I reread. I cant help it. I just do it. I took my chapters through my author critic circle and they helped me immensely. Then I sent it off to my editor. I created some revisions after that, and published the book. There were draft-saving errors and I had to redo some edits and put up a corrected copy. The ability to do that easily is handy.

For book 2 and beyond I settled on a new order, using my new tools.. I edit as I go still. Then I run reports in ProWritingAid to go the next step and get most issues ironed out with that. Then my author critic circle marks it up, usually on the bigger ticket items like story and character editing, which other tools cant advise. Then once I’ve done all that, I will send it  to my editor for a final pass. I expect better results out of these steps.

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

I was the “creative designer” behind my cover. I had a graphic artist create the characters. They gave me option sketches and I’d pick my fav features. I had a different GA design the overall cover, but it was to my specs.  These are unique art forms, which are not in my skill set. It is worth paying for professional help on the first thing every potential reader will see. For next time I plan to hire a particular world-class artist to do my cover.

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

I have heard from so many readers, their impressions upon just seeing my cover that I believe it does make a difference. They DO judge it by the cover. If intrigued they pick it up, turn and read the back copy. Then the back inner jacket, so that’s where I put the best reviews I have. Next the TOC and probably read at least the first page. Passing all of those steps they might buy it. Online they will do their version of the above, plus reading more of the reviews.

That funnel of buy/drop decisions starts with the cover. You should have a human face on it since that catches the eye better than anything else. Big book name atop, your name abottom (until you are Steven King or James Patterson), a background and color design that ties it together and highlights the eye-catching stuff.

The individual steps are not that hard, but it is an art to go from bad to okay to good to great. That is what’s hard. I found people who were good at it and paid them cash or trade. Being the writer I told them what elements I wanted and let them do what they do best.

Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?

I finally settled on describing it as a “cinematic” style. I use elements from moviedom, the way I describe a scene and move the camera around a bit in my head. I prefer to use Deep POV, a close form of 3rd person, but it softens for style reasons. I minimize “head-hopping” but sometimes it is super hard when the camera drifts around the room. If I was writing this as a script for a movie I wouldn’t have this problem. My character’s use of telepathy causes me the greatest headaches for POV.

I drop in comic’s use of sound-words, onomatopoeia. I like to spell some sounds out. If I was reading this book to my kids I would surely make the sounds. Those are what I try to spell out.

One of my lessons from reading other’s work is, I aim to write in an accessible language style. I once read a scifi novel that was written to please the intelligentsia crowd. Their use of similes was done in a snobbish, wordy style, “as one would to please one’s English Professor, engendering top marks for one’s thesis.”

They seemed to be going for the “literary science fiction” genre by writing in the voice of William F. Buckley. Came off as over written for an action/horror scifi novel, in my opinion. I can read that, don’t get me wrong, but it was full of a constant barrage of that. It was so frustrating that I kept throwing the book into the corner, wishing the author were there. Took me two years to finish it. Don’t be like that.

I do not use simple language, not too young, but I intentionally target the middle school grades level of language so I know most people can comfortably read it without frustration. It’s more like how real people speak, which is more where I want most of my characters to come from than the literati crowd, for sure.

Having said that, this is scifi. We have our own lexicon of standard terms and known things, starting with astronomy and rocket science and inventing from there. For those readers without much scifi background, I threw a Glossary in the back. I have been told my style is quite readable. Success!

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

My friend and fellow NC author Drew Bridges blogged a great quote for this. “All fiction writing is somewhat autobiographical.”

In my book 2’s “Act 1” big opening action sequence, I am writing in an exact element of something that happened to me when I was in the Marines. In training I was the biggest man in my unit. So I was often the guy to bash down a door. One particular training mission in a plywood “combat town,” the OpFor did a great job of securing the bottom of a door and leaving the top free. Ramms didn’t budge it. Being it was a plywood sheet, when I ran and jumped my shoulder tackle into it, it bowed in then flung me across the porch on my back. My platoon laughed so hard! So that is in Ceres’ book 2 as perfectly as I can write it.

I am sure there are more examples already written in, and there will be more to come.

Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers.

For book 2 of the Ceres saga, 2526, I have long had a unique idea for the opening scene. Talk about in media res, I throw my hero into the action in an epic way! If this was a movie, this thing would have to be the very first WOW scene shown right during and after the opening credits and would blow people’s minds. So of course, it has to be the first pages of the new book.

Bigger picture: Having just gone through it and learned from many great mentors, I am working on my spin of a “how to write and publish your own book,” non-fiction book. One of my mentors reminded me, I have my unique story to tell. It’s important that I tell it. This can inspire others to write their books, held nervously within them.

I am also working on a crazy kitchen “hacks” cookbook concept. I have maybe 1/2 of the recipes already, since I use them frequently, and am gathering more as I go.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

It is a toss-up between my fiancé’ and my mom.  Mom has supported me throughout my entire life. When I told her I was going to seriously work on my novel, she said “Well of course you are, honey! It’s about time!” and on and on with supportive praises. I could not wait to get a copy in her hands. She’s so proud. Thanks, Mom.

My fiancé’ I credit with holding my published book in my hands today. In the past I have had negative elements discourage me from fulfilling my dream. When I told my fiancé’ I had the seed of a novel I was working on, she encouraged my immeasurably.  She took me to meet a writer friend of hers, who has become one of my close circle of friends. She helped plug me in to the regional plethora of writing workshops so I could start to learn HOW to get this done.

She set up the spare bedroom as my writing office, and sent me down the hall to work on my book. She’s supported me emotionally and physically to write my book. Without that loving, positive, active support, I think I’d be plugging away, just fantasizing, unpublished still and ongoing. (Thank you, my sweet strawberry redhead.)

Another misconception is that all writers are independently wealthy. How true is that?

Nope. If I had a dollar for every time someone seemed to think that, I’d double my money.

Here’s the hard truth: “This is an expensive hobby,” I was told by pros. That has proven true. I pass this truth on to you.

To #Indiepub Ceres 2525 I put out between $1500-2500, maybe more in little invisible dribs over the 2 years. And it should have been more! What you don’t pay a pro to do, takes longer to do yourself for free, and get your amateur results. Want better, just like Henry Ford, hire the best expert you can afford to do their best for you.

The publish and promote parts of the process can cost a lot of money. If not, it will cost you more time. And beware of “free editing” and beta readers. Most of that does not produce quality editing. Most betas I found just wanted a free book. (Now I try to get a review out of it at least.)

Only 2% of novels sell more than 500 copies. With an Amazon royalty of, say $2, that’s less than $1000 for 98% of books put up there. If you pay $250 for a quality cover, $500 for a good editor (and that’s a cheap price, btw) and order some books to try to sell, you’re approaching $1000 expenses already.  There are many vendors willing to help you sub-contract all parts of the novel process, for a fee. The more help you buy the more your expenses. (and beware, vanity presses still exist.)

You have to realize, this is not a get rich quick scheme. Until you have at least a handful of books all selling in volume, this is an expensive hobby.

Anyway, If I ever get back my investment from the first book, I’ll be pleasantly surprised and will let you know.

Do you enjoy book signings?

Yes, I launched Ceres 2525 at the fantastic Page 158 Books, in Wake Forest, NC. I had built up a relationship with them over time and they helped facilitate a good event. Owner Susanne Lucy grilled me for 45 minutes, asking so many questions! But I had just lived through this writing process, and I enjoyed describing things and answering the questions. Turned out to be fun! Who knew?  Having networked with many people, friends and business owners of the area for the prior 2 years, we filled the bookstore with over 40 people listening to the interview.

I gave away a little crystal with each book purchased. A secret treasure mentioned inside the novel for them to get an excited “aha” moment later when they read that passage. It was great!

I did another signing at north Raleigh’s The Book Bar. Only a handful of people were even there, but, at least, 2 of them were great scifi fans. They asked me more questions about my setting than I expected, extending the session almost double the time. That too was great fun, because talking about my setting and characters is probably the most fun thing I can talk about! Lol.

They kept saying, “how brilliant I was in creating” this and that aspect, character, technology…. Of course, that’s hard to take for over an hour, “Stop, no please, no, go on, go on, don’t, stop, don’t stop.”   It was great for my ego, but in the end, I sold a couple of books and had a great chat with two rabid scifi fans. That was a good day.

Do you make your own vocabulary words in your book or resort to the existing ones?

I have been told to stick to the dictionary until I’m a big name author, then I can get creative. But, but, but, I’m in Scifi. I feel an obligation to invent new technologies, new planets, new aliens, new stuff. All of that needs new names, and at times, new words.

I think we fiction writers have an obligation to move the language forward over time. My favorite thing is to show some progress of the English language over the next 500 years. Mild, though, I usually conjoin words. Like “robot” plus “chef” became “robochef” in one chapter. Cool design but annoying personality module; a French Chef in a robot? Please. I named him “Henry” just so my hero can call him “On-ree” and get away with it.

What is the secret to becoming a best-selling author?

Your book going viral on the internet.

HOW to do that on purpose is the secret wizard magic ninja sauce recipe, isn’t it? If I get there, you can bet that “how” will feature prominently in my “how to become a bestselling author” book.

How critical are you in your evaluation when you are reviewing someone’s work?

I’m an easy 4-5 review. I am not a critic. I don’t want to be a carebear, but I am more of a cheerleader. Sure, I’ll tell you, “you really need to buy some editing software to help get your draft up in order to get your money’s worth out of paying an editor…”

I’ll mark it up for you if I can. But I’m encouraging how to get it better, not scathing for wasting my time. I hate those people. I think there is a reason why the word “Nazi” is in the well-deserved title “Grammar Nazi’s.” It’s because no one likes them. That’s a clue. It has become a form of bullying. If you read Ceres 2525, you’d know how I feel about that. The two times in my life I had multiple bullies pick a fight with me, I beat their aft’s.

Doesn’t it bother you that when books are turned into movies, they are often changed to suit the audience needs?

No that’s understandable. It is a different form of storytelling. Visual. It is scriptwriters for whom the adage “show don’t tell” is really for. Since a movie is all about SHOWing visually what would be annoying as dialogue onscreen, they take out all the narration and dialogue of scene description in the book, and dress their sets to literally show us those things. (But I do understand the difference of show vs tell for writing novels too. To not just describe everything in narrative.)

The real crime is when the movie is hacked into, to suit the studio’s needs.

Movie audiences are completely different from the book reading audience. When I was a teen dating we went to a movie every single week for years. That’s not targeted, any given movie in the theater is aimed at a selection of the moviegoing public, but there are a lot of people who go routinely too. That is shotgunning.

Books are selected to buy and read starting with very specific genre and sub-genre tastes. So your readers are going to be more tailored to like your book, if you are at all honest about tagging it with Amazon keywords and so on.

Now, the other hand.

I was pleased to meet fellow North Carolinian, Orsen Scott Card, at a huge packed book signing he did here in Raleigh, with his new writing partner Aaron Johnston. They were great and the new Ender’s Game prequel novels are fantastic. I asked Scott the question, how did he feel about the movie? After a pause, he said “It’s a good movie. You should go see it.”

Now as a fan of the novel and the movie, I can say, at 90 minutes it is missing another half hour of movie, for *studio* reasons. It’s easier to get more screens to run a 90-minute than a 2-hour standard length film. It is easier and cheaper to produce and so on, too.

The book describes several iterations of training missions for Ender, with his fellow “academy” teammates and rivals, which shapes and grows him into the final character able to do what’s needed in the final space battles.

Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff was a complete waste! The whole point of that character was the drama of destroying the childhood of Ender- doing what was needed to save Earth, molding Ender into the ultimate tactical admiral, even though he was a child. The film had NONE of that. One paragraph of calling it out overtly himself? No. That is telling us, not showing.

In the book there are iterations of zero-G squad, then starship “training” missions, in which Ender learns and develops more skill as a tactician. As cut, the movie skips from young tactical genius at school, becomes young tactical genius in command of mankind’s fleet in the final battle vs Earth’s enemy. That massive leap in the movie is jarring and nonsensical to anyone who hasn’t read the book. It may be worse to those of us who have. The omission of the series of training missions to learn from and grow is glaring.

I have to wonder, if they had included more zero-gravity tactical training scenes and early spaceship battles, as the book did, would they have gotten more buzz and repeat business for the film? I would have been happy to give a positive review if it earned it. I praised what I could, but had to admit it disappointed many lovers of the novels including me. So, bad buzz. It left theaters sooner than most movies might expect. Hmm.

So, that is a high crime of Hollywood that any writer should dread. Even worse than readers dread it.

Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?

Yes, absolutely. I carry a small notepad in my pocket at all times. I’ve even texted myself when needed. I get out of bed in the middle of the night to jot a sufficient note. Ideas are gold. The hardest is while driving, if my pen and notebook are still in my pockets. I usually have to pull over, or ask a passenger to jot a note.

How big a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

I created a playlist on YouTube of music videos that informed me of aspects of my setting or characters. I start my long sessions with that. Then I turn to “study” type playlists of light classical. I have my best creative, focused days with this playing in the background.

Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or can you just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write.

If I can tune out its fine, the café’ setting usually doesn’t bother me. But I can’t sit with the TV on and people talking to me. Both are too distracting. For this reason, at home I have my own writing office set up, library and all. One of the walls has a space poster from National Geographic, and those chapter pictures, of my starship and characters and planets, etc. I put on light classical “study” music, or my own playlist that reminds me of my characters. That works best to help me focus.

Have you ever written a character with an actor in mind”

Think big, you have to think anyway. I created a mercenary character as a friend and rival to my MML. Thinking of whom to cast in the role, to fill my mind with the right presence, etc… I picked John Matrix in Commando. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Boom! Can’t get any bigger than that. So when I’m writing scenes with my merc character “Grizzly” Barnes in it, I think of that role.

I have fake “cast” certain actors in other roles too, to help me visualize them. I posted a “vote” thread once for readers to pick between certain actors I think could play my hero Ceres. Scott Eastwood, or Liam Hemworth?

Were your parents reading enthusiasts who gave you a push to be a reader as a kid?

My Mom taught reading for 33 years, as a first grade teacher. With two 1st grade teachers in the school in my small town, that means she taught half the town how to read! When I was 6 months old, she says, she held me on her lap while reading a novel aloud to me. I have no idea what one. I enjoyed creative writing in school, especially high school and college. Mom and certain teachers gave me that little push of encouragement that put the idea in my mind to write my own books someday.

Do you have a library at home?

Yes, I have one whole bedroom devoted to our library with my writing desk, she has her walk-in-closet bedroom. Balance.  So many books we filled shelves and still have stacks on the floors. So, my writing office is 3/4 library. Or maybe my library is ¼ my writing office? Yeah, that sounds right. I have hundreds of books in here.

A healthy portion are fiction, lots of Asimov, Patterson, and King. We are both entrepreneurial minded, my fiancé’ and I own 3 businesses between us, so we have a lot of business books too. Many “I did it my way” books by the captains of various industries.

Do any of your family members make occasional cameos in your books?

One of my hero’s main mentors is half my dad plus half my uncle.  The grandparents are based on my sainted grandparents. I’m writing a big family reunion scene in book 2 that is based on any holiday at my grand’s house growing up with lots of aunts and cousins. Names and descriptions will be changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty.

Have any new writers grasped your interest recently?

Terry R Hill and his “In the days of humans” series is a good one. Terry is a NASA engineer who led the team that designed and built the shuttle era space suits. Now he’s building a big following for his spec fic scifi. http://amzn.to/2gicHoe

William Frisbee, a former Marine, (whatever That means?) is a military tactics expert. He has a number of books up on Amazon including “The Return”, and two airsoft strat & tactics “bibles.” I look forward to his military tactics database turning into a resource for military leaders and authors of all kinds. http://amzn.to/2gi74q2

Don Ciers has a lot of authority for Military SciFi going into his novel “Tribes,” part of his Enlightenment Series. http://amzn.to/2fp1umx

Drew Bridges is a North Carolina native who retired from psychiatry and now claims the title of “restored English major.” His historical novel “The 2nd Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played” is long on history and story, and short on fiction, enough to fill in the gaps and help us enjoy the lessons learned around the diamond.  Lately Drew is polishing a brilliant spiritual fiction that is “literature” grade work! http://amzn.to/2gIcsWK