Pennsylvania, by Michael Bunker - Analysing a Writer's Process
I like Michael Bunker. He writes great stories and he's an approachable guy. We chat from time to time over email and he's very helpful. So when he asked his fans if they'd like to read an advance copy of the Pennsylvania Omnibus ahead of the release of the stunning edition soon to hit the streets, I asked if he'd like to be interviewed instead. The Pennsylvania Omnibus, due out April 29th, was designed to be a showpiece of what can be accomplished when an author puts together the best team of artists available. From cover art, to editing, to formatting, to illustrations, The Pennsylvania Omnibus is a work of art that augments and complements the story within the pages. The final product is destined to be a collectible and artistically is as good or better than anything coming out of the mainstream publishing houses. I'm sad I don't have time to read Pennsylvania right now, but I reckon it'll be well worth a look when this heart-stoppingly beautiful edition comes out and I'd like one to read for later. I may even get Michael to sign me a copy...
What was the catalyst moment which made you decide to write for publication?
MB: I'm always been a writer, at least as far back as I can remember. I wrote a full novel in my early 20's and write a second novel around the time my first daughter was born 20 years ago. However, I never really submitted anything for publication because after researching it I found the process dehumanizing, demoralizing, and distasteful. It seemed like since a small cabal of people controlled access to the means of production, everyone else (both readers and authors) were subject to the whims and caprices of a handful of questionable characters. But as soon as the walls came down and the doors of access directly to readers were thrown open, I rushed in. I would say the catalyst moment was when I realized I could have access to readers without asking someone's permission to do it.
How long do you generally research before beginning the first draft?
Every project is different. Some, like Osage Two Diamonds - my commissioned, serialized fanfic written in the world of Kurt Vonnegut, took months to research, and I researched every chapter as I was writing - sometimes 4 or 5 hours just to write a few paragraphs. Stories like Pennsylvania took a lot less research, since I have basically lived the research and a lot of the story was purely created in my mind. I am researching a book I want to write which will be set in Lubbock, Texas in 1955... that book may take years to research.
What are the keys areas you research? Where does your inspiration tend to come from?
If a scene involves a real setting, real people, or real technology, etc. then I want to get it as close to right as I can. I don't mind creating a pretend setting in a pretend world, but I don't like books that use real world settings but get everything wrong. That is just laziness and evidences a lack of research. I read a post-apocalyptic book where the author had a character walk through Lubbock, Texas (my old hometown) and it just wasn't real. I don't think the guy has ever been to Lubbock, and he obviously spent zero time researching the location. So in my books... take WICK for example... when my characters end up in an old brewery in a small town in Pennsylvania, I researched it and found a building that really existed, and used that building. I used articles, blogs, advertisements, street pictures, and even satellite photos to get it right. And I had people emailing me after they read that section saying "Hey! I know that place!". Same with Osage Two Diamonds. The setting in Schenectady, New York is accurate and if you were alive in that town in 1955, you'll recognize not only the buildings, but the whole scene. I spent days and days looking through old pictures from people from Schenectady, and reading web forums where graduates from the town wrote about the places where they hung out. The elevators in the department store are real. And when the characters leave the department store and walk down the street and are going to the bank or to a hotel, those things are all accurate. Sure, sometimes you need to fake something for the story to make sense, but I try to make those things ring true to anyone who has really been there. Maybe readers don't pick up on it, but I think they do. I'm inspired by the way that I like to read stories, and the realism that I expect, to try to put that kind of realism in my own stories.
How long does it take you to write your first draft?
I write a lot of serialized stories, so it varies a lot. With Dunes over Danvar, the "parts" were only 8k to 12k words, so that might only take me a few days. With Pennsylvania, the parts were 20k words, so depending on how much research I was doing as I was writing, and whatever else I was writing at the time, it would take me 2-3 weeks to knock that out. Each of the WICK parts were full novel length, so of course those took a lot longer. I can easily write from 2,500 to 10,000 words in a day, but every project, story, and situation is different.
How many times do you edit that draft yourself?
I'm not one of these people who writes a draft and then edits. I'm editing all along, and I edit the previous day's work before I start on my writing for the day. I find that it gets me back into the story better. I consider a work a "first draft" only after I've finished all the principle writing for that work or portion. So it might have been edited a dozen times before I finished that work. Then I do usually 2 to 3 edit passes, trying to gauge how well the story flows. I have a lot of faith in my editor, so when I feel like it is ready to be professionally edited, I send it along to my editor.
What is your writing background and how have you developed your craft?
Like most things in my life, I'm mostly self taught and self educated. I was a literature and creative writing major at Texas Tech University, but I never received a degree. I dropped out for political and cultural reasons that had nothing to do with education. So I learned some there, but basically I'm an avid reader who just worked and worked at writing until people started to tell me it was good. I was a professional blogger for over a decade and a half, so writing on a schedule, editing, and communicating was my job. I kind of honed my craft writing 3-5 blog posts a day for 15 years. Maybe five years ago I realized that people liked my writing well enough to be willing to pay for it, and since then I've been really studying and polishing my writing.
You used a professional editor, David Gatewood. For what – developmental editing, line editing or copyediting? Or a combination?
I really expect David to just take my story and make it polished, professional, and... better. We work really well together, so whatever he does, whether it is line editing, copyediting, or actually suggesting that I re-write whole sections, I just expect him to do it. I'm not proud and he's not shy, so it makes for a perfect relationship. I expect him to tell me if there are plot holes, problems with structure, flow problems, etc. And he feels comfortable telling me if something sucks, so it works great.
How did you come to choose David?
I remember when I was reading Shift and Dust by Hugh Howey that I kept remarking to myself how polished and smooth the editing was. I know Hugh is a phenomenal writer, but I could tell that a professional had edited it. Not long after that, Hugh mentioned that David was his editor and how they'd met. So I stalked him for awhile and then told him I had to have him. The first project I asked him to do was Pennsylvania 2, and he told me if he was going to do #2 he wanted to do #1 as well, so I said "Let's do it!". It was perfect. We've been married now for almost a year and I'm looking forward to our anniversary.
Tell us about the cover design – how is it put together and what input do you have?
My covers are designed by Jason Gurley. I'm very unlike most authors. I am a hands-off kind of boss. I'm that way with my editor and I'm that way with my whole team. I engage people who are the best in the business - usually without peer - and I just trust them to do their art. I don't micromanage. I don't believe that a non-professional artist is usually going to make the work better. Almost always they can only make it worse, no matter how arrogant they are and deceived about their own abilities. Jason usually asks me for a few themes, or if I have any ideas, but he knows that he is totally free to go off on his own and just do what he thinks will work. Usually he provides me with 3 to 5 options, and I'm almost inevitably happy with at least one of them (usually all of them.) Sometimes there are minor things I ask for, or tweaks I suggest. Especially if it is for a series, but Jason is brilliant and doesn't need a dumb farmer telling him how to do his job. I've been more than satisfied with the results I've received, and I think Michael Bunker books are pretty well known for their stunning covers.
Tell us a little about the internal art.
The internal art for Pennsylvania takes two forms. There is the formatting art, which can include images, fonts, etc., and then there are the illustrations. Again, I am a really hands-off boss. I have the best team in the world and I try not to screw things up. My formatter is Stewart Stonger who is a designer for NourishingDays.com. He does magic with my books, and people who pick up Pennsylvania are going to be stunned by what Stewart has accomplished. My illustrator is the inimitable Ben Adams. He's the artist who did the interior art for Hugh Howey's SAND Omnibus. Ben was reading Pennsylvania and commenting on it, and at one point he did a drawing of Jedediah in one of the sleeping pods from the book. So I contacted Ben and really pitched him on doing the artwork for the Omnibus. He was excited about it too, so it all came together. I couldn't be happier with how things turned out.
What marketing do you tend to do to increase your public face?
I really engage my readers and fans. I am in constant contact with my readers and I ask them when I need something. With the exception of Hugh Howey, there aren't many authors who are as accessible to their fans, and I work hard at that. I do some of the typical marketing things. I have Pennsylvania posters (which are awesome by the way!) and I will be buying some ads on popular sites here and there, but for the most part I use a grassroots marketing strategy that involves making strangers into readers, and readers into friends.
How do you see the landscape of publishing developing over the next 24 months?
The current patterns will continue, and will accelerate. More mainstream authors are going to be breaking ranks and moving into self-publishing at some level. We'll see some big names dropping books that are self-published. And more self-publishing superstars will be doing some hybrid kinds of publishing. I see the really creative types (like me!) really experimenting with some of the new venues and forms, and I think authors -- starting with only a handful, but eventually more and more will do it -- starting to market and sell their e-books from their own platforms. Bypassing all of the middlemen altogether. We'll still sell through Amazon, and the other venues, but increasingly we will see that successful indie authors -- as content creators -- are going to take even more control of the creation and distribution of their content. We'll sell directly to customers in any format they'd like, e-books, print, audio, without going through some super store or distribution service. I also think that some businesses will rise up that will get successful indie works into bricks and mortar book stores, and will work with authors on foreign rights, film rights, translations, etc. without the predatory parts of traditional contracts. It's a new world out there in this business, and things are getting better and better.
What is your next work in progress?
I have a lot on my plate right now... I'm writing a serialized, seasonal fiction novel entitled DIGGER with the man who is probably my favorite living fiction author right now... Nick Cole. Nick wrote the fabulous Wasteland Saga which started with The Old Man and the Wasteland. I'm very excited about that project. I'm also co-writing a few books in the Bombo Dawson Adventure series with some friends. Kevin G. Summers and I wrote LEGENDARIUM, the first Bombo adventure (after Hugh Howey Must Die!) this past month, and we are currently at work on LEGENDARIUM II: The Wrath of Bob. I am also working on two non-fiction titles. I am working with the very talented Tim Grahl on a top-secret non-fiction book, and I am working with my talented daughter Tracy Bunker on the first in a series of Beyond Off-Grid Living "how to" books. On top of that, there are two of my fiction series, which are still on-going. Cold Harbor will be the sequel to The Last Pilgrims, and Oklahoma will be the sequel to Pennsylvania. So, I think I have plenty to do!
Good luck with the book, Michael!
Thank you so much for doing this and for talking to me!
Michael Bunker is a bestselling author, off-grid farmer, husband, and father of four children. He lives with his family on a forty acre farm in a "plain" community in Central Texas, where he reads and writes books...and occasionally tilts at windmills. Michael calls himself an "accidental sci-fi writer" who has found success in a genre that seems to be contradictory (or at least ironic) at first glance when viewed in light of his plain, off-grid, and agrarian lifestyle. He is the author of several popular and acclaimed works of dystopian sci-fi, including the WICK Omnibus, The Silo Archipelago, and the recent hit Amish/Sci-Fi thriller Pennsylvania, as well as many nonfiction works, including the national bestseller Surviving Off Off-Grid. Michael was recently interviewed in a Medium.com article that will give you more background and insight into his life and works...