C.D. (cdragons) wrote,

Interview: Myke Cole, Creator of Shadow Ops

I'd like to thank Myke Cole for his time over the holidays answering questions and follow-up questions for an interview about his work in the Shadow Ops universe, and its fourth installment: Gemini Cell.  The novel is reviewed here.

Without further ado, as promised, the interview:

I just read Gemini Cell, and – there's no way to put this gently – it's no five-paragraph operation order. What gives?


What can I say? I'm trying to push the envelope and grow as a writer with each book. Sometimes, it get's messy :)

In all seriousness, if there's one thing I'm really proud of, it's that each of my books is different from the others. People may disagree about whether or not I am a good writer, but I don't think anyone can seriously charge me with rubber-stamping out novels that are carbon copies of each other. I work hard to extend myself with each one, and I feel that I've largely succeeded.

You wake up tomorrow and manifest a power. (Not in a world with laws governing it, just in this one, where it will get the reactions you can imagine.) What is the power? Whom, if anyone, will you tell?


Keep in mind that the "schools" system in the Shadow Ops universe is externally imposed by the US government. Magic doesn't follow rules or organizational principles. This is proven by the fact that Alan Bookbinder Manifests in a "new" school, never before known. There's also an epigraph in Fortress Frontier that specifically mention that the magic we see is the tip of an iceberg that is very wide and very deep below the surface. Keeping that in mind, there are two powers I really want:

1.) The ability to speak, read and write all languages with perfect fluency.

2.) The ability to function comfortable without having to eat, sleep or excrete.

I would spend my life travelling the world, made rich by the fruits of labor I would reap by being three times as productive as I am now.

(Dude. That's two powers. Minimum. The answer does explain some things, though.  On the other hand, it also raises its own questions.  For example … if you don't sleep more than eight hours, and you eat with even half the efficiency in your tilapia guidance, then to triple your productive hours by halting the need to eat, sleep, or excrete means you must have a very tolerant mate to let you hog the bathroom like that. Just sayin'.)

It wasn't long after Aliens came out that I realized Vasquez had fans. Some of them, BIG fans. But lots of military SF with tough women has been set so far out in the future that it doesn't really challenge anyone's view on gender in the current military. In recent years, though, the U.S. has gone from lifting the ban on women in "combat roles" to having SOCCOM brass describe women as desirable to recruit in greater numbers.

It's advancement, but the timelines on some of this progress involves some future dates. Readers haven't often seen women depicted as front-line Special Forces operators in current-day settings. So it was fun in Gemini Cell to notice, a few paragraphs after you introduce Chief Petty Officer Ahmed, that Jim referred to his fellow operator using a feminine pronoun – and to do so without comment, as though this were unremarkable. The Shadow Ops universe is clearly a few years ahead of our own in this area. Was the idea to future-proof your book in light of news on the expanding role of women in US forces, or was this intended to reflect a reality you thought people should be imagining now?


The Shadow Ops universe has always been set just a few years ahead of our own time, and the prohibition against women in combat roles was just as nonsensical and bigoted as the prohibition of open homosexuals in military service. War doesn't care about that crap. Women were already in combat zones and already dying for their country. I knew that the prohibition would be lifted to conform with reality, and fairly quickly too. So, I called it to match what I knew was coming. This time, I got it.

On a related note: exactly how much fun did you have writing about Sarah and her canvas knife? Dish :-)
[Note: I didn't ask for spoilers, but I don't control the answers. If you hate spoilers, you might come back to this one answer later to roll around in it with Myke.]


It was a real victory for me, because it was one of the few times that one of my characters came to life to the point where they went off script and did their own thing. I had never planned on Sarah flying into battle with only a canvas cutting knife, but when her son was threatened she said "fuck this. I don't care what your precious plot outline says. Nobody is hurting my boy." It's incredibly affirming for a writer to have these moments, because it's the most surefire sign that you're "doing it right." It means your characters are fully realized, alive.

Some of your most frightening conflicts have been between a soldier and the soldier's own service. Why's that? (Is it intentional? Does it reflect real-world concerns, or concerns that derive solely from fictional elements of the Shadow Ops universe?)


It's no secret that I'm highly influenced by Captain America. Cap's one of the oldest superheroes, in near-constant action (and print) since WWII. Much of Cap's story is him having to go against his government, and about the conflict between his duty and what he knows is right. This story is as old as the hills. Governments use their incredible power to serve the national interest. But what the national interest is, is different things to different people. Nobody will be happy with how that power is used 100% of the time, and there will always be conflict over how to put it to work. Military members are human beings. We do our best to function as machines, but it's a losing battle. We try our best to salute smartly and follow orders, but all of us come to that crossroads where the institution we love is undertaking a mission we fundamentally oppose, or taking on a mission we support but doing it in a way that makes our skin crawl.

That's a conflict, and conflict is the soul of drama. Drama, in real life, sucks.

But in a story? It's pure gold.

The first books seemed to portray even really nasty decisions as being driven by intentions a reader could understand. (Boy, it was tempting to root for Scylla to somehow be redeemed!) The adversaries in Gemini Cell engage in some activities hard to picture as anything but villainous, even if some of their middle-men seem sympathetic. Do you worry that readers will decide that some of the characters in the adversary's chain of command are irredeemably evil? Are there flat-out evil people (as opposed to inhuman monsters) in the Shadow Ops universe? Is Jim's post-reanimation "roommate" your clear sign that irredeemably screwed up humans exist in the Shadow Ops world? Or is that just an inhuman monster? Are there inhuman monsters in Shadow Ops, or is everything equally sentient, responsible, complex, and conflicted even if it's not obvious through the point of view shown to the reader?


My thoughts on evil are closer to Sarah's sentiments when she lounges with Jim on a beach (one of Jim's memories of their marriage at a more peaceful time). I don't really believe in true evil. People behave in a manner that most of us would characterize as "evil" because they're sick, or they're frightened, or they're weak. The action and the consequences are still the same, but the label matters. I honestly don't think there really are many genuine evil people, mostly scared ones, flailing in desperation.

The jinn in Gemini Cell aren't evil per se. They're driven mad by eons twisting in the soul storm. They are simultaneously hungry for warmth and life, and filled with jealous rage toward those who have it. That can make them act like feral monsters, but the motivation isn't evil, it's the reaction of the dead toward the living.

This is important in writing. Every villain is the hero of their own story. You have to understand their motives and make sure you craft their characters accordingly. Otherwise, you wind up with moustache-twirling types that nobody believes in.

(I won't name names, but I've given up on authors over antagonists that appeared to act more from a need to produce plot events on command than any plausible internal cause.  Believability is a big deal in a story's non-fantastic components. Which is a nice segue into…)

Mark Twain claimed that to feel plausible, a story needed two parts nonfiction for each part fiction – and you've said that in military fiction in particular, accurate details are crucial to connect with the stories' natural audience. I'm interested in the non-fiction elements of the Shadow Ops world. In the U.S. that exists in this world, members of the armed forces take an oath at enlistment to defend "the Constitution of the United States" – not a current politician or a particular administration's political objectives.

One of the frightening aspects of Gemini Cell is the unit's deployment against Americans in America, targeted without indictment, trial, or jury – including over things like a unit's OpSec. So, is this nonfiction? That is, are such actions a normal state of affairs copied from a world in which the Attorney General green-lights using drones to kill Americans inside the US should officials decide they're terrorists, as suggested in stories like this? Is this conduct misbehavior even in the Shadow Ops world?


No one who pays any attention to current events can possibly labor under the delusion that the US government operates entirely legally or ethically. The recent revelations from the Snowden and Manning compromises, the drone strikes on US citizens, the nonindictment of police officers for slayings that were ruled homicides by authorized municipal medical examiners, the senate torture report. Whether or not you agree that the ends justified the means, it cannot be disputed that the "force of law" isn't being played with by those in power, as it has throughout the history of this nation. Legacy of Ashes is a great book based on declassified covert operations carried out first by the OSS and later by the CIA. It isn't conjecture, it's fact, supported by government documents. It proved that every single conspiracy theory about the CIA that I ever doubted growing up, from the plot to assassinate Castro, to the dosing of military members with LSD, to attempts to rig Latin American elections, every single one was true.

Gemini Cell is a fantasy, but it's a pretty realistic one.

Your background in the military and law enforcement is well-known, but how you began writing readable prose is less well-known. You explained in a recent interview that you dreamed of being a novelist all your life, but lots of folks dream big. What did you do to put yourself in a practical position to write something worth reading? (Studies? Exercises? Classes? Innate, natural-born superiority? Extra push-ups?)


This is one of those "magic key" questions, where folks are wondering what the difference is, a switch they can flip. I'm sorry to say that it doesn't exist. In some ways, I did get lucky, but I had a good manuscript ready to take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to me. Other than that, there's no mystery. I worked really hard, in every spare second afforded to me as I handled my myriad other responsibilities. I wrote a lot, sought criticism from professionals, tried hard to be likeable and personable, and was receptive to feedback. Writing is like a marriage, or a day job, or anything else in life. You roll up your sleeves, you do the work, and you keep the fingers crossed. The odds are against you, but that's the case with any worthwhile endeavor in life, and Gretzky was right when he said that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Wait. Did I just quote a sports figure? Who am I and what have I done with Myke Cole?

(It's okay, I've quoted Gretzky, too.)

The reply "I worked really hard, in every spare second afforded to me" is a good answer. If it were easy, after all, everybody's stories would be a pleasure to read. Jim Butcher's story of getting published included not only years of diligent work and persistent self-marketing, but a sneak into a restricted area at a convention to meet people who ended up inviting him to a lunch that landed him an agent referral. I was kind of hoping your story involved rappelling into an office window or tracking down an agent cruising on the high seas. Maybe an endangered fish? Shall I just make something up? :-)


You could, but it wouldn't help. This is the thing with Butcher's story: he may have had the bravery and luck to go into that restricted area and have that meeting result in his first book deal, but think about this:

1.) He had to have cultivated his personality to make the publishing person want to invite him to lunch. That means he was interesting, nice and likeable.

2.) When it came time for someone to say, "hey, do you have a manuscript I could look at?" He did. A finished manuscript. A finished, polished manuscript. A finished, polished, AWESOME manuscript.

See what I'm driving at here? Butcher did a TON of work, and that made him ready to take advantage of a tiny amount of luck.

Get to work.

With that in mind…

You did mention meticulously planning your novels – by the sound of it, very much the opposite of a seat-of-the-pants writer. Rowling said her method looked like this:

What's yours look like?

I am an uber-planner. I write a 3-4 page treatment that gets beta-read before I expand it into a 80-150 page outline. That gets beta-read before becoming the actual prose novel. There are two things at work here, and both are fear driven: the first is fear that I will paint myself into a corner, and have to throw out tens of thousands of words because the story simply doesn't work as written. The second is that I will construct a story that's solid, but won't sell for one reason or another.

The beta-reads at each stage of the process: treatment, outline and finally novel, help quell this fear. I am soliciting inputs from pro-writers like Peter V. Brett, and heavy-hitting agents like Joshua Bilmes. Now, neither of these things guarantee that I won't paint myself into a corner, or that my work will sell, but they help put the anxiety to bed, and that's something. I'm working on my 5th contracted novel now, and it's safe to say I don't know any other way to write.

You seem to have a lot of fun with fans, telling folks how to eat fish without going soft and exhorting them to work for the common defense. It certainly makes you entertaining to follow on Twitter. What's the most fun you have with fans? Examples?


The absolute most fun I have with fans is drinking and gaming with them. The downside of this is that it's the one fan interaction I have the least of. My con time is work time, and cons cost me a lot of money to attend. In order to make them effective, I have to be hustling, and that seriously detracts from the thing I'd most like to be doing: geeking out with fellow dorks in the gaming room. I will never forget the impromptu Munchkin game two Balticons ago. It lasted three hours, and we all swore we'd never play again, but I think we all knew we didn't mean it.

Freedom-loving people everywhere have been improving trigger discipline in blaster-rich conventions at your command, and want to know what instructions you have for them after they have mastered the discipline of proper tilapia preparation. Your next orders?


Always wear a United States Coast Guard approved personal flotation device. No, seriously. I mean, *always*. Don't let me catch you leaving your house in the middle of the Arizona desert without one.

Remember: you heard it here first.
Tags: authors, interview
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