Michael Blackbourn is a CG Supervisor for The Embassy VFX who lives just outside of Vancouver, Canada. I met him on Twitter and had the opportunity to read his work, so I thought I’d ask him some questions about his stories and his writing process. Currently he has released two novellas, Roko’s Basilisk and Roko’s Labyrinth, and is primed to release more stories set in the same universe.
Tell our readers a little about the Roko series. What’s the story about, and what inspired you to create it?
It didn’t start off a series. It started off as a challenge. I had just finished writing and illustrating a kids adventure book, my first novel: Cindercast, and I was looking to write something new, something for grown-ups that would stretch my writing ability. I like to follow futurist and AI non-fiction and had stumbled on this idea of Roko’s Basilisk. An AI so good it was evil (it took me a whole short story to explain it properly, so I won’t try here… read the book). It’s a complex idea that really pushed my storytelling abilities to wrap what is a complex, mind-bending thought experiment, up in an entertaining narrative. I learned a lot in writing it.
Why did you decide to write this story as a novella serial as opposed to a novel or some other format?
There was no master plan. Roko’s Basilisk clocks in around 12,000 words, I found it was the right length to build tension and then kick the reader with a Twilight-Zone ending. As I started writing Roko’s Labyrinth (the second in the series) I found that the pacing demanded a slower build with more reveals along the way to properly get the end to pay off. It ended up being three times the length of the first story. So to sum up: the stories are the length they needed to be.
The Roko stories lean on a fair amount of scientific theory and knowledge of AI, more so than even some other sci-fi stories I have read. Do you have a background in science or coding?
My parents are biologists and I do a little bit of scripting for my day job as a visual effects supervisor. I also read a lot of science and computer non-fiction. Most of the science or coding in my books comes from my brushes with related subject matter or reading I’ve done. I’ve always had a thirst for information related to technology and the future.
In both Roko’s Basilisk and Roko’s Labyrinth, despite the stories featuring different characters, I found that there was a common theme of being caught in a loop. Is that a theme you’re purposefully looking to explore, or one that materialized during the writing?
It was an emergent theme. One that I’m carrying into a third installment. Both ‘loops’ came from wanting to try and shock the reader with a ‘things aren’t as they seem’ reveal. I’m a big fan of Hugh Howey’s writing and I had been reading his great series Beacon 23 while I was writing Roko’s Labyrinth. He raised the bar for reveals in his books and I wanted to try and capture some of that same magic for my readers.
I noticed Roko’s Basilisk acts as a kind of prologue for the events of Labyrinth, the former taking place in a more traditional cyberpunk setting and the latter moving into a more post-apocalyptic setting several years later. The first story is more of a psychological thriller, while the second is more action-based, as you might expect from a post-apocalyptic story. Will the rest of the series continue linearly in this post-apocalyptic setting, or are you looking to use other installments to explore other kinds of tones, genres, etc?
I really enjoyed keeping the connection in the stories but getting to have a huge leap in time and place. I’m definitely going to take advantage of the variance in tone and theme through these books and will do the same in Roko’s Catalyst. I realized that I’m really documenting the rise of a villain, and I tend to eliminate the protagonist. As long as my readers want to come along for the ride I’ll continue following what that villain does next.
How far ahead do you plan installments as a serial author? Do you plan the whole series ahead of time, or do you do it episode by episode and see where it leads?
I have a loose idea of where I’m going but I find I can only really hold one book in my head at a time. As that book comes together it starts generating ideas for other stories or follow-on work, ideas I have to fight against otherwise the distractions of the new would keep me from finishing my present work.
Do you find writing serials different than writing a novel or other formats? How so?
I don’t really know. I’m still pretty new at this and I find writing shorter form stuff in a serial form is manageable for me to get things finished. I think as I become more experienced I’ll be able to juggle longer format work but at this point getting things from start to finish in tens of thousands of words is enough of a mountain to climb.
Do you have any advice for an author who would want to write a serial?
End things. Readers love it when you pay-off your story with a solid end. The trick with serial writing is to satisfy that need for resolution at the end of each segment but somehow tease the reader into the next installment without frustrating them, especially if there is going to be some time between releases. For my Roko books I try very hard to have a killer payoff at the end, in fact I purposefully tried to end things in a way as to close all the doors to a sequel… Then I blow the reader’s minds with the idea that there could be more. I want them to jump into the next book trying to find out how there could possibly be a continuation to the story.
What is your writing process like? What sort of writing habits do you employ on a daily or weekly basis?
I live on an island a short twenty minute ferry from Vancouver, Canada. I commute every day and so I have an opportunity to write waiting in lines and on boats at the start and end of each day. I try and use that time for creative work. In a perfect world I’d write full time and block off a chunk of every day to work, but that isn’t realistic at this point.
I try and blaze through a first draft as quickly as I can as I’ve found a lot of the clever connections I weave through my stories are things I add in retrospect, after seeing the completed picture. A lot is added in the revision process.
Why did you choose self-publishing as opposed to publishing through magazines or traditional houses?
Some of my favorite authors are self-published and I’ve watched their evolution and progress without the trad publishing gatekeepers. The only two things that really matter with writing is authors and readers, anything else either needs to help or get out of the way. Amazon has made it incredibly easy, frictionless, to get stories in the hands of readers and I think the advantages of traditional publishing is becoming more and more limited to their control of the paper distribution channels. I’m not sure I could have ever gotten Roko’s Basilisk published as an independant book by anything but an indie publishing platform.
What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?
Three things: read, persist, and point of view.
Read a lot. Read similar work, read non-fiction, read as much as you can. Everything you read expands your vocabulary and parks ideas and solutions to writing problems in your brain for later. Things that can help you out of a dead end or over a hump.
Persist means keep going. Write. Write more. Keep writing. Your first work won’t be your best. Practice makes, well not perfect, but better. You can’t revise and polish what isn’t there in the first place. If you’re stuck just open the file and stare at it. Even the effort it takes to put your butt in the chair and summon a blinking cursor is sometimes all you need to continue. If you are literally facing a wall with your writing then drop down an open quotes and start typing dialogue about how impossible the situation has become… .anything to move forward.
Point of view. Tell everything through the lens of your character. I had a bad habit when I first started by simply dictating impersonal facts about my made up worlds. Tell everything as an experience your character has lived through. Something they remember when they were young, how they felt about it back then, how it effects their lives now. Avoid info-dropping stuff without adding how it changed the life of the main character. If it hasn’t molded their life, it’s not important.
What’s next for you? I know that there is another Roko story coming out. Do you plan to write more of those, or are you going to pursue other types of stories?
For now I’m concentrating on Roko 3. Roko’s Catalyst. I’ve blocked in the establishing part of the story and have started to dive into the meat of it. In Catalyst I jump a decade or two ahead of where I left the sick and failing world in Roko’s Labyrinth to a drowned world of frozen oceans and survivors hunting for salvage on the ice riding dogsleds. I’ve gone deep into post-apocalyptic territory now. I think post-AI, the time after the arrival of AI, is a good way to describe the time all my Roko books reside in. I’m looking forward to sharing what happens next.