Writers Exchange Author Interview
Exchange Personalities presents an interview with Michelle Levigne, author of the SF novel series, The Commonwealth Universe, along with several fantasy series at Writers Exchange. This includes two EPIC Award winners: Lorien, Book 2 of the Faxinor Chronicles, and The Meruk Episodes, 1-5. As of this writing, Michelle has published over 80 works of fiction in multiple genres. Whether that’s schizophrenic or just stubbornness or she still can’t decide what she wants to be when she grows up, the jury is still out. Her latest release is the re-release of the 5-book Commonwealth mini-series, The Chorillan Cycle: Azuli Eyes, Scouts’ Pride, By Fire and Stars, Chorillan, and Silver Azuli.
Residing somewhere in Northeast Ohio in the US, Michelle has been a client of Writers Exchange since 2001.
- Tell us about yourself and what lead up to your first published work?
Fortunately, my first published book is a Writers Exchange title! HEIR OF FAXINOR was my first published book, first with Mountainview Publishing, back when I had no idea what e-publishing was. It was taken over by another publisher, and after I grew uncomfortable there, I withdrew my titles (2) and offered the Faxinor series to Hard Shell Word Factory. They re-issued HEIR and then published LORIEN, which won the EPIC Award in 2006. Hard Shell was bought up by another one of my publishers, and during a period when I wanted to consolidate and have fewer publishers to deal with, I withdrew the books and offered them to WEE, because face it, Sandy works really hard to take care of us. I feel my books are safe here. There are 4 titles so far, and I hope to write book 5 in 2018. After all, I ended Book 4, SWORD OF FAXINOR, with a kidnapped brother who needed rescuing.
As to how HEIR was first written…this was one of those books that started with a dream just strong enough to make an impression and stay in your head once you wake up. Ever had one of those? They make perfect sense while you’re in them, but when you wake up you realize things just don’t fit. It’s like running around a Regency novel wearing a Star Trek uniform, discussing the ongoing battle against Hitler, who has teamed up with Shylock from “Merchant of Venice”. Too many unrelated universes! I remember dreaming that I was traveling with my little sister, and we came to a hotel that ended up looking like an excavation of an ancient Brittanic fort. Just piles of rocks and watchtowers and walls. I found a sword, and suddenly I was searching for my little sister who had been kidnapped. During many revisions over the years, I held onto the sword and the kidnapping and little sister, but now it was the heroine’s mother who had been kidnapped, the sword became magical, the heroine became a trained warrior, and someone was out to kill her to steal control of her family’s estate. I learned about the history of her kingdom, Reshor, and the enemy kingdom, Sendorland, during numerous revisions. And hints of her parents’ romance during a diplomatic mission that could have launched a war. Somewhere along the way, Kalsan tapped on my shoulder and insisted that he belonged in the story, first as Andrixine’s trainer when she didn’t know how to use a magical sword, and then later as her equal, fellow-warrior, and then sweetheart. I also gave her six brothers and sisters, instead of one. Brother Klee, the ancient warrior Rakleer, first entered the story as a small part, an old man who gave a little help and grew through the story until he became Andrixine’s mentor and father-figure and advisor, and I learned about his love story. Which I intend to tell someday. After the stories of all Andrixine’s brothers and sisters and her sons are told.
Don’t hold your breath on those stories being written any time soon. I want to finish revising the Wildvine books, because they’ve been sitting in my computer for years. Then I’ll get all the Commonwealth Universe novels written that I promised Sandy, while writing maybe 1 Faxinor book every other year. Then when the Commonwealth titles are all done, I’ll focus solely on Faxinor stories…and then have to find something else to write for WEE. But that’ll probably be around 2050, so I’m not worried. I’ll get more ideas by then.
- What about you do you think other people would find interesting?
I started writing in fandom, even when I didn’t know fandom existed. If this doesn’t make sense, just hold on for a few more sentences.
I have always loved story, and there were so many stories that I wanted to keep going when the last page turned or the end credits rolled on the movie or TV screen. I can’t remember how young I was when I discovered the wonderful thing called “series”, meaning a book where the characters went on to more adventures, where the movie characters came back for another quest, and yeah, on TV where the characters came back every week to tell me more about their lives.
So when the stories didn’t continue, I learned to make up my own adventures with those favorite characters. And then when I was dissatisfied with the book or the TV show or the movie, because I thought it should have gone a different way, I rewrote the ending in my imagination. And then more of the story. And then started inserting myself –or someone who looked like me, but a lot smarter and more athletic and talented, and possessing super-powers–into that particular story universe.
Then I made the big leap from someone else’s “playground” to my own, creating my own stories and universes. Although I do have some favorite storylines and characters that I do a few minor cosmetic or wardrobe changes on, and then set them loose in my new settings. For example, in the Commonwealth Universe stories, I borrow heavily from old black-and-white movies, Zorro (Tyrone Power) and Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) to create the framework for the Talon and Nova Vendetta stories.
- If you became omnipotent and could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
I read a book more than twenty years ago called Replay, where the main character kept getting yanked back into his past, and he had a chance to redo things, change details, take risks, make his life a little better. If I had that kind of power, I would rewind my life maybe to high school/junior high–while holding onto my memories, so I could know what jerks and big embarrassing mistakes and bad life choices to avoid–and redo my life. Just once. Being careful not to erase the important things, and taking risks to help people or experience things that I was afraid to do the first time around. And I hope I would be smart enough to use that opportunity for good, and not just for my own convenience and power. The important thing would be remembering, and learning. And saving my money instead of wasting it on a lot of stupid stuff.
- Describe your writing identity (compulsive fiddler, careful craftsperson, one-an-done, spray and pray, etc.):
I used to identify myself as a plontser – midway between a plotter and pantser. I would start with a general, broad outline and then get lots of ideas for filling in the details, finding rabbit trails, as I wrote and “met” my characters and explored their problems and goals. I always need to have an idea of where I want to be when the story ends, but I give myself lots of permission to follow brainstorms and rabbit trails.
However, as I’ve moved into a new phase of my writing, where I have to give editors/publishers good descriptions of the next two or three books in a proposed series, I’ve discovered I really am more of a pantser than I thought. I have been writing seriously since high school, and for a while I had a huge backlog of books that had at least been roughed, with many that had been revised multiple times. I had several books in the series ready before I got a chance to pitch them to an editor or agent. I knew what was going to happen in the books because they had already happened. As I wrote the first book, I got good ideas for what needed to happen in the subsequent books, and when I wrote the second and third and fourth books, I got ideas of what to change in the previous books, people and events and details I had to add to make the subsequent stories make sense. Now, in this new phase, I have to figure all of this out with only one book written. I freeze up a little bit, because what if I get to book two and three and four, and the characters don’t want to cooperate, and I discover something or someone in book two who cancels out the people who are supposed to show up in book three, and cancel out the discoveries and battles in book four? The thought of sticking with an outline and not wandering very far from that path makes me itch.
That being said, I am learning to do some preparatory brainstorming, giving myself as much latitude as I can when I outline hopeful future books. And hopefully I am learning to stay within the lane markers I put down a year, two years, three years before, when I first proposed the book series – or if I do go over the lines, not to wander too far.
I plot–to a point. I take blind leaps of imagination–to a point. I research, and let it guide me to unanticipated discoveries and lots of instances of, “Oh, yeah, THAT’S what I’m supposed to be writing about,” and “Won’t that be fun to explore?” I am learning to get it right sooner in the writing process, and to sense when something is going wrong before I waste a day, two days, a month, fighting to write something that just isn’t going to work. That saves me time, and trusting my instinct gives me freedom to wander, too, because I know I won’t go too far off track and waste time.
In some sense, I am sitting and watching a movie on the screen, and writing about what I see. But in another sense, I am also the director, and as the movie progresses, I am picking which strips of film to insert into the editing machine next, and which to drop on the cutting room floor. It’s still an adventure, because sometimes I find pieces of film I didn’t know were there, insert them into the story, and find it going in a new and wonderful direction.
- If you suddenly became infinitely wealthy would you try to translate your work to a visual medium (play, graphic novel, comic, television, miniseries, movies) and who would you try to get involved in the project?
I would LOVE to make The Hunt series a TV series. I only focused on a handful of characters in the five books, but I have notes for maybe thirty-some characters, all the children who were sent from another dimension to hide on Earth, in different decades, loosely scattered around the Great Lakes region of the U.S. It could be a lot of fun meeting characters who have grown up and even grown old, and then going back in time in their memories, to follow their adventures. Then the growth of the Hunt members’ Talents as they learn from each other and train and fill in their missing education. All with the ticking clock of the galactic despot, Gahlmorag, hunting for them. There are so many options now, such as all the direct-to-cable options, different networks. I don’t know who I would get involved in the process, but I would want to find people who would listen to me, who would stay true to my vision of The Hunt, and who wouldn’t try to go off on wild tangents and warp things to fit their political and philosophical visions. Maybe I should pay more attention to up-and-coming directors and producers to make a list, in case that ever happens? (hmmmm, maybe not…)
Of course, the five Chorillan Cycle books would make a great movie series.
And then there’s the Hoven Quest books, especially since the Meruk Episodes are essentially episodes of a TV show about shapechangers on an alien world. I did play with the idea of setting the whole quest-for-my-own-people storyline on Earth at one time. Yeah, it could translate really well – a race of alien shapeshifters, scattered across the U.S., using a TV show to make contact with each other. Trying to stay one step ahead of enemy aliens, or some deep dark paranoid intelligence unit for the government…
The bottom line is that I usually do have some ideas at the back of my mind for everything I write, turning it into a TV series or movies, because my training in college and grad school focused on drama, writing for the stage and both large and small screens. It’ll always be there. Whether I ever get the chance, only time will tell.
- In the grand scheme of your writing endeavors, what can readers next expect?
You can “expect” a lot, but delivering is a matter of time and imagination and energy! Seriously, I do want to get all the projected and promised Commonwealth Universe books and novellas written before I die. I was amazingly prolific and productive when I was bouncing all over the various periods in history, because I was free to write what caught my imagination and had gained enough details to be solid, so I knew what was going to happen. Now that I’ve listed specific titles and a general idea of what happens in each book, and I’m trying to write them in chronological order, it’s not so easy anymore. See my previous remark about the struggle to write within the lines…
As I’m filling out these interview questions, I’m doing major gutting and revising on the fourteenth Wildvine book. There’s one more to revise and turn in after that. When those books are in the queue for editing and having cover art designed, then I can settle down and hopefully produce one Faxinor book every year, one Future Magic novella every year, and at least one more Commonwealth Universe book every year. It all depends on what my other publishers ask of me, my family obligations, and how much bill-paying editing work I have to do. Plus I need to step up my promotional efforts to sell more books. Those are all time sinks, reducing my time, energy, and creativity that I would much rather devote to writing. What can you do, when the world demands you turn into a grownup?
- Describe the evolution of one of your titles from concept to completion. What kind of research and/or investigation do you do to support your efforts?
I started with Chorillan – which is now the 4th book. The basic concept was Kay’li arriving on the colony world soon after her father’s death. She had no real history, didn’t know anyone. She basically went to Chorillan because of her adopted uncle, Nobi Cole, who also happened to be married in the early versions. He and his wife were all the family she had left. Then, she met Lucas and learned about the Wildlings, and in the face of growing prejudice against Wildlings, they decided to take off into the wilderness and create a life together. More Wildlings gathered around them, and it kind of…trailed off with no real purpose. It wasn’t even much of a romance, either. I was basically adapting a story that had stayed in my head ever since a Fugitive-type TV show I loved in high school.
I let it sit for a while, and then made the prejudice and the root cause of what created Wildlings a bigger part of the story. Social upheaval, government corruption, that sort of thing. I also came up with the name for Wildlings somewhere in there. I had breakthroughs when I made Kay’li military, instead of just a military orphan. Then I decided she had been born on Chorillan, and gave her some unfinished business of her father’s to deal with. Along the way, Nobi’s wife vanished, and I realized that Kay’li’s parents had a story of their own.
Somewhere in there, as I played with the reasons for Phase, how Wildlings became what they were, I did a little bit of research. One book I still have in my library is–no joke—The Cartoon Guide to Genetics.
The next book started out as a series of short stories about Kay’li’s growing up years, among the Scouts. Scouts’ Pride is now book 2 in the series. THEN, I wrote the story of how Kay’li’s parents met, and introduced the whole situation with the Wildlings, the secrets, hints of government corruption, the whole mystery of Phase. I threw in some bits of the growing Set’ri and Gen’gineer threat, and some planetary pirates. It wasn’t quite a romance for Ian and Miranda, but the promise of falling in love was there in Azuli Eyes.
THEN, I realized that I needed to tell Lucas’ story, since he had evolved into the leader of the Wildlings after many, many, many rewrites of Chorillan. How did he become the leader? What about his family? I had roughed a few pieces for what I originally intended to be the sequel to Chorillan, and dealt with Lucas and Kay’li’s adopted son, when he went through Phase. I stole Donal’s story and made it Lucas’ growing up story, becoming the Legend – and when I rewrote Chorillan again, I turned Donal into a girl named Dini.
By this time, I had versions of the first four books that stayed pretty much as they are now: Azuli Eyes, Scouts’ Pride, By Fire and Stars, and Chorillan. The problem had been discovered, the two heroes had grown up and been trained for their vital duty, then saved the planet – but there were still mysteries to solve. I wrote Silver Azuli to answer the big questions dealing with the cause of Phase, why the children were affected, the impact the Azuli had on the children they rescued, and how/why Wildlings were changing with each new generation.
Whew! And that’s what happens when you start out just writing one book, and the world and cast of the book become so real, you realize everyone has histories. The world and problems existed before the characters stepped on the stage, and hopefully the characters will continue for your readers after they take their final bows.
- Do you have a writing regime? What parts work for and against you?
I try to keep it simple and flexible, because I never know when I have to drop everything to meet deadlines. I am a freelance editor to pay the bills, and sometimes the publishers who send me work ask me for rush jobs. Everything gets pushed to the side when that happens – because I want to keep getting work, y’know?
My normal routine is to try to get up by 6am, have my devotions, take a long walk, listening to conference audios or podcasts, and get to my desk by 8am at the latest. Until noon I try to only work on first draft writing. And sometimes promotional work. Or when I get an opportunity to pitch a book idea, throwing together a proposal. Or in the case of a pitch fest on Twitter, trying to condense the entire concept of a book into 140 characters or less.
Like I said, flexible.
After noon, I run errands, then spend the afternoon on editing, more promotional work, office work, social media time. Nothing is set in stone, and varies as the work level and deadlines change. I usually have my notebook computer open on my lap in the evening, usually revising something during commercials – or I just have the TV on for company while I work. It depends on how much energy I have left and what deadlines I’m facing.
Yeah, I have a pretty boring life. Fun for me, exploring the worlds of my imagination, but boring for everyone else around me.
Flexibility can work against you, especially when you have a LOT of things that you need and want to do, because you can always find things more important, which sends things you don’t really want to do, like bookkeeping and buying advertising and updating your Amazon author page, to the bottom of the list.
- If you didn’t have writing in your life, what would be doing with that time instead?
Reading. Finally getting through all the TV series DVDs that I’ve piled up and never had time to watch. Probably have a lot more time for exercise. Like I said elsewhere, I’m kind of boring…
- Writing: labor of love, obsession or obligation?
Obsession. I have so many stories I want to explore and figure out. It’s just fun.
- Rejection, talk about it for yourself and any advice you have for dealing with it.
The first rejection I had, I cried for what felt like an hour. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the editor went above and beyond, writing a full-page single-space letter explaining why he rejected the book. That was in college. After that, it was many years until I tried to sell another story. I got a lot of rejection letters, from a lot of publishers – books and magazines. For a long time, my rejection letters were photocopies of photocopies of form rejection letters. I had no proof they even read my story. Until finally I started getting rejection letters with my name and the title of my story or book on them. It took a long time. So I’m used to rejection. It still hurts, even though my success and acceptance rate has increased.
Usually now when someone says no, I indulge in some chocolate or something else to soothe my disappointment, declare that it’s their loss, and try to interest someone else in the story. I also keep a lot of projects going at any one time, and have several projects out on the market, so no one rejection knocks me flat.
(And yes, I envision the day when the publisher who rejected my book has to stand by while I win an award for that same book. <G> Imagination is a wonderful thing.)
~ Brought to you by Will Greenway