Meet M.A. Carrick!

A Very Well-Read ARC

Several months ago, I had the phenomenal pleasure of reading an advanced copy of The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick.  It’s an open secret that M.A. Carrick is a pen name for two long-time friends, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms.  (You can find out where the pen name came from on their website.  Look under “Extras.”)

In fact, their website provides a tremendous amount of material about the book, including a place where you can tell your fortune using the Tarot-like system that is a key element in The Mask of Mirrors

I always start these interviews by asking the same question, so here it is…

Jane: In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?  Bonus question.  If you’re the same type, does this help your collaboration?  If you’re different types, does it hamper you?

Alyc: Definitely the first type. I was nine when I “wrote” my first book. It was a collection of made-up stories, poetry, and family folklore. That book was a reflection of a book my parents read to me when I was very young called The Magic House by Louise Harvey Butler. It’s about a brother and sister who meet a stray dog that can talk thanks to a playhouse the kids built out of mermaid-touched driftwood. That ends up being a framing narrative for the dog’s many wonder tales from his travels — stories about mermaids and giants, little girls turned into birds. I think I imprinted on Gruff (the dog, who was very fox-like), because I was a pretty quiet kid except when I would tell stories. I would tell stories to myself, my family, friends. I always had my head halfway into elsewhere, bringing back tales of my travels. 

Marie: I’m the same, except the “book” I wrote when I was nine was a mystery story about somebody kidnapping pets. I suspect the majority of kids make up stories; it’s just that some of them stop, and some of those come back to it later. We’re the type that just never stopped. I don’t know if that directly affects the way we work together (because I’m absolute pants at identifying why I do things the way I do), but it’s certainly the case that our collaboration benefits from us being very similar — but not quite identical! — in our approach to writing. There are some differences, both in content (Alyc likes economics way more than I do; I handle most of the fight scenes) and in working habits (Alyc is a morning fox and I’m a night owl; we had to figure out compromises on that), but it’s always been the case that when I’m stuck, Alyc is the best person for me to wail at in order to get un-stuck. We think along similar lines, in terms of what we want the story to do and how.

Jane: I’m sure you’ve answered this one, since your official bio notes you’ve gamed together.  However, as a gamer myself, I can’t resist.  Does The Mask of Mirrors have any relation—plot, setting, character—to an actual role-playing game (RPG) you played in?

Marie: Ren is my game character. >_>

Alyc: A few years ago, I started running a tabletop RPG for Marie as a birthday present. The game was supposed to be a short-run, out-of-the-box module adventure — but that intent lasted for about ten minutes after opening the module because I immediately started making modifications and doing rewrites and customizations. About six months into the game, Marie wanted her character to run a caper with a couple of my NPCs. It was the sort of thing that wouldn’t have worked well as a game session, so we decided to write it up as a scene. And then we wrote another scene. And another. At about 50k words of game fic, we said, ‘Maybe we should collaborate on something’.

Jane: For those of you don’t game, NPC means “non-player character” and means any character—from the grimmest antagonist to the helpful shopkeeper—the player characters interact with.  So, Marie, what happened next?

Marie: Mind you, our original plan wasn’t to write the story we’d been developing in the game. We’d just figured out that we enjoyed writing together, so we started trying to brainstorm ideas for a joint book or series. Step one was to make a list of tropes we both liked . . . and after a while, I found myself thinking, “You know, a lot of those things are in the story we’ve already been telling.” Which I resisted saying for a while, because my brain was also trying to scratch that itch by developing a different idea, riffing off my short story “The Širet Mask,” and I was worried the two would be too similar. But finally I acknowledged the elephant in the room and asked Alyc over chat one Friday night if we should think about filing the serial numbers off the stuff we’d already been writing — and before the weekend was over, we had plans for a trilogy.

Jane: That’s cool. What sort of changes did you end up making from your original?

Alyc: We ended up dumping the setting and plot of the game and rebuilding all of that from scratch. We preserved what drew us to write those scenes in the first place, which was the characters, their relationships, and the growth of the dynamic between them.

Marie: I called it the “invertebrate novel” for a while, because we had all this meat, but no bones to hang it on! We’re pretty pleased with the skeleton we came up with, though.

Jane: Again, sorry, I know you must have answered this, but how do you divide the writing?  Do you each have pet characters?  Do you think this will vary in future books?

Alyc: This developed pretty organically out of the writing we did for the game scenes. Ren was Marie’s character, so she would write Ren’s dialogue, internal thoughts and feelings, etc. I would write the people she interacted with, the challenges she ran into, various world details in the way a GM might. This meant we were trading the text back and forth (in a Google doc) at a very granular level — usually the line or paragraph. When we made the jump to the novel, our roles blended a bit.

The plot and conflicts of the novel aren’t hidden from Marie like they were in the game, so we both collaborate on those as well as things like worldbuilding. We do still tend to have characters we take point on — Marie for Ren, myself for Grey, Vargo, and Tess — but the lines blur there as well. I’m much more likely now to write dialogue and thoughts for Ren, and Marie for the characters that started life as NPCs.

Marie: The planning is all shared, too. We’re constantly sending chat messages and emails with ideas for new scenes or twists on the one we’re going to write next, and riffing on each other’s ideas to make them deeper or stronger. We’ll definitely stick with that approach for the rest of this trilogy; if we wind up writing a sequel series (which, yes, we have an idea for), I suspect it will be the same. We find this approach really fun, and tossing the scene back and forth like that helps us both keep our energy up.

Jane: Now I understand why you had to work around one of you being a day fox and the other a night owl!  It’s great that you were able to figure out how to be available to each other.

I happen to be a day fox, and it’s getting late.  How about we pick up with this again next week?


7 Responses to “Meet M.A. Carrick!”

  1. Jerry House Says:

    I love your interviews. Hearing writers explain their process is facinating, not that I harbor any fantasies of it rubbing off on the remnants of my adolescent wannabeism. The closest that I may ever come to creating stories is if an abundance of time lands in Active Worlds. Listening to writers may inspire ideas for building in the 3D virtual dementions (sp. intentional) and maybe the creation of games as well.
    Alec and Marie may be familiar with AW, Second Life or other VR3D sites. A few writers sponsor inworld citizens, or allow fans, to build around some of their stories.
    Thanks for your Wednesday Wanderings.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thank you!

      I’m glad to hear that you like when I do an interview because there will be another coming up. Weird coincidences led to them being done closer together than intended, but I still like the subjects (not just the authors I’m interviewing).

      I’ve known Marie Brennan a long time, well before the success of her “Memoirs of Lady Trent” books. I think if we lived closer, we’d be pals, but we’re friendly professional acquaintances. I haven’t yet met Alyc, but I do hope to someday.

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    Marie writing that she is “pants” at identifying why she does things made me laugh. Another blog buddy of mine lives in the Yorkshire area of U.K. and uses the same word.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    “morning fox” & “night owl”, huh? easily solved by someone moving. either to Hawaii or Europe. Since I’m sure that both have real lives that would be impractical, at best. But it is a possibility.

    The cover blurb is actually interesting. And the cover is very reminiscent of Mask of the Sun. You wouldn’t happen to know if it’s the same artist?

  4. Jane DreamForge Says:

    I got to hear Marie do a reading from the book at virtual Boskone! It sounds great.

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