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Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan

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Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan

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Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan


Please welcome Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan to The Qwillery to answer some questions about Born to the Blade, a Serial Box series. The first episode, Arrivals, was published on April 18, 2018. The series is written by Marie Brennan, Cassandra Khaw, Malka Older, and Michael R. Underwood.



Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan




TQWelcome to The Qwillery. How did the Born to the Blade serial come about?

Michael R. Underwood (MRU):  Born to the Blade started as a magic system I imagined over ten years ago. I wanted to have magic that felt embodied, that was the opposite of the D&D stereotype of the frail wizards that can’t lift a sword. In this world, magical talent isn’t heritable, but it is common enough that each nation has their own way of considering and utilizing people with the gift. Bladecraft, the magic of this world, uses edged metal for carving sigils to create magical effects. I first explored the world in a very pulpy sky pirate adventure (a trunk novel, never to be seen) that set up some of the political tensions we explored in Born to the Blade (Quloo’s aerstone shortage, Mertikan imperialism, Tsukisen’s isolationism).

When I found out about Serial Box, I got in touch and talked with co-founders Julian Yap and Molly Barton about what they were looking for, and developed several pitches. Born to the Blade, re-working a concept I had for an unfinished novel in the setting, was the one that most excited them, so we developed the world together toward the series order. And here we are, with the fabulous team of Malka Older, Cassandra Khaw, and myself weaving the tale for readers to enjoy.



TQWhat's Born to the Blade about? How many episodes will it be?

MRU:  Born to the Blade is an epic fantasy series of diplomacy, swordplay, and magic, focusing on duelist-diplomats from a variety of nations that work together in an analogue to the UN security council based in the neutral city of Twaa-Fei. It’s a story about people caught between personal loyalties and national loyalties, between friendship and duplicity, between ambition and compassion. Another way that I’ve been pitching it is like Avatar the Last Airbender meets The West Wing, with magic swordfights.

The first season is eleven episodes, and if we get renewed, I’d love to take the series forward with a total of three to five seasons. I have plans for a three-season version and a five-season version, so we’ll see where the winds of fate take us.



TQWhy is this story suited to the serial format?

MRU:  Born to the Blade was specifically built for the Serial Box format, drawing on drama series like Babylon 5 and Game of Thrones that unfold story bit by bit, balancing a cohesive story for each episode with the ongoing serial drama of character arcs and widescreen storytelling about war, diplomacy, and so on.



TQPlease tell us in general how the collaborative process works with each of you writing different episodes? Do each of you try to write in the same style for each episode?

MRU:  We kicked off the development process for season one with a weekend-long writers’ summit, where all four of us on the writers’ team talked about what we wanted the series to be, ideas about the world and characters, and once we had the world, characters, and their relationships more firmly established, we broke the story for season one, with character arcs, twists, mysteries, and so on. We broke the story within the episode structure, so that we already had a pretty clear sense of what major story beats went where in the season.

The actual collaboration process was not unlike a TV show, where each episode was assigned to one member of the writing team. For each episode, we developed a more detailed outline which the team discussed, then wrote the episode and shared with the team, arranged in phases (roughly act one, two, and three of the season). We all gave feedback on each episode, so while any given episode is entirely written by just one team member, every episode represents all of our ideas and creativity. We didn’t push ourselves to all write in identical prose styles, but as the team lead, I did take the lead in setting the tone and approach for the series in writing the pilot episode before any of the other episodes were written, helping us find the voice and approach for the series and characters (though as I said above, all of this represents everyone’s approach rather than just my own).



TQWhat do you like about writing a serial? Is writing episodes in a serial easier or harder than writing a novella?

MRU:  It’s been a great challenge to pack in as much story as possible to 10K word episodes (about 40 pages or an hour of audio). I’m definitely more used to novella and novel-length writing, so I have had to continually push myself to focus, to make every scene do double or triple duty, and to pack as much worldbuilding into other parts of the story as possible in order to keep the wordcount on target.
Working on Born to the Blade has definitely helped me become a stronger writer, and I have also set myself other challenges, like writing fight scenes that are exciting and easy to follow while also being emotionally resonant.



TQWhat is the easiest and hardest thing about writing a serial?

Marie Brennan (MB): It might seem counter-intuitive, but I feel like one of the easiest things was making sure every episode had something cool happening in it. An episode isn't the same thing as a chapter; if you think about a TV show and compare it to a novel, you'll generally see a different structure for how they're broken up. (Depending on the writer. Some novelists structure their books like TV shows.) Both approaches work, but once I got my brain into TV-style gear, it was pretty easy to think of each episode as having some kind of set-piece or ending punch, rather than building toward the ultimate end goal in a more gradual fashion.

The hardest thing was making we kept all the balls in the air. Most novels focus on only one or two protagonists, or if they have more, each one tends to get their own chapter. But because Serial Box's projects are structured more like TV series, we had to make sure the central characters were doing something significant in every episode, and the secondary characters weren't neglected for too long. It creates challenges for pacing both within an episode and across the whole season.



TQDo you have a favorite secondary character?

MB: Several! Our development process meant we spent a chunk of time considering each major secondary character directly, rather than focusing only on the main protagonists and positioning everyone else in relation to them. My answer changes from day to day; I wrote a piece for Mary Robinette Kowal's "My Favorite Bit" feature about Bellona Avitus, the junior warder for Mertika. But while she's one of my favorite bits of the story, I don't actually like her -- she's really not a good person.

So I'll choose Ueda no Takeshi, the Ikaran warder. I can't go into detail as to why without giving spoilers, but he's a "still waters run deep" kind of guy. And I like that he's a nerd: he studies the magical elements of his world, like the birthrights people acquire from being born on a particular island, and gets his strength from knowlege as much as his ability to hit people with a sword. (He's actually not all that great at hitting people with a sword.)



TQHave any of the characters in Born to the Blade been surprising?

MRU:  A lot, especially because I’ve had the fortune of witnessing how Malka, Marie, and Cassandra write the characters and take them in ways I didn’t expect. I think Bellona came to surprise all of us, as we dug in on what made her tick, how she tried to deal with Lavinia (her superior)’s domineering and demanding approach, as well as the ways that we showcased Bellona’s calculating but obvious social maneuvering through the baby shower and other efforts to make a grand gesture or big display.



TQWhat kinds of research have you done for Born to the Blade?

MRU:  A lot of the research that shows up in Born to the Blade was more a result of me and the other team members applying what we already knew, from martial arts (unarmed and swordplay) to the material and intangible culture of a variety of civilizations and peoples from around the world that we drew from to create the numerous nations of the sky. Marie did a bunch of extra work in developing a resource document for hairstyles and clothing notes for the different nations, condensing and clarifying the brainstorming that all four of us had done along the way.



TQAre social issues touched upon in Born to the Blade?

MRU:  The issues we touch on most directly are imperialism and colonialism, with Michiko as a subject of the Mertikan empire. But with Quloo we have a story that resonates with peak oil and/or climate change. Because it is a political and diplomatic series, social issues are never far from the surface, and I am especially happy with the ways that the team was always very conscious of the different levels that character actions and big moves in the story operated on, always boiling down to power – who has it, who uses it, for what purpose, and with what unintended effects.



TQAny hints to what is upcoming for Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn?

MRU:  Michiko, Kris, and Ojo are all in very different places at the end of the season than they were at the series’ start, with new perspectives, drastically different relationships, and new objectives emerging from the action and intrigue of the season. Born to the Blade is the most character-driven story I’ve worked on as a writer, which makes it very exciting, as I came out of the season with a clear sense of what each character wants based on the season’s events, and what they’re willing to do now to achieve those goals.

Just talking about it makes me want to dive back in and start writing season two. But that will have to wait to see how readers react and whether the series has earned enough support to get picked up (again, think TV series). So if you have already been reading and want to see more, make sure to spread the word and encourage friends to subscribe and read, too!



TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery!





Born to the Blade is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Google Play, iBooks, Kobo and Serial Box.

The Episodes:

 1.  Arrivals by Michael R. Underwood
 2.  Fault Lines by Marie Brennan
 3.  Baby Shower by Cassandra Khaw
 4.  The Gauntlet by Michael R. Underwood
 5.  Trade Deal by Malka Older
 6.  Spiraling by Marie Brennan
 7.  Dreadnought by Cassandra Khaw
 8.  Refugees by Malka Older
 9.  Assassination by Malka Older
10. Shattered Blades by Marie Brennan
11. All the Nations of the Skies by Michael R. Underwood

Look for Born to the Blade: The Complete Season One on July 27th:

Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan
For centuries the Warders' Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the countries of the sky a way to avoid war, settling their disputes through formal, magical duels. But the Circle's ability to maintain peace is fading: the Mertikan Empire is preparing for conquest and the trade nation of Quloo is sinking, stripped of the aerstone that keeps both ships and island a-sky. When upstart Kris Denn tries to win their island a seat in the Warder’s Circle and colonial subject Oda no Michiko discovers that her conquered nation's past is not what she's been told, they upset the balance of power. The storm they bring will bind all the peoples of the sky together…or tear them apart.





The Authors

Marie BrennanWebsiteTwitter
Cassandra KhawFacebookTwitter
Malka OlderWebsiteTwitter
Michael R. UnderwoodWebsiteTwitter
Born to the Blade: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood and Marie Brennan

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