Seanan McGuire Talks Alchemy and The Writing Process

Seanan McGuire's Middlegame follows alchemically-influenced twins created to fulfill a dark destiny.

The Cover of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Alchemy and family swirl together in the cerebral new novel from prolific Seanan McGuire, whose wide-ranging novels have received acclaim across the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Middlegame is a study of Rodger and Dodger, alchemically-influenced twins created to fulfill a dark destiny.

At New York Comic Con this year, we sat down with Seanan McGuire at the Tor booth to talk about the process of writing the novel and why she thinks it’s her best work yet. 

Middlegame is available now from Tor.com. 

Den of Geek: What was the inspiration for the main characters, Rodger and Dodger?

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Seanan McGuire: I’d figured if I could pull it off —because it was not an easy book to put together; it is possibly the most complicated thing I’ve ever written— I would wind up having a lot of very serious review outlets talk about it, and I wanted to make them say, “In this book, Rodger and Dodger do something, and yes, that’s actually their names.” And I got my wish! 

It is inspired by a piece of Pythagorean philosophy called the Doctrine of Ethos, which holds that, between them, language and mathematics make up the entire universe. So I wanted to explore that. I liked the idea of embodying cosmic forces. I think everyone human does a little bit, because it makes them more relatable. So Rodger and Dodger are the embodied human equivalents of, respectively, language and mathematics. This book follows them trying not to become the incarnate doctrine, but that’s the only way they’re going to survive. 

What about the inspiration for James Reed, a charismatic Frankenstein’s monster of a villain? 

James Reed is inspired, if he is inspired by anyone specific, by P.T. Barnum. He’s set up to be the ultimate American showman. His whole job is to sell you shadows. But he’s not a nice person, he’s not a good guy. And he’s built to do exactly what he’s doing right now. 

What was the genesis for the book’s look at alchemy? Is alchemy interchangeable with magic? 

It’s magic in that the things alchemy can do in this world are literally impossible under any scientific framework. I’m using alchemy mostly to refer to what you might call sympathetic magic. If you take a piece of something and can make it alive, you can make the whole thing alive. If you take a piece of something and make it to be something other than what it is, you can convince the whole thing to go along. So there’s a lot with sympathy, and that’s why the protagonists have rhyming names, so they would be connected even at a distance. 

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“The Impossible City” specifically is more a concept than a place, but has a certain element of place to it, in the sense of characters trying to journey somewhere. How do you create that tone?  

The Impossible City actually comes from a series of books by A. Deborah Baker called the Up-and-Under. The first of which was Over the Woodward Wall. Those are not real books—yet—but they are books within a book, so there are excerpts from Over the Woodward Wall throughout Middlegame. And any time that the tone was slipping I just think about how you talk about Oz, or how you talk about Narnia or that sort of thing when you grew up with it.

The hardest thing was synthesizing a feeling of these people really grew up with this book that didn’t exist until I wrote it ten minutes ago. We are going to be publishing those through Tor.com: the first is Over the Woodward Wall. The idea is there are four of those in total, one for each element, to correspond with the alchemical map that you find in Middlegame.  

Your writing is so tight at the sentence level. What kind of edits do you do to get there? 

I finish a book and I send it to what we call the Machete Squad, which is my team of in-house editors, many of whom have been with me since I was writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction on LiveJournal. They go through and they pick at anything they don’t like, they pick at plot points, at pacing, at sentence. And then I go back and re-type the entire book with their notes in mind. And then it goes out to my editor to be professionally edited.

The downside of this is that every time you re-type a book, you open the door to re-introducing typos. And there are people who will yell at you very, very much if there is one typo in a book they paid for. I wrote that sentence 19 times! It’s a miracle the whole book is not a typo! 

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I learned how to write on a typewriter, not a computer. Most of my early work was done on typewriter. And the only way to iterate drafts was to re-type it. 

The Cover of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Does process differ between projects? Does it matter?

Do what works for you. Process does matter; you need a process. What it is is up to no one but you. But if you can’t sit down, write once upon a time, and go through however many hundred thousand words to get to happily ever after, you’re never going to get anywhere. Finishing is just about the only thing that matters. I know people who write one draft and they’re done. And I know people who do 80 drafts. They’re is no specific benchmark you have to hit. There is no perfect process means your work will be good every time. There is no right way.

I stopped giving my word count several years ago, because I am a very fast writer. I made the choice not to have children, so I can spend my days just writing; there are no kids demanding my time. I have been lucky enough that I am able to be a full time writer. So from a literary standpoint I am the equivalent of an Olympic athlete. I’ve been training all day every day. And I would say my word count is x, and people would say “I’m a failure! I’m never going to be a writer!” That’s not true. If you write a hundred clean words a day, you will have a book at the end of the year. So don’t compare yourself or your process to anyone else or anyone else’s process. 

Overall what was your process for Middlegame? Certain words per day? Outline? 

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My outlines are generally very vague. It’s like planning a trip to Disneyland. If you and I were going to Disneyland together, I will tell you we have to go to the Haunted Mansion. And you might say “that’s cool, but if I don’t get to ride Space Mountain I’m going to have a tantrum.” And we’ll set the day around the idea that we’re going to the Haunted Mansion, and we’re going to Space Mountain, and we’re going to stop for lunch somewhere in the middle of the day. What’s between those two parts of the park? We can make that our middle point. We still have like six hours in the park that are going to be determined by where we are, what we feel like doing, and what’s going on. So for me, if you put down the pins, you nail down the big things that have to happen, and everything in the middle you just fill in as you want to go. 

Anything else you want people to know about Middlegame?

I really love Middlegame. I know the concept can turn some people off because it’s so weird. So they say they can’t even figure out what this book is about. But if you’re interested in my work at all, please give Middlegame a shot. A lot of folks agree that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m not just saying that because it’s new, because it’s not my newest book any more. My most recent is actually the Rosemary and Rue tenth anniversary edition that just came out from Daw Books. I’m saying that because I really love this book, and it took me ten years to get good enough to write it.