Guest post: J.M. McDermott on running with the herd

Today I’m swapping guest posts with the awesome J.M. McDermott, author of the Dogsland trilogy and many other excellent works. You can find my guest post in defense of genre-blending here. And if you’re interested in more of J.M.’s works, check out his Amazon affiliate store or look him up at your local independent bookstore.

Take it away, Joe. I’d be proud to be in your herd.


So, let’s begin this post with a fact: Goats need a friend. A goat by itself is a very sad, suicidal goat that will not be well-adjusted and will not be a prancing happy goat. Goats, man: They need other goats. A chicken, by itself, will not be a good chicken. It will not know what to do. It will not know where to go. These animals that flock and herd are lost without other animals to accumulate a sense of belonging.

I write mostly fantasy novels, with occasional science fiction. I work, breathe, live a genre defined in many corners by worship at the alter of plot and snappy dialog. I have never been accused of producing either of these things. To me, as much as I can enjoy the work of Joss Whedon, for what it is, I cannot see any value in trying to replicate an experience on the page better left to television serials and dramatic cinema.

Books of mine got sent out to a lot of paranormal reviewers, presumably because the cover has a badass woman in a wolf’s head for Book I of the series. Presumably the person doing the mailing was checking the boxes for urban fantasy, and my book is technically that, though more like 13th century urban fantasy set in a city that never existed, in a world that’s very much the product of my epic fantasy roots.

Books need other books. Without a sense of place among other books, a sense of tradition, the forms that emerged organically would be like a single letter of a broken Rosetta stone, lying in a glacier, emerging from all that white space like a stone and ignored like a stone. Books can’t even operate in isolation, because we rely on a community of authors and readers to entertain fans while we’re busy writing, and train our fans in modes of thought that we can start toying with, together. Authors are herd bests. We are flock creatures. We do not do well in isolation.

My books are not paranormal romance, or urban fantasy. But, without the fantastic cities that I read, I would never have written the books I wrote. Without the sense that plot doesn’t matter, but people still need to experience change, which is sort of like cutting to the quick of plot, and sort of like seeing a species of creatures, all in a group, cataloged and ordered and known, my books don’t exist as they are. How can anyone be an outlier if there isn’t a herd to begin with? I take pride in doing things differently, being a pusher of change in forms and structure and narrative tropes. I take pride in my minor influence of oulipos and surrealism in my work.

Still, I need mainstream just as much as I dislike it, sad to say. Without the herd, what can I bounce away from? What can my readers bounce off looking for less-trod ground? Where do

Wolves don’t just kill the animals, they cull them. The presence of wolves makes herd animals faster, stronger, braver, better. And it is the outliers of the herd that are most-likely to be swallowed in their own blood.

Wolves stalk the streets of Dogsland, hunting down the demon children. In the books I write, the loneliness and desperation creates a mark on the people as powerful as any demon’s biological remnant on the skin of scale or wing or horn. The hunt marks the hunter. It makes them face what they are, what they do. They pull what remained of Jona’s memories from his skull, left dead on the ground, and from this they see his life, his friends’ lives, and the way people live in the poorest places of the city.

I am a member of SFWA, and published by some of the same people who publish the center of the genre. My latest story is coming soon in Asimov’s Magazine, a centrist if ever there was one, but my place is at the edge of the crowd, bobbing and weaving, trying to survive out where it’s hard to do so, and when the wolves come to tear down my career, when sales figures aren’t what the publisher wants to see, or my latest book is too weird for a mainstream agent, or the genre I’m trying to write inside of isn’t exactly an extant genre right now, well… I have to be strong. I have to write the best books I can. Maybe the wolves will come. Maybe I will be the one that is sacrificed while the rest run away to safety.

This is part of why I like to write the books that I write: I want to find my herd. Goats need other goats or they go crazy. Chickens don’t do well alone. A cow by itself will wander the woods, jumping at every sound, and ready to charge even friendly creatures in the shadows.

Mike, are you in my herd? Am I in yours?

Is anyone writing with me, or I with them?


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