It has been a very strange twelve months. Some of you know this story. For you, my apologies for repeating. For some of you, this will be new.
I have been a storyteller for as long as I have had words. I published some of my short fiction and poetry, once upon a time, in various very exotic and small-scale magazines. I even paid to print a dozen copies of volume one of my poetry, The Anthem, back in the early ‘90’s. Lord only knows where those copies are today. I have two of them. I think the last thing I had published would be in my grad school newsletter, where they used my poetry to fill in empty columns rather than have white space. Call it twenty years ago.
So when Fabulous Publisher Babe™ finally convinced me that I could go the indie press route two years ago, I started with what I knew, and wrote some interesting fantasy serial pieces. My plan with the Beyond The Mirror series had always been to put in a variety of on-going tales of such folks as Suren, Kaleph, Brak, and whoever else came up, like Alicia or Horatio.
And that worked for the first two books, both sub-titled Fantastic Worlds. The third Mirror was Alternative Worlds, because I wanted to have some fun with dieselpunk and science fiction, as one does. None of them were selling more than a handful of copies each month. I think I made $250 bucks that year, hustling everyone I knew to buy a physical copy.
At some point, late in 2014, I was having a conversation with my sweetie about what I should write next. What would sell? How could I fill out the bakery in such a way that I could do what she had done and walk away from the day job.
I had just finished writing The Science Officer, based on some story ideas that had been rolling around in my head for the better part of five years. (Auberon, by the way, was based on ideas going back ten years or more, specifically the scene over Sarmarsh IV.)
Additionally, I had spent a couple of hours in a book store while she was doing a book signing, and I had walked through the entire set of stacks (and this was a big place) and found perhaps a half dozen books that maybe looked interesting enough to buy, but not one of them ended up getting my money.
So as we had this conversation one day, about what to write next, the Publisher said that novels were where I would achieve success, long term. Nobody really wants to buy collections of short-stories, except when it is an anthology with one of your favorite authors in it, and the story isn’t available anywhere else. I can say this with authority, because all my short stories are up individually, and people buy them that way, even when I tell them that they could save significant cash by purchasing the Mirror that contains it. (No, I don’t get it either. Speaking purely from experience.)
So, first lesson: put up every individual short story, novella, etc. that you have. Price them appropriately (for me, I have a matrix cross-indexing length to price).
I will still publish more volumes of Beyond The Mirror, as I have pieces, based on the logic that I don’t do Print On Demand for anything less than ten thousand words. (Just not worth the effort.)
And then, in early January, The Science Officer exploded. I went from selling a couple of copies on a good day, to 60+ copies a day for more than three weeks. (My best single day was 92, I think.)
I have no idea why.
The best theory I have was from Anthea, who suggested that Amazon has a 30-day machine (or 90) that occasionally randomly selects some book, based on magical incantations in South Lake Union, and puts that book on the “You Might Also Like…” bar, where everyone will see it.
I have good covers, thanks to Fabulous Publisher Babe. I have learned to do pretty good blurbs. When you sample the book, the interior is clean and sharp. The story is entertaining. (Hey, I’m pretty good at this, you know.) And the sample literally ends on a cliffhanger. Could not have timed it better if I tried, but the last words on the sample are something like “And then she shot him.”
So. Sudden “success” in the sense of selling.
Many of the writers I have known are dilettantes, rather than professionals. (I know way more professionals these days, and try to be like them.) The amateur writers would have panicked. I certainly had three days of complete and utter incomprehension.
But I also had plans.
My motto: Assume success, plan for victory.
So, book is selling, what do you do? Write the next one as fast as you can.
In between the time I had finished Science Officer and early January, I had written Imposters (43k. Accidentally a NaNoWriMo), and just completed the first draft of Auberon. (Fabulous Publisher Babe wanted novels. Auberon is the first of the nine titles I have for Jessica.)
I already had the story for The Mind Field in my head. It was actually the other part of Javier, that I would have put into a first novel if I was going to do Javier novels instead of novellas.
And I can write fast with quality, when I set my mind to it. Don’t tell anyone, but I started Mind Field after work that Friday night. Worked my ass off all weekend. Finished it Monday morning at work in the kitchen (I get there at 6am and write until 8). Did an editing pass Monday night. Emailed it to her. She did a first read pass Tuesday. I fixed everything Wednesday. She turned it into POD and ebook Thursday. Took it live on Amazon’s website Friday night.
It stayed up there with Science Officer and I got about four months of traction on it.
So now what?
I had Imposters on track to be published first, but it was totally unrelated to Science Officer. Auberon was related, but I had already sent Imposters to first readers I was bribing. So I turned around and asked them to toss Imposters out the window and get Auberon back to me as fast as possible with their comments, so I could publish.
Again, not panicking. Much.
Went to Oregon with my sweetie when she was at the Coast Anthology Workshop for Fiction River. She was attending. I stayed at the hotel and cooked and wrote all day. (We as a group had rented the whole hotel, so the owner gave me the keys and told me where to find everything in the kitchen. Kinda awesome.)
Spent that whole week working on Queen of the Pirates. You’ll understand where I was in the draft when I say that I had to stop and write The Story Road based on that damned dinner conversation that came up at Callumnia, and asked Anthea for the right song to listen to while I wrote it. In this case, Johnny’s Gone To War.
So then I had two novels in the series done. And cliff-hangered the hell out of the second one, so I took a deep breath, and dove headlong into Last of the Immortals.
At this point, I published Auberon, in May.
I freaked out that I got more than twenty pre-orders. (I don’t have that many relatives.) But it hit, and it sold. Again, good covers, good blurbs, solid teaser, good opening. It got good reviews.
Queen hit in August, with Imposters tucked in between, but not really pushed. The Story Road came out with Queen, because you really needed to understand Henri Baudin and the Founding in order to make some sense of the conversation. (And I have at least two more Henri Stories planned in my copious spare time.)
Better traction, because now the Alexandria Station universe has depth, and interlocking histories, and readers can see that I have a novel series coming.
Next lesson: when readers find a character they like, they really want to travel with that character. I can tell Jessica stories, and people are interested in what happens to her, because she is a powerful and interesting character, but she’s also human (unlike some of the folks she gets compared to in SF literature.)
So don’t just write novels. Write a trilogy. Auberon, Queen of the Pirates, Last of the Immortals. In my case, I’m just about to start Jessica’s next trilogy: Goddess of War, Flight of the Blackbird, The Red Admiral. And they are not what you will be expecting. (And oh, by the way, I also have titles for the third trilogy, but I’m not going to tell you today.)
In between, I just sent a new novel #1 to first readers last week, in an entirely new universe. It’s going the formal path, Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), a commissioned cover, etc. so it won’t probably come out until this fall. I think you’ll like it. I’ll get books 2 and 3 done as fast as I can, but Jessica is demanding more of my time right now.
Another interesting thing I learned recently. I can’t write short stories. At least, not well.
I grew up on comic books. (LOTS and LOTS of comic books.) I tell stories in serial. I have also been a gamemaster for thirty years. I author campaigns. The fantasy characters are former PC’s I want to immortalize.
But I can’t write what you call a self-contained short story. And I don’t want to take the time to develop those skills. I’ll tell short pieces of larger arcs. For Brak: Meat Shield, The Popcorn Kitten, and Destiny. I also have a fourth story, Feet of Clay, coming out in an anthology later this year. All one long campaign, broken up.
Eventually, Brak will get his own collection, in another year or two, when I have enough stories to make it worth. It still won’t sell, except to completists and Otaku.
But it doesn’t matter. People will read the individual stories and enjoy them. Hopefully, they will clamor for more.
I want to do a Kaleph novel one of these days. (Copious spare time.) He has such a fun voice and story. Maybe after Jessica takes a break. Maybe not until I have enough sales on any given week that I can consider walking away from the day job and writing full time, instead of the 1-2 hours per early morning I get right now, plus weekends I can carve out.
Next lesson: know how much money will make you happy.
I am a well-paid database nerd these days. I am also the primary breadwinner in the family, so I can’t rely on her to support me. I support her. In order for me to quit the day job, I have to be making enough money to support myself, and provide her a safety net. I might get a smaller job one of these days, shifting to a more part-time function, but I have to be making enough to cover the mortgage and still survive.
How much money do you need to be bringing in each month? You need that roof. After that, food, transportation, and sundries. There is a very specific amount you need to be making. Period. If you aren’t there yet, and I mean every month for maybe a year, you should not be preparing to leap off a cliff. Too much risk, unless you have very deep reserves that can hold you above water.
And what is your fear point? What is that thing you cannot live without? For me, the farm. I bought the land six years ago. Cleared it, cleaned it up. Just put a house on it last summer. Mine. I’ll eat ramen if I have to. But I will not give up the farm. For others, they might be happy couch surfing for years on end, as long as they have their daily jolt of caffeine from the Mermaid. Or they have to have their car, and might be willing to sleep in it.
What is your fear point?
I’m nowhere close to retiring from the day job. I do have a plan. I might even have a horizon, but it is a ways off, right now.
How will I get there? More novels. More Jessica. More Javier. More Kai Di. More other projects that might yield me nickels and dime here and there. I’m investigating costs and quality around getting some things translated into other languages. More fans that can’t find me in English. More money.
So what does it all mean?
It means I have a plan. Several. It means I’m flexible about what I do next, based on evolving needs. It means I don’t bother trying to write to market, because you never succeed. Kris has already covered this in greater detail and clarity than I could. Go read her.
I write what I love, which right now includes popcorn space opera with no greater, overarching socio-political axe to grind. Fribourg isn’t evil. Karl isn’t evil. Emmerich isn’t evil. They’re just on the other side of a war, but they still operate within their bounds of civility.
Write what you love. But understand that this is a business if you want it to support you, one of these days. Act like a professional. Make your deadlines and stay on target for the theme and wordcount your editor/publisher requires. Be friendly to other storytellers, because their success isn’t going to come at your expense. In fact, if they get successful, the market and the pie get that much bigger for everyone.
See what you can do to help people. Trade first reads. Introduce your fans to their work. Blast them all over the interwebs. Not because they’ll do something good for you, but because it is the right thing to do.
And have fun. If you aren’t giggling as you write it, if you are bored, you’ve gone mundane and won’t entertain people. You need to take some risks and get silly from time to time. Your fans will go with you down those weird byways, as long as you are entertaining.
shade and sweet water,
west of the mountains, WA