Q: How have our opinions changed on self-publishing since last year?
A: Drastically. Better understanding of the market. What you are doing is trading the need to get past a gatekeeper for the need to engage signal boosters. Self-publishing is less about the platform, and more about writing a lot of short material -- six or seven books a year.
Q: What did you find difficult early in your career, and how did you identify it as a problem?
A: Writing a good story reliably. Revision. Exhaustion and burnout. Balancing marketability with what I wanted to do.
Q: What do you now find hardest, and how did you identify it?
A: Finding time to write. The Atlantic Ocean.
Q: Do you put Easter eggs in your work that only friends recognize? What's one of your favorites?
A: A character in one series reading a book about a character in another series and commenting on it. Killing a character in a very unpleasant way for a friend. Putting my friends in and murdering their enemies. A running joke about evil robot monkeys.
Q: How much do suggestions from fans shape your stories? How much audience analysis do you do?
A: Hugely, because I invite fans to be alpha readers as I write. I avoid fan reviews, to avoid bad reviews. I read four-star reviews because they are part of my core audience, but they have some complaint. Not so much audience analysis as being part of a community. Seeing how fans react and where the big websites are.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 38.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Out Of Excuses Retreat Q & A #2.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're surrounded by people.
[Howard] Very, very smart people who are asking...
[Brandon] Great questions.
[Howard] Difficult questions. Yeah, difficult questions that we haven't been asked before, so you're in for a treat.
[Brandon] All right. Let's try to get to these. Let's try to be quick about it.
[Howard] We'll be fast.
[Brandon] All right. How have our opinions changed on self-publishing since last year?
[Brandon] Okay. How? Come on.
[Dan] Well, two years ago, I put out a book, just self-published myself and did not see any real success with it. My understanding of the self-publishing market has changed since then. I think I was trying to do the wrong size, I think I was trying to do the wrong book. I have a new plan to do something different, but that will be a surprise.
[Howard] I have arrived at a pithy summary of the problem of self-publishing. What you are doing is trading the need for getting past a gatekeeper for the need to engage signal boosters. I mean, there's still all kinds of work that you need to do, but in order to make money, in order to get your work seen, you need people to be talking about it. That... It's a different kind of problem, but it still involves being able to sell your book to a small group of influential people.
[Brandon] In the last year, I've come to see self-publishing less as needing the platform. In that originally, the big successes I saw were all platform writers. But then I talked to a lot of self-pubbed people and I investigated what they're doing. They indicated to me and I saw the data that said that the majority of people that are making a living at self-publishing are not platform writers. They are writers who are writing a lot of material that is very short. They are releasing six or seven books a year. These are the people who are making 40 or $50,000, instead of the big millionaires that we see. They're kind of the living, working author of the self-pub field. So I've come to see them as more what's driving it, even though the big bestsellers who have the big platforms are the ones that are eyes gravitate towards first.
[Mary] I still am in the camp of I think self-publishing is a wonderful way to go for people, but I'm too lazy to do all of the work.
[Brandon] All right. What did you find it difficult early on in your career, and how did you identify it as a problem?
[Mary] I found it difficult to write a good story reliably...
[Brandon] That reliability is tougher than you... Than people assume.
[Mary] Yes. Because what was happening to me was that I would write a story that was good, but I would write it by accident. I would write a lot of stories that had a good beginning and a good ending, and they were not the same story even though they had the same characters. So I went to a writing workshop and I took classes and I read a lot. I spent a year where writing was really hard, because I was having to relearn how to do it, but at the end of that, I came up with being able to do it repeatedly.
[Brandon] Early on, my biggest difficulty, and I've mentioned this before, was revision. It was less the revision process itself and more the fact that I didn't want to have to revise anything. I was just so eager about the next project that I'd finish something and move on. Because of that, I didn't get to practice revising. I also don't like revising nearly as much. So early on, my books were all decent. None of them were fantastic. They got to better levels of good without getting great until I... How did I learn that this was the case? I fell into it accidentally, by things getting rejected and me saying, "Well, maybe I should do another draft of this. I'll put it through the writing group." And then me doing that draft and then sending out to editors and getting a better response and getting it back and taking some of the things editor said and doing another draft and saying, "Wow. This book actually got better. Revision does something." And sending it out and getting an even better response until it sold.
[Howard] All this closing the feedback loop. You build a feedback loop and then you closed it and were able to feedback and begin the process of improving.
[Howard] Exhaustion and burnout because I was working two jobs and putting in 90 hours a week between IT and the comic. The comic... I was... I didn't have cycles to work on it as hard as I needed to, to really become awesome, which is what I wanted to be. I did not have cycles or the passion to pour into my IT middle management career to become awesome at that. I was... I was... Those were four really, really rough years and I'm glad to not be doing that anymore.
[Dan] My early problem that I had to overcome more than anything else, it was trying to find the balance between salability, marketability, and what I wanted to do. Every idea that I come up with for a book is completely different than the other one before it. My editor and my agent, we've all talked about this. Brandon and I have talked about this. The overlap between the audience for the Serial Killer books and Hollow City is there, but it's not as big as it could be. Then the overlap between that audience and Partials is even smaller. Eventually, I just had to embrace the fact that I would rather write what I want to write than just write the same book over and over again, even though it would probably sell better.
[Brandon] Okay. The second half of this question is what do you now find hardest? And how did you identify it? I will start. Just to... The hardest thing for me now that I never thought would be so hard is finding time to write. Nobody warned me about how much other stuff there was involved in being a writer. Even through the middle years of being a mid-lister, when I'm like, "Wow, I just don't have as much time to write as I want," I didn't understand how bad it could get. Where there are plenty of months this year where I've been home with my family for a week. I was home a week in May, for instance. In April, I was home for like two weeks. In March, I was home, in February, I was not. In January, I was home for a week. Finding time to actually get something done when everybody wants you at their convention, every publisher wants you at every convention and wants you on a tour... It's overwhelming. I'm not sure how to balance it yet, I'm still learning.
[Mary] I'm just going to ditto that. I left home the last week of May and I will not yet until July 8th.
[Brandon] Yeah. All right. What's hardest for you guys now?
[Dan] Well, it's nothing that humble braggy...
[Howard] I thought I found humility challenging...
[Howard] And then I realized I had it easy.
[Dan] I don't know if I have a really great answer to this one. I'm still...
[Brandon] How do I eat all of these sausages? [Inaudible – chocolate]
[Dan] How do I eat...
[Brandon] There's just too much of it.
[Dan] There's just too much.
[Mary] Now it's so difficult for you to get to anything because you live in Germany.
[Dan] I know. That's the... The hardest part of my career is the Atlantic Ocean.
[Brandon] All right. We'll leave off of this one since there's no immediate response and we'll go to our book of the week, which Mary is going to do for us.
[Mary] Yes. And I've already forgotten what I had suggested.
[Brandon] It has twister in the title.
[Mary] Oh, it's Troubletwisters. Yes, and I enjoyed it so much. This is a middle grade book by Garth Nix and Sean Williams. The premise is that these two twins discover that they have magic. But in this magic system, when you are young, your magic can go wildly out of control. So they have to kind of be kept away from certain members of the family because the interaction of magic is really bad. Then things go terribly wrong from there. What I particularly found interesting about this book, because you don't see it done very much anymore, is that it's a shared POV. So you go back and forth between the two twins within a chapter without scene breaks. It is done just seamlessly, you are never confused. It's... We complain about head hopping. This is an example of how to share a POV and how to do it really, really well.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership and listen to a copy of... Listen to a copy. That sounds kind of weird. I'm not going to use that buy line again. Troubletwisters by Garth Nix and... Who was the other?
[Mary] Sean Williams.
[Howard] And Sean Williams.
[Brandon] Both fantastic writers.
[Mary] Both fantastic writers.
[Brandon] I like their books.
[Mary] I should say that the narrator does a wonderful job. That's Miriam Margoyles. She does a really nice job, I thought.
[Brandon] All right. Next question is do you put Easter eggs in your work that only friends recognize? I'm just going to answer that and say yes.
[Brandon] And ask the question of what's one of your favorites that you've put in?
[Dan] One of my favorites is from Fragments, the second Partials book. Mary, aside from my editor at Harper, was the first person to notice this and contact me about it. The character Kira is traveling across the post-apocalyptic wasteland, sheltering when possible in a shopping center or a whatever, and one night they spend the night in a library. She picks up a book because she's bored and she reads it and mentions a very briefly what it's about. That's totally I Am Not a Serial Killer.
[Dan] My character from one series is reading the book about the character in the other series and comments on, "Yeah, he thinks his life is hard."
[Howard] That's awesome. That's awesome. Yeah. I may have, in an effort to make a friend happy, killed a character in a very, very unpleasant way because...
[Mary] Thank you so much for that. I'm just going to go ahead and out that it was me, but I won't say...
[Howard] Yep. That was... It was so very, very much fun to do.
[Mary] It was deeply satisfying.
[Howard] Mary told me a story and I anonymized it just enough and made my friend happy.
[Brandon] That is my favorite way... Thing that you do, too, is that you can put your friends in. In fact, most...
[Howard] And murder their enemies.
[Brandon] Yes, murder their enemies. I've actually done the murdering of enemies part, but that one I can't talk too much about because at the beginning of the books it says this little thing about how all the people are fictitious, so...
[Mary] La, la, la.
[Dan] All the people are fictitious as far as you can tell.
[Brandon] Yes, but like in the Way of Kings, Bridge Four is populated by my friends, my writing group, and my brothers-in-law and things like that. All of the side characters that you run into are all of my good friends and people like that. All except actually for Dan whom I put in the Mistborn books...
[Brandon] Instead and who survives...
[Dan] That's the guy who survives.
[Brandon] A very bloody massacre.
[Dan] Multiple bloody massacres.
[Brandon] Then everybody else was like, "Well, where are we?" I'm like, "All right. I'll put you in Bridge Four and I'll kill most of you.
[Dan] I actually have one more anecdote I've got to throw out really quick. I sold Serial Killer while I still had a job with an office. The people in the office were so excited that as I was writing Mr. Monster, they all asked me to be in it. So virtually every victim of the murderer, including all four of the women who are prisoners in the basement dungeon, are just the women from my office.
[Brandon] Oh, you're writing a book? Put me in it.
[Brandon] You asked. All right. Mary?
[Mary] So in Shades of Milk and Honey, Beth Dunkirk is named after my friend Beth Wodzinski who's the editor-in-chief at Shimmer Magazine. We had a running joke about evil robot monkeys, then I wrote a story about evil robot monkeys. So in Shades of Milk and Honey, Mr. Dunkirk describes a letter that his sister Beth sent him. He says, "Once she sent me a story that she had written in which a clockmaker created an automaton of a monkey." So, yeah...
[Howard] There it is.
[Brandon] There is a level you can go with your editors. Like, for instance, my editor for Elantris, one of the characters says "Kolo" all the time. In his language, it's just one of these tags that a lot of languages have that's a "isn't that so?" Korean says, "Isn't that so?" A lot of... He just uses that all the time. When you actually speak one of these languages, people use them right and left. Drove my editor crazy that I used it so often. I'm like, "This is realistic. This is what they do." He's like, "No, it's driving me crazy." He cut out like half of them. So in the next book, I had... One in a completely different world, completely different book, I had... I added a couple of kolo's to the end of someone's dialogue just so my editor could scratch them out.
[Mary] That's brilliant. The only other thing which I think most people know about is that I put a Dr. Who cameo in all of the novels.
[Mary] But that's just for me.
[Brandon] All right. We have the question, how much do questions, suggestions from fans, shape your stories mixed with the idea of how much audience analysis do we do? So let's talk about these concepts. Audience analysis. Do we ask our audience? Do we analyze what people are reading? How much do their comments influence us?
[Mary] It influences me hugely, because of the way I write. I think this is again my theater background. But I need an audience when I'm writing. So the way I handle that is I have these alpha readers who are reading along as I go. I basically throw this open to my fans. There have been times when I'm writing along and someone will say, "Well, clearly something is... This thing is going to happen next." I'm like, "Oh, that was supposed to be a big surprise." So I take that out and it does not happen next because it is just way too predictable. I... So I will... I have a couple of things that I've totally changed because of fan reaction during the writing process.
[Brandon] Okay. I will say I do a lot less, apparently, than you. I will watch... Actually, reading reviews, fan reviews is really hard. Because bad reviews... It's like you can get 100 good reviews, but the one bad review you focus on. So when... Audience... Things like that, I actually stay away from. I will have my assistant keep an eye on it. He has instructions to tell me if I'm doing something that everyone's pointing out that I need to know about. Otherwise, I'm going to do my thing. I'm... I don't pay a lot of attention to audience reaction, except for the fact when one book doesn't sell and others sell, I'll be like, "All right. Well, maybe that should influence what I do, but..."
[Mary] Yeah. I should say that for me it is during the writing process and these are people who are reading a draft. In terms of what you're talking about, which is reviews...
[Brandon] Yeah. I think he was asking about audience... Like how much do you pay attention to fans and to...
[Mary] Well, I count... Because I invite fans to participate in this. But in terms of what people are saying, like reviews and things like that, I read four and five star reviews on Goodreads. I will read the one stars for kicks because they're hilarious. I don't read the two stars for the three stars because usu... Sometimes I'll read the three stars, actually. I don't read the two stars because my feeling is that these people are not my audience. These are not the people I'm trying to attract. What I'm looking for are the people who are giving me a four-star review but... So they like the book, but if there is a consistent thing that these people are complaining about...
[Brandon] Ah, that's really clever.
[Mary] Because this is my core audience. These are people that like my books. So those are the things I look for.
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. The way I work for the ending is neither scripted are illustrated while the beginning is available, locked in place for the people to read... I don't want to answer this question, but... Specifically... But I will say this. Audience input has less of an effect than the audience would think, and more of an effect than I would like.
[Dan] Nice summation of it. I'll just say very quickly, with the Partials series as a good example, there is kind of the love triangle with Kira, Sam, and Marcus. Noticing the vast majority of people loving Sam and hating Marcus, I just took that as a challenge for me to make people love Marcus. So...
[Brandon] So that was helpful, the audience reaction was very helpful.
[Dan] It was very helpful, because it made me see, "Oh, this love triangle is not working." This is not a real choice because everybody obviously wants one half, not the other. So books two and three, I give Marcus so much more to do, I make him such a better character, specifically so that... To answer that.
[Brandon] The question also was about audience analysis. It makes me wonder if the person who asked this question is wondering do we go say well, it looks like the audience wants this, let's write a book for them, or a story for them, that will make them enjoy that? That's a tough one. I think because...
[Howard] I run demographics on my website in order to determine what sorts of things I should be telling prospective advertisers. But that's me functioning as a publisher. That's not me functioning as a writer. It doesn't affect the story.
[Brandon] I mean, I want to say no, I don't do this. Yet at the same time, I'm part of the community. I'm seeing what the community is liking and what they're excited about. But the community's excited about, I find myself excited about and things like this. Like The Rithmatist. The Rithmatist is basically steam punk... It's really gear punk, but it's steam punk. It came out... I wrote it in what, 2007, when a lot of this steam punk thing was really getting going. I'm like, "This is exciting. These stories are exciting that people are writing. I want to do something like this." Is that audience analysis? Not so much as hey, I'm part of this. If it were audience analysis, I would have released it in 2008, not 2013 after the whole steam punk thing had gotten kind of... I won't say overplayed, but it's been much more saturated. It's... So, yes, I am and no, I'm not, at the same time.
[Dan] I think another aspect of it for me is watching the market, watching how the fans react and the big websites. What that tells me is which bans and websites I need to talk to when the next book comes out. Extreme makeover – I know which people are going to be really interested in that, which outlets might want to talk about it, things like that.
[Brandon] All right. We're out of time, but we have a fantastic question for next time that we didn't get to. So we will hold that for the next one. You guys can be thinking about it. The question actually was where do you think that you guys... Where do we think that our careers would have gone if we'd never crossed paths for Writing Excuses?
[Mary] I'm going to suggest that as the writing prompt.
[Brandon] Oh, that's a good writing prompt.
[Brandon] You guys write about it, we will answer it eventually. Great. We're making ourselves characters again in our stories.
[Howard] Put Dan in a ditch.
[Dan] A parallel dimension where we never got together and did this...
[Howard] I would have joined the Fantastic Four.
[Brandon] Fortunately this did happen, and so you have Writing Excuses. But you have no more excuses. Now go write.