This was an interview I had with a member of my bookclub, Kaylyn Scothern, about writing, after the club reviewed my first novel, A Clouded Skye. The interview was conducted by email between Jan 12, 2012 and Jan 16, 2012. With her permission I am posting it to my blog now. I meant to post it earlier but never got around to it.
Kaylyn Scothern (KS)
Talmage Cleverly (TC)
KS: Hey Talmage, I know that we’ve never really officially met, and I am new to the book club so sadly I didn’t have a chance to read your book, but after sitting in on the discussion today I am really looking forward to reading it! I am working on a few writing projects myself, and was wondering if you would mind me picking your brain a bit? I have always wanted to write a book, and am currently working on one of the ideas that I have. I’d love to hear some of your tips about the writing process, as well as some of the ideas that you have on publishing.
KS : I’m super impressed that you actually followed through and did it, not once, but twice. ☺ I have a feeling that you’ve got some great information about the process, and if you’re willing to share I’d love to fire some questions in your direction.
TC: I’d love to help! Ask whatever questions you’d like. Also, Susan Knight is working on a book too and has some writing friends too. She hasn’t published hers yet, but when she does, I’d love to read it in the club.
TC: So what do you want to know?
KS: There are SO many questions. I’ll go one by one so that I don’t bombard you with a bunch of stuff at once.
KS: During the writing process, did you find it better to perfect each chapter as you went along, or did you write the whole story out and then go back and make changes once you had a “big picture”?
TC: My recommendation is to write the whole story out and then go back for editing after. I received this advice from Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, both published authors and members of the Writing Excuses Podcast. I highly recommend listening to them. Each podcast is only 15-20 minutes and they often have talented guests on the show as well. Michael Stackpole and Michael Menenge also give this advice.
TC: The reason to keep writing forward and not go back to edit right away is this. If you keep rewriting chapters one, two, and three over and over again, you will become very good at writing and editing act I. However, it teaches you nothing about writing acts II or III and you’ll never have the experience of finishing the story.
TC: Another reason is that you may craft the most beautiful prose, polished to a shine early in the book and then when you finally finish the story, you might find that scene that you spent hours writing and rewriting had to be cut and all of that lavish effort was wasted.
TC: In one of my current projects (I’m juggling several), I wrote in a character arc, removed it from the story, added it back in with some changes, and then realized it was better out of the story so I took it out again. I had written the story all the way to the end first and didn’t bother with perfecting the scenes of that arc, which was a good thing because I didn’t waste editing time on what ultimately won’t be in the book.
TC: Put brackets and a note of things you need to fix later if you want so you can just do a search for the brackets. For example [fix], or [add explanation about grandmother here], or things like that. Then just keep typing.
TC: Although you didn’t ask about this part yet, I’ll mention it in relation to that project I mentioned above. Don’t delete your drafts or just overwrite in the same document. Minor changes are fine but for big ones like adding/removing an entire story arc, just save the document with a different version number appended. You never know when you might decide to put back in what you removed, or you can use the “footage” as “outtakes” or other bonus material for your readers.
TC: Come up with a versioning system that works for you. Mine is pretty straight forward. Each story gets its own folder on my hard drive (remember to back it up to somewhere else frequently or you’ll cry crocodile tears when your computer crashes). Each version gets its own file. For example:
TC: This is probably a bigger answer than you expected but I hope it helps you avoid some of my early mistakes.
KS: I appreciate the fact that you are so willing to share! This is all great information, and I'm sure that it will be very helpful. I have been writing and going back and rewriting the first part of my story, and I have been worried that it was wasting time. Sounds like I may have been right about that. Also, thanks for the tip about saving each version separately rather than saving over the last one. Though I'm not far into my story yet, that's what I've been doing so far.
KS: I guess my next question is, how long did it take you to write your first book? I feel like mine is taking forever, but it seems to me that a lot of the time has been spent doing research. I want my story, though it is fictional, to appear that it COULD be real. I want people to believe what I am saying, so I have spent a lot of time researching different aspects of it online. Did you do a lot of research for your story?
TC: I don't remember how long it took me to write my book. Technically it took years, I think I started it around 2008 and published it in August 2011. The idea came several years earlier than that from a pencil and paper role playing game with some of my friends. In reality though, I wrote most of it over a period months, the months were just spread out all over the place. In that time frame, I had also written several other stories, some short, some long so the actual time taken is hard to calculate. My advice is to write steadily every week (every day if you can manage that) and then you'll be amazed at how much book comes out.
TC: Yes, I do research for my books. I talked with an actual amateur swordsman about the fight scenes Skye was in and had to adjust which muscle groups she mentioned as being sore based on his feedback. Just this week, I was reading up on prehistoric surgeries and amputation methods for a Neolithic fantasy story I'm writing. Gross, but a character loses an arm and I want to get it right. I've also been researching tribal social structures, available technologies (ipods out, basket weaving in), domestication of animals, and other fun topics.
TC: Similar research happens for other stories as needed but I try to separate "research time" from "writing time" because you could hop on the web to lookup a 5 minute thing and the next thing you know, three hours have gone by and no writing happened. Make sure the research is to help grow your knowledge or help the book and that it isn't just an excuse to avoid the actual writing.
TC: One trick I've heard, explain the small details and people will assume you know the large details, even if you really don't. If you're in doubt about whether your writing rings true or not, find someone who works in the industry or whatever and ask them if it sounds right or not. Dan wells, in his novel, I Am Not A Serial Killer, knew nothing about preserving corpses but he did some research and had some mortician friends proof read it for plausibility. By tossing in the names of chemicals and smells of the process, he sounded like the expert he wasn't.
KS: I definitely have a resolution to write at least a little bit everyday this year.
KS: Okay, next question..... What was your approach to publishing? Do you have an agent, or did you go it alone?
TC: I have a huge explanation followed by a question of my own. First the overly verbose answer to your question:
TC: Up until May of 2011, I thought I was going to go to the "traditional" publishers, where I would submit my manuscript to various publishing houses and hope I survived the slush pile (i.e. everyone else's manuscripts fighting for the publisher's attention). I thought I would be courting agents and editors and it all sounded quite intimidating.
TC: In May of 2011, I attended several writing panels at the CONduit Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention in Salt Lake City. I heard several published authors state that their publishers do virtually no marketing of their works. There are far more manuscripts being submitted than the overworked interns and editors at the publishing houses can absorb. The editors have farmed most of their slush pile work onto the agents who are now overwhelmed with more manuscripts than they can possibly read. Their books only get a six months to a year to sink or swim and then it is abandoned by the publisher for the next potential "big thing". The advances are small and the royalty payouts inconsistent and a tiny fraction of the total price of your book.
TC: One incredibly successful author, Tracy Hickman, explained how he abandoned the "traditional" publishing methods to go directly to his readers by going independent. In the digital age, the producer of the art and the consumer of the art are closer than ever before. The contracts being offered today heavily favor the publisher and not the author. And authors now have other avenues available. The publishers aren't the only game in town anymore.
TC: At the convention I learned about the Dragon Page Cover To Cover podcast where also successful authors, Michael Menenge and Michael Stackpole also touted the benefits of going digital and going independent. More of the responsibility is on your shoulders if you go it alone but more of it is in your control too. I learned about Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch, a husband/wife pair of writers that went indie, started up their own publishing house and give good advice for independents as well.
TC: So, after this "awakening", I decided to go independent. I retain all rights to my works and can license those rights to others as needed. I don't need to pay an editor or agent until I hire an agent to negotiate on my behalf for a contract on the table.
TC: There are drawbacks to indie. Editing and cover design are on my shoulders. I did my own cover and had a close relative who has done professional newsletter production and editing and is an English wizard at grammer, spelling, and punctuation review and edit my work. In fact he'd probably cringe at that last sentence.
TC: Marketing used to be another issue but since most of the traditional publishers have significantly slashed their marketing budgets, unless you're a J.K. Rowling, you won't get any promotion of your work from them anyway. Both traditional and indie authors have to promote their own books on their own in the current market. That part is equal.
TC: There used to be a huge stigma to independent publishing, also known as vanity press. There are still elements of that because now anybody can crank out words and put them out for the world, whether they're good or not. But there is a growing recognition of "good" independent authors who produce works of just as high (or in some cases better) quality works than the traditional publishers.
TC: It is all in the levels of professionalism. Get a quality editor! I'm fortunate to have a family member who is good at it. Others might have to pay for a work for hire/contract editor to clean up your book (and pay them fee-for-service and not a cut of the royalties). No book is 100% error free but make it the best you can. If you don't care enough about your story to correct the grammer and spelling in your book, why should I care enough to read it?
TC: Now my question for you is this, do you want to be an author or a writer? What I mean is, do you want to have written and published a book (author), or do you want to write and publish many books for the rest of your life (writer)? I hope the latter but the former is a noble effort too. Many writers started out as authors.
KS: To answer your question: I want to be a writer. I love writing, and ultimately want to make a career out of it. I have been blogging for quite some time now, and that is just not going to pay a mortgage.
KS: This is where I struggle. I don't know the first thing about how one would go about finding an agent, but I feel that it is a necessity. Maybe I am wrong here, but I guess this is where it gets tricky. The thought of going independent scares me to death. How DO you market yourself? And isn't it a huge cost to you up front to have the book printed? I know that these next questions are somewhat personal, so if you don't want to answer them I would totally understand.
KS: What did it cost you initially to get your book published / printed?
KS: How much do you make each time a copy sells?
KS: It's entirely possible that I am naïve, but it just seems that publishing independently wouldn't be highly profitable. I feel like the best option for making a career out of writing and being able to support my family as a writer, would be to get an agent and solicit my book(s) to publishers.
KS: If independent does end up being the route I choose, I do have a sister in law that would be an amazing editor.
KS: Looks like I've got a lot of thinking to do!!
TC: Thanks for answering my question and I'm glad to hear that you want to be a writer and not just another person knocking off "write a book" from your bucket list.
TC: The most frightening event of my life (aside from playing paintball when a stampeding herd of cattle came through the field) was clicking submit on Smashwords.com for my first book. My baby that I had raised and nourished through infancy was leaving the safety of my nest and facing the cruel harsh world alone.
TC: Going independent is frightening because you don't have anyone else to rely on, fall back on, or blame for the failure of your book. I can understand the apprehension, I felt it when I was deciding which way to go. Hearing writers at the convention last year, and on their blogs, talk about how poorly they got treated by their agents and publishers encouraged me to go independent.
TC: The industry today is very different than it was even five years ago. You have indie millionaires like Amanda Hocking competing on a level playing field with traditional millionaires like Stephanie Meyer for the same vampire readers.
TC: It cost me nothing to put the ebook version of my book up for sale. Zero, zip, nada. I priced my first two books at $3.99 each (less than a value meal at the drive-through). I make about 70% commission on each of the sites that host my books but some have a small transaction fee added which brings my per sale profit to between 2.50 and 2.79 depending on the site.
TC: If I had a traditional publisher handle the ebook rights and distribution (most try to buy up those rights for a pittance from the author in current contracts) then the standard would be 25% of the ebook sale would go to me which would bring my profits down to about 0.99 or 1.00 per sale (assuming they priced the book at the same rate I did). Many of the publishers overprice the ebook because their bread and butter is paper books not ebooks. The smarter publishers are moving toward more sensible pricing so you have to do your research. Better rule of thumb is to keep the digital rights and do it yourself (70% is way better than 25% or 25% plus suicide)
TC: For my paper books, I use a print on demand service (P.O.D) called lulu.com. It costs me nothing to set up a book but it costs me about $10 per book (of my novel's size) to print and I pay per book printed. Anyone can order my book from them and they just pay the cover price which accounts for their cost + their profit + my profit. I priced my paper book at 14.99 which gives me about a $4.00 profit. Since it is a higher price than a typical trade paperback, I encourage people to get the ebook version unless they want a souvenir of a good read that I can sign for them.
TC: My big expenses so far for marketing and publishing independently was in business cards. I spent about $40 for a big box of business cards I can give to people. I always keep several in my wallet and my computer bag. You never know when you'll bump into a potential reader or that agent/publisher you hope to court someday, or for networking with other authors. The rest of my promotion and marketing has been on the cheap, facebook, blog, word of mouth.
TC: So far I've made only about $45 on my two books (Hmm, about enough to pay off the business cards). A pittance, right? Yes but I'm not giving up. It's a magic bakery. I can sell you a book and the interesting thing is that I still have the book to sell to someone else. If I have two books, I can sell you two books and still have two books to sell to other people and so on. The more I write, the more ways there are for readers to "find" me and more for them to buy from me. Initially the earnings are small but they get bigger over time.
TC: If I have one book for sale for 3.99, I make about 2.50. If I only have 1000 readers find me, then I've made $2500. If I had four books at that same price point and had the same number of readers find me and like all of the books, then I've made $10,000. But an interesting thing is that if two of the books are tongue in cheek fantasies and one is an urban fantasy vampire story and one is a historical fiction, I'll likely encounter a broader range of potential readers so instead of 1000 people finding my works, it could be 3000 people. And if they liked one and bought all of the rest then I would make $30,000 (2.50/book x 4 books x 3000 readers). Of course that is all incredibly simplistic figures but imagine if I have 10 books for sale? Or twenty?
TC: This a marathon, not a sprint. Those ebooks can earn you money forever. They never go out of print. That is how a midlist author can make a living wage as an independent. Those that have done it found that there becomes a spike in momentum at 3 published books, and then another at 10 published books, and again at 20 books and so on. You could go from 1-3 books per month to 1-3 per day to 100-300 per day and yes be making a living wage within a few years.
TC: Many current authors are beginning to see digital book sales outpace their paper sales by as much as 10-1. You don't need a traditional publisher to distribute ebooks for you. They'll take the lion's share of the money for work you can do on your own in just a few hours per title.
TC: I MIGHT consider a traditional publishing deal if offered one but I would refuse to give up my ebook rights to them. Your ebook rights are the gold of publishing right now. Don't give them up for a bowl of porridge.
TC: For now, keep writing your book and researching your options. I recommend you attend local conventions where other writers meet. "Life, The Universe, And Everything" or LTUE is Feb 9,10,& 11 at Utah Valley University and CONduit is in May 25, 26, & 27 in downtown SLC this year. You can talk and learn from others who have gone the path you wish to follow. It's what I've done. I'll be trying to attend both.
KS: The item on my bucket list that I am aiming for in regards to my writing isn't just "write a book", I shoot high with my dreams, so that item on my list is to have one of my books on the NY Times best seller list. Maybe a fantasy, but what fun is life if you don't dream, right?
KS: That's pretty awesome. I guess I didn't realize that you could do the books as a print on demand. I figured you would have had to start by printing a set amount in the beginning.
KS: Independent is starting to look a little sweeter.
KS: One thing that I have an issue with is sticking to one project at a time. I have three stories that are building in my brain, and a few children's books as well. I tend to write a bit on each story depending on the mood I'm in. I think I need to refocus a bit though and work on finishing one story completely.
KS: Next question on the list, How do you deal with feedback? It must be tough to listen to people's criticisms, and not let the negative comments get to you. Any advice as far as that goes?
TC: Ah, criticism. Twelve years ago, I would have crumbled under the slightest hint of criticism (which is partly why I didn't try to get published back then). I was suffering from depression and in a relationship with a verbally abusive wife, a horrible time in my life.
TC: Fast forward to now and I am off my medications, happier, healthier, and married to the woman of my dreams. She supports me greatly in my writing dreams and I couldn't imagine any way it could be better (well okay, best selling happily married writer would be nice).
TC: The way I handle criticism is to remember that they are criticizing the work and not me. Not everything I write is perfect and that is okay. Sometimes the reader isn't always right. Sometimes they didn't read or understand something you wrote correctly. Sometimes it isn't a genre or style they like. You can't write to everyone's tastes so don't bother trying to please everybody all of the time. You'll fail.
TC: Sometimes an element of the story is broken and needs repair. If your criticism is coming from an alpha/beta reader or an editor, consider their input and you decide whether to change something or not. Again remember they're criticizing the work and not you. The advice they're giving is probably intended to help so assume good intent. You don't have to follow through on every suggestion but be willing to alter the story based on ones that will make the story stronger.
TC: If the criticism is coming from someone after you've published it, don't feel the need to rush back and fix it, or even defend your work. It is what it is, they either enjoy it or they don't. You can't force anyone to change their opinion. If it is constructive criticism, you can think about how you can apply their advice to your current project or next book.
TC: Writing is not a career for the thin skinned. Every writer will be criticized and rejected. It is par for the course. I keep myself from sinking into depression again by not dwelling on the criticism but on thinking about the exciting new story I'm working on next. I also remind myself that they don't mean the criticism personally, and if they do then they're just meany-stupidhead-jerky-poos that don't deserve my respect anyway.
TC: It is far easier to criticize and tear down than to build and create. Everyone that has actually written a book deserves credit for doing what the vast majority of people don't even attempt. Whether the book is good or not, who cares. Writing it is an achievement worth celebrating.
TC: Also, just because your first book isn't perfect, that is still okay. Write the next one, and the next one. About a million words later, you will be writing fantastic stories. Everyone talks about the overnight success NYT best selling debut novel etc. The reality is that most of those first time best sellers actually wrote five or six or ten novels before that one that were never accepted by anyone first. But they didn't give up and continued to hone their craft and finally one took off. One million practice words.
TC: I wrote my first novella when I was 17. It was horrible but I didn't give up. Except through the depression years, I've been working on my own million practice words. I'm fortunate to have a wife now that believes in my dream and parents that consider writing to be real work. I hope you have equally supportive people around you because it does get tough sometimes.
KS: It's terrible to hear that you went through such a dark period. I am glad that things have turned around and you are in a good place now, though.
KS: I have a pretty thick skin, so I'm not necessarily worried about criticism, I was more just curious to see how you deal. I'm sure it's a bit harder to handle when it's pointed at something that you have poured your heart and soul into. I have to give you kudos for having the book club read your book. I find criticism/feedback to be a bit harder to handle when it comes from people that you know, rather than strangers.
KS: I have often considered using a pen name... have you talked to, or do you know anyone who has gone that route?
KS: Not that I want to hide behind an 'anonymous' type name, but more for keeping privacy. I don't know that I would really ever do it, but I've played with the thought a few times.
TC: I have met an author who uses both his real name and a pen name depending on the genre he's writing in. He uses one for fantasy and the other for sci-fi. He says he does it to avoid confusing his readers, or more importantly, the book stores. How dare an author actually write in more than one genre, right? Odd because the bookstores tend to lump those two genres on the same shelf anyway.
TCV: My niece uses a pen name for her writing and online persona for privacy reasons. She is a minor and we don't want crazy stalker types going after her. She hasn't published anything more than the odd poem or short story on her blog so far.
TC: If you have a very common name like Mike Smith or Mary Jones, or a name very close to another author's you might want to consider using a pseudonym to differentiate yourself from the others. I get Dan Brown and John Brown mixed up in my head all of the time. One wrote the Da Vinci Code and the other some fantasy novels I've been meaning to read for a while.
TC: I don't have a strong opinion about it one way or the other.
KS: The other reason that I have considered it is because people tend to butcher my name (first and last, I'm sure you can relate) when they are trying to pronounce it. Who knows what I'll end up doing though.
KS: Do you blog at all?
KS: I'm in the middle of reading another book right now, and then I need to start the next one for the book club, but I am planning on reading A Clouded Sky after that. I may end up ordering the paper back so that I can have you sign it. I am building a collection of books that are signed by the author.
TC: I totally understand the butchered name thing. It is a valid reason to go with a pseudonym.
TC: My blog is at tcleverlylibrary.blogspot.com. I try to post at least once a week but in reality it seems to be more like once or twice a month sometimes. On it I give updates to my projects, advice, and observations about writing.
TC: I'll happily sign your book. The first time I did it, it felt weird, like signing yearbooks or something. "Hey see you in the fall!" and all that.
KS: You've been awesome to take the time to answer all of these questions!! I'm sure I'll come up with more that I want to ask, so technically you are not off the hook yet.
KS: I'll add your blog to my feed reader. I enjoy blogs because it's an easy way to follow a lot of stories. :)
KS: Hope your week is great!
TC: You're welcome and thank you.