Monday, April 11, 2016

Writing Part 3: Finally Publishing... Independently

While I was busy writing up story outlines to submit to Games Workshop's Black Library, my friend Jack Badelaire lost interest in doing the same and instead began exploring Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). At the time I thought he was missing the boat. KDP was interesting, but ebooks weren't all that popular (yet), and I was more interested in writing stories for Games Workshop. Seeing how into their games I was, it seemed like a dream job.

It did not take long for me to realize that it was I who was missing the boat.
Jack's first offerings on KDP were tentative and experimental, but going through the process gave him valuable experience and he also worked hard to expand his network--a skill he is far better at than I.  Soon he began working on the novel that would become Killer Instincts. While he was doing that, he came up with many other project ideas, such as the tabletop RPG he was working on, and so on, and I was determined to keep him on track. Every time he mentioned another idea to me, I would say "Finish KI first."

In the meantime my submissions to GW had gone nowhere. Jack had published and was having some modest success with his writing, so I felt I had a decent shot of doing the same.

Once I had decided to independently publish my writing, I delved into my old writing as a starting point. I was deeply invested in the world-building I had done, but the writing itself needed a lot of work, to put it mildly. My first novel, 93,000 words long, that I had completed in 1991? Trash. The second novel, completed in 1995?  Trash.  My third novel, that I had completed in 1997?  Trash...well, maybe I could salvage something from it.

The plot itself was decent, but the story carried a lot of baggage from the first two novels which needed to be excised. A host of characters were deleted while those that remained evolved. Much exposition was eliminated, as I had begun to learn that much of storytelling comes from what you deliberately do not tell your reader. Most significantly, I completely eliminated all magical elements from my "fantasy" novel. From the beginning I had included them because in my experience fantasy by definition was about wizards, dragons, elves, goblins, and so forth. But as I got older, I found that I was more interested in the "real" aspects of stories I read: characters, relationships, and real-world problems, than I was interested in magic, fantastic creatures and races, and magical solutions to magical problems. My fantasy novel was still fantasy in that it took place on a different world from our own.

As I rewrote the novel, increasingly I discarded the original story entirely and rewrote it until the original was merely the seed. The plot matured and grew in complexity, and I finally had a first draft I was proud of, and sent it off to my alpha reader on August 4, 2012.

Two days later my wife was diagnosed with cancer.* The next several months were a whirlwind of doctor's appointments and trips to the hospital for treatments, and I juggled caring for my wife, 3-year-old daughter, and 1-year-old son. To say that my life was stressful during this time is an understatement. But despite this, I managed to publish my first novel, The Pirates of Alnari, on November 23, 2012. In a way it was therapeutic--while the rest of the family slept, I would unwind by working on getting my novel ready for publication. Focusing on it provided a much needed escape.

When I published The Pirates of Alnari, I spread the word on social media, and got the expected response from friends and family, most of whom gave encouragement, and a small subset actually purchased a copy. Soon, however, the sales trailed off to a trickle, and then stopped. This was of course discouraging, but I had learned in the process of publishing that most fantasy writers do not achieve any true measure of success until they have perhaps five novels published. Completing and publishing my first novel was itself a success, albeit a modest one.

I tried marketing The Pirates of Alnari with various promotional efforts, but it never got far. I did get reviews, and generally good ones, but sales did not grow. Along the way I learned that the best way to market one book is to write a another one. Readers in general like series, and the more titles you have available, the more likely they'll read your work at all.

It was a year and a half before I published my second novel, The Grand Masquerade. My time was still being taken up by taking care of my family, compounded with the fact that I was writing this novel from scratch rather than rewriting a previous work.

I published The Grand Masquerade in June 2014, and again got the predicted sales to friends and family with again trailed off to essentially nothing.  The Pirates of Alnari got a modest, temporary boost, but all too quickly flatlined again. I needed to keep writing.

In the meantime, my good friend Jack Badelaire was having great success with his series of World War II novels, focusing on the British Commandos. By this time he had published his fourth book in the series and gathered a loyal following along the way. Early on we had discussed collaborating on a novel, or that he would write his Commando series and I would write a parallel series about the U.S. Army Rangers.  I had outlined a plot and written a few chapters, but my writing process stagnated for a while. Then in the fall of 2015 I finally buckled down and pounded out the first novel in the series: RANGER: Operation Axehammer.

Both Jack and I were hoping that the parallel series would support each other: people who read COMMANDO would read RANGER, and vice versa. So we promoted each other's works and I got the same cover artist that created the COMMANDO covers to do the RANGER cover.

RANGER: Operation Axehammer has been available on Amazon for three months now, and has done pretty well, but that's a story for another post.

*The good news is that my wife is now cancer-free, although she still suffers from late effects of both the cancer and the treatments.

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