The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind, with literally hundreds of emails per day. Many ask the same questions, so I thought I’d summarize some of my responses so that everyone can read my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on what it takes to be a success as a self-pubbed author. Pretty much the same things it takes to be a successful any kind of author, so I’ll lump them together.
BREAKING NEWS: I just did my first radio interview. Aside from sounding like an old woman yelling from the bottom of a well, it could have been worse. Big thanks to Pam Stack of Authors On The Air – Blogtalk radio.
NEWS: For anyone who missed it, in the last couple of weeks I was featured in The Wall St Journal, The Times (UK), and interviewed by Examiner.com, the Huffington Post, Jeff Rivera, and Simon Duringer.
I was asked yesterday by a newbie writer to summarize what I thought was required in order to make it in this business. Now, given that every writer’s journey is different, it’s hard to pop out with meaningful guidance – I mean, some have one great book in them, others have twenty, or if you’re me, you have a whole bunch of questionable screeds banging around in your head. But it’s a question I’m asked fairly often, so here’s my attempt to answer it (with the caveat that if you’re looking for step-by-step guidance, you should also read last year’s post, How To Sell Loads of Books):
Besides a burning desire to tell a story and a rudimentary knowledge of craft, beginning (and not-so-beginning) authors need to have the three Ds: Dedication. Determination. Discipline.
None of those sound particularly fun, do they? That’s because they aren’t.
Let’s start with Dedication. I’ve found that I improve in my craft every day because I’m dedicated to doing so. I don’t have a lot of other hobbies, and I’m singularly focused on writing as my primary creative outlet. Every time I sit down to write another novel it’s with one thought in mind: that I’m going to try to raise the bar on some aspect of my writing, be it description, dialogue, plotting, pacing. I believe the best authors have that single-minded dedication to improvement, and the creation of worthwhile prose – prose that moves their audience as nobody else can.
But along with Dedication you need Determination. A sort of dogged, relentless belief that it can be done, and that even if it takes just short of forever, by God, you will do it. That determination carries you through the low points, the crises of faith, the doubts, the setbacks and rejections. One could call it being bullheaded or stubborn, and that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. A major aspect of Determination is drive (maybe I should have called this the four D’s). Drive is your willingness to do whatever it takes and create your own momentum. To overcome any obstacle. To succeed in a business where the odds are stacked against you. To sacrifice and make it happen, to be relevant, no matter what. And to push yourself, even when you don’t want to write, when the whole thing seems pointless. Determination fuels your drive.
Which is all well and good, but without Discipline, it doesn’t amount to much. Being dedicated to creating quality, and being determined to do so, are fine, but they don’t have much chance of success if you don’t have the discipline to pull it off. Writers tend to procrastinate, to spend hours on the internet reading bullshit blogs about how to succeed, to overthink and analyze and coddle their artistic side, to the detriment of actually accomplishing something. Discipline ensures you get it done. I recommend setting aside a specific time for writing every day, a target word count that you will hit (and won’t stop until you do), and a reasoned, systematic approach to creating a body of work you’ll be proud of, whether anyone ever buys it or not. But to do so, I believe you need to be as disciplined as though this were a job, where you punch the clock and do the work, every day, for as long as you’ve determined is necessary to achieve the result you want.
The three Ds.
Now, there are some other things self-pubbed authors must have, such as having the discipline to divide your literary time into writing and marketing. I counsel 75% writing, 25% marketing, because that’s what works for me. You may decide you prefer to operate differently. In most cases I’d bet you’re wrong, but hey, it’s not my career, so do what you like. But remember that books don’t sell themselves, and that the book selling business is as tough a business as any on earth. So if you believe the level of success you desire can happen without you allocating reasoned effort into marketing your wares, good luck with that. There are far too many authors out there investing time and effort into getting visibility for you to succeed with a strategy that basically amounts to hoping for a lightning strike.
This is what I tell beginning authors who want my opinion on what qualities they have to develop to do well in this business. Being an author is hard, but being a self-published author is even tougher, because you’re faced with all the tasks a publisher would handle, in addition to the writing workload. But that’s the job. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. If you want an easier gig, there are plenty. If you want a better paying one, ditto.
But if you want to be a commercially-successful author, those are my recommendations. Get comfortable with the requirements, decide whether you’re willing to do what it takes, and if so, examine the three Ds and internalize what they mean to you and how you plan to apply them to reach your dream.
It’s getting so that you can barely push the stacked newspapers that line every room out of the way without hitting yet another article or interview with me.
I was just alerted that I’m in Examiner.com, and the Huffington Post. Two different topics – the former discussing my thoughts on the industry and self-publishing, and the latter on co-authoring with Clive Cussler.
This is getting silly now. I mean, really. I blush. Although that could be my blood pressure or cholesterol acting up. But that’s not the point. Don’t be haters.
Just a quick note as I head out the door to a meeting (code for happy hour).
A friend of mine just sent me a feature in The Times (UK) wherein that venerable paper discusses whose shirts I wear and what I think of the price of tea.
NEWS: An in-depth interview with yours truly on my process, how much tequila I can drink, and other pressing questions.
It’s actually an interesting take. I didn’t realize Barbara Cartland churned out books nearly as fast as I have. Learn something new every day.
For the record, I also never said that traditional publishers were elitist swine (certainly they’re no worse than me, which isn’t saying a lot). What I said was that I decided to go the indie route because I didn’t have the patience to wait years to see my books in print, and that it was part of the reality of traditional publishing.
A good piece. You can see it here:
A friend sent me a link today that highlights one of the recurring themes in my Assassin series, set in Mexico against a brutal backdrop of cartel violence: that the largest and most influential cartel in Mexico was receiving U.S. government support – a cartel responsible for butchering tens of thousands of people in Mexico alone. The article is a must read. It can be found here.
Business Insider reveals that an investigation by El Universal has established that the U.S. Government was supporting the largest cartel in Mexico, enabling it to traffic narcotics into the U.S. and receive weapons via the “Fast and Furious” program the DEA had in place. Weapons that were then used against other cartel members, innocent bystanders, and Mexican police.
NEWS: Amazon is featuring me on their Facebook page! Please check it out and like the page. Gracias!
UPDATE: I’ve received quite a few emails recently asking about my process. This blog from last year sums it up, for those who are interested.
If that sounds like something out of a fiction novel, it’s because it is. It is exactly the scenario I lay out in loving detail in King of Swords and its sequels, where the American government is in league with the cartels, providing weapons and money laundering while protecting their shipments into the U.S.
I could not make this up. Or rather, I did. Or thought I did. Although I suspected there was much truth to my speculations.
I’ve long believed that the only way the most wanted man in the world could roam around Mexico without being arrested was to have come to an arrangement with the Mexican government. I’ve also long believed that the cartels couldn’t function at the scale they do without the active support of the U.S. government – and it was probably just happenstance that I named the Sinaloa cartel as the one that was getting the support. I put those “fictional” accounts into my Assassin series, as well as in The Delphi Chronicle, where I lay out in some detail the “fictional” history of CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking from Honduras to Arkansas while everyone’s favorite former aw shucks President was governor.
Remember that these novels were written over two years ago.
I told a journalist recently, who asked where I came up with all my conspiracy plots, that my challenge wasn’t to come up with story ideas. It was to tame down reality so that readers would find the stories plausible. I said that in a joking tone. But I wasn’t really joking. Most folks suffer from normalization bias, wherein they ignore anything troubling about their situation, in favor of pretending that everything’s normal – fine and good. My novels upset many for that reason. Nobody wants reality intruding into their comfortable artificial construct bolstered by a compliant media that’s little more than a PR arm for the government these days.
When I heard about Fast and Furious (google it for the official spin), I instantly knew in my gut what was happening. So I incorporated it into my stories. Because my scenario was the only one that made sense to me, given what I know about the cartels, which is a lot.
Go read the Business Insider article. And then, if you haven’t read King of Swords and its sequels, do so. It’s frigging frightening how exact I got it. As in, literally, nailed it note for note.
As long as there is evil in the world trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, I’ll have more than ample fodder for my novels. I expect to have a long career. More’s the pity.
Needless to say, I haven’t given up drinking yet.
Oh well. Probably all just a fluke. Move along. Nothing to see here.
I’ve been promising to unveil my big news for what seems like forever (November’s big news became December’s big news, and, well, here we are), and it’s finally time.
This week, oh nobody, just the Wall Street Journal, broke the story on page one.
NEWS: A new blog on how to be a prolific writer, at All That’s Written. Worth taking a look at if you’re an author.
The article itself is humbling in and of itself, but the news is also big: I’m co-authoring a novel with none other than the legendary Clive Cussler, appropriately monikered the “Grand Master of Adventure.” It will be the next installment in the bestselling Fargo series, and I’m excited by the opportunity to work with a master of the genre.
My name will be on the cover, along with his. I’m arguing to make it almost all me, in raised, neon red lettering, but it remains to be seen how persuasive I am. As always, please, those at home, no wagering.
Why is this news significant, other than because it will be published by a Big 5 publisher? Because an indie author has been selected by a household name to collaborate on a novel. As you might imagine, someone like Cussler can have whoever he likes – he has authors begging for the opportunity.
But for him to have teamed up with lil ol me…well, you get the point. It’s a watershed moment for indies, because there has long been this sentiment that the reason authors are indies is because they can’t cut the quality at the trad pub level, and so have to release their material themselves. This handily rebuts that belief.
The truth is that there are plenty of terrible indie releases. And there are plenty of great ones. Just as there are plenty of good and bad in any of the arts. But with authors like Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and H.M. Ward scorching the charts, indies have clearly arrived, and the market’s embraced them – or at least, some of them.
I went the indie route because I’m impatient. I didn’t feel like waiting years to find an agent that would “get” my work, and then another year for a publisher to decide whether it fit in one of the slots they had for that season. Not to mention another year for it to actually reach readers. That just didn’t seem worth it to me. For others, it did, and I have no issue with their choice. I just didn’t see it as a productive use of my time.
When Amazon broke big with 70% royalties, I understood the game had changed. Now I could release books written the way I wanted to write them, on a schedule that worked for me, and I could keep most of the money, assuming I made any. After hearing about authors like Hocking and Locke breaking the bank and selling tons in this new paradigm, I decided to jump in. Now, 25 books in 30 months later, I feel like my decision was vindicated, not the least because I’m writing with one of the most successful authors in the world and having a ball in the process. If you’d told me years ago that I’d be writing with the author of Sahara and Raise The Titanic I would have laughed you out of the room. Now, not so much.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. 30 months of basically non-stop work on a crippling schedule of my own devising. Has it been worth it? Absolutely. No question. Will I keep it up? Not a chance. You can only run an engine in the red for so long, and it starts to come apart. 2014 will involve fewer Russell Blake releases and more attention to each, with forays into romance and NA as RE Blake (following my own counsel to brand different genre offerings differently so Russell Blake fans don’t mistakenly pick up an RE Blake “Lust on the Range” tome, or RE Blake readers don’t buy an Assassin or JET book and go, “Where’s the sex, and why is everyone getting killed?”) By branding each genre’s offering in an unmistakably distinct way with a different name, I hope to avoid that, and build a readership in other genres based on the merits of my stories. Only time will tell whether that’s deluded or brilliant.
The WSJ article is a must read. It’s a good capsule summary of some of the high points of my career, such as it is. I wish it had mentioned that I take considerable pride in the plot and prose, and not just the rate of release, but hey, everyone’s a critic. The only thing I dislike about it is that my privacy is now going to be harder to maintain, but I can always get plastic surgery or wear a fake nose or move to Ecuador or something. A sex change isn’t out of the question, either. Small price, I suppose.
For those who are new to my work, I’d suggest taking a look at JET, which is my most popular series. Pure escapist action adventure with a female protag battling for survival. Think Bourne crossed with Kill Bill seasoned with a little Bond, and you’re not far off.
David Vinjamuri is the talented author of Operator, one of my top reads of last year – and you have to know that I’m picky, especially when reading a genre I write in. I was struck by how well-edited and generally thought out that book was, and as I learned more about David’s journey, I thought his story would make an interesting blog, especially considering how much I harp on quality and consistency. David writes a column for Forbes.com, in addition to having a fascinating background in the intelligence field, and just released his sequel to Operator, titled Binder. He was kind enough to take out a few hours of his time to put up with me pestering him. The below represents the results of that interrogative.
Russell Blake: David, I enjoyed your first novel, Operator, a great deal. It was one of the better written indie novels of 2012. As I began stalking you, I discovered that you write for Forbes.com – what’s it like to write fiction while working for a pub like Forbes?
David Vinjamuri: I enjoy the combination. On my Forbes column I write about brands and increasingly about publishing. It’s completely grounded in reality and gives me a chance to make structured arguments. Writing thrillers is more about telling stories, which is the other thing I love.
RB: How did you get hooked up with Forbes?
DV: I traditionally published a marketing book called Accidental Branding in 2008. It got good exposure and I was invited to write articles for BrandWeek and Advertising Age as a result. Then my editor from AdAge moved to Forbes and invited me to become a contributor.
RB: So why sully yourself with writing action/adventure novels when you have a real career?
DV: It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was twelve. My first real job was working as an intelligence analyst at the State Department. I had an offer to join the CIA a couple years later but decided to go to grad school instead. I went to The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and planned to return to government when I graduated but when I considered the size of my student loans I ended up in the private sector. I worked for Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, DoubleClick and others in marketing. But I always wanted to write thrillers. So when the opportunity to write a business book came along I was really thinking it was a sideways way to get into writing fiction.
RB: Interesting. I think your intel background shows in your writing – certainly in Operator. Let’s just say it had a certain veracity to it that’s often lacking in the genre. Now let’s move on to process. How do you come up with your ideas? And when you have one, how do you proceed from there?
DV: The four thrillers I’ve worked on (one finished but unpublished, Operator, Binder and the one I’m currently working on) all started with an idea for the opening scene. When I lived in DC, a girl I’d dated from my hometown killed herself with a gun. At her funeral a guy who’d been stalking her overseas showed up and claimed he was her fiancé. That became the jumping off point for Operator. For Binder, I imagined a scene from the sixties – a bunch of protestors pulled off a bus at night by men in hoods and beaten. One of the protestors goes missing but it turns out she was never on the bus. Then I think about what will create the central tension in the book and wind a story around that.
RB: Interesting, and a lot like how ideas like JET started out, with just the name and a rough concept of a killer chase sequence.
DV: Like minds…
RB: Let’s talk about craft. Are there specific things you focus on with each book? Do they change?
DV: Absolutely. With Operator, I was very focused on language and the kinesthetic issues. I have been a thriller reader since I was eight years old, but I also read a lot of literary novels. I was frustrated by some of the writing in mainstream thrillers. That’s part of what made me want to write thrillers. My other pet peeve with thrillers was the mechanics of the action sequences. I was a wrestler before college and I studied judo, aikido and tang soo do. I was also a weapons analyst at State. I really wanted to write something that wouldn’t make experts cringe.
With Binder, I had different issues. I wrote Operator as an origins story. Michael Herne, the main character ended up being a little aloof, probably more than I wanted. I also thought that my female characters were one-dimensional. So in Binder I was focused on making Herne more relatable and introducing some stronger women. I still think Nichols is too generic but she will return and I’ll make her more human. The second big issue with Binder was pacing. Operator was really trans-genre. It started as a mystery but ended as a thriller. I wanted to do the same thing with Binder, but I knew that some people got bogged down at the beginning of Operator. So I looked at serial novels all the way back to Dickens to understand how serials pull you from chapter to chapter. That also helped with plot. Twists and surprises are a great way to maintain tension.
For the next book I’m working more on character and on dialogue. Most of my writing before Operator was expository, so dialogue does not come naturally to me. I want to improve at writing characters that can be identified by their speech patterns alone.
RB: If you have this sense of forward movement, does that mean you’re dissatisfied with what you’ve already written?
DV: I always pick up an older book or article and say “how could I write that sentence?” I hope that I am developing as a writer. I have a very clear idea of the kind of writer I’d like to be. I’m not interested in rambling soliloquies or extended artful descriptions. I want to evoke images and feelings with the fewest number of words possible. I also want every single book I write to cause half my readers to miss a night of sleep. But I’m not there yet. I have more to learn. I like writing as an indie because I can bring an audience along with me as I grow.
RB: Do you outline or are you a pantser?
DV: I’m somewhere between the two. Before I start a book I’ve thought about it for a couple of months at least. I think of that inciting incident, the central tension, the characters and the layers of the story. But I don’t try to lay out the plot in detail. Since I’m writing in first person, I want to be authentically surprised by the direction that events turn. I spend a lot of time as I’m writing trying to figure out the next twist and plot turn. I am very detail-oriented.
RB: How many drafts do you do? And how do you know when it’s “done?”
DV: I did seven drafts of Operator but only three of Binder before it went to the editor. It goes to the editor when I can’t make it significantly better on my own.
RB: Let’s discuss editors, beta readers, proofreaders, etc. Do you use them, and if so, how? What’s your approach?
DV: After I’ve advanced the story as far as I can, a couple of friends with specific talents read the book. One holds the opposite political views I do and he helps me scrub bias from the books because they’re not meant to be political. Another reads just for relationships – she’s not a thriller reader and tells me honestly when something Michael or a female character does makes her cringe. Once I’ve done that it goes to a developmental editor. I get back a few pages of thoughts on pace, plot, characterization, dialogue, etc as well as margin notes, and I redraft. Then it goes to my Army contact (a Master Sergeant at Fort Bragg who runs the armory and is an instructor at the Special Warfare school) for technical review. Then the manuscript goes in for line editing and finally proofreading and formatting. The process is expensive and time-consuming but I am very sensitive about the quality critique of Indie authors. I obsess over my work and I like having total control. That doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t slip through, but I try my best.
RB: Operator was one of the cleanest self-pubbed books I’ve read, so your best is better than many. What’s your preferred writing environment like? Silent, or music? If so, what kind?
DV: It’s generally silent because I get into a zone and I forget to put on music. But I have a playlist which includes everything from Adele and One Republic to Johnny Cash, The Stones, Pitbull, blues and classical. I have eclectic tastes.
RB: How many hours a day do you write when you’re writing fiction? And how do you approach a novel? Immersion? Organized? Chaotic?
DV: Unfortunately I’m juggling a bunch of different things. I teach master’s degree students at NYU, train corporate marketers, write the column for Forbes, speak professionally and do some consulting. There’s very little predictable about my schedule. Some weeks I can spend two or three full days writing, other weeks I’m caught up with other stuff. Because I have two small children I try to do my work during business hours or late at night if I must, but I write better during the day.
RB: How many hours, total, would you guess you have into a first draft, and then any subsequent drafts?
DV: At least a thousand, possibly more. I’m afraid to count.
RB: What are you working on now?
DV: The next story in the Michael Herne saga. I’m determined to get it out in 2014.
RB: What counsel would you offer to other authors desirous of going down the indie path?
DV: The writing has to be its own reward. Every writer wants readers but even successful writers may have a period of years when there are very few of them. If you can’t find happiness in the process of writing, the road will be too steep and uncertain to succeed. That’s true for both traditional and indie writers. You also can’t assume that writing a good book will ensure that it sells. That’s marketing and it’s a completely different job. Unfortunately traditional publishers market very few titles actively, so this also applies to both kinds of writers. What’s different for indies is that you don’t have the benefit of a disinterested agent or acquisitions editor telling you “this is a good book” so you have to have the stubborn self-confidence of an entrepreneur to succeed.
RB: Any last words of advice?
DV: Things are changing fast. The most important thing for indie authors right now is to focus on craft and quality control. The more feedback you can get in the process – from editors to independent reviewers – the better chance you have to improve as a writer. I want to get better with every single book.