It’s been a long time since I talked about where the whole writing thing is.
This one’s on me. I’ve been avoiding you.
I don’t remember where we were the last time I checked in. I attended Norwescon this year, again; I think that was the last blog post about what I was up to. Norwescon has a dear place in my heart for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the place where this last big push pretty much started a few years ago. It took me a while to put it together, though. I want to talk a little bit about how I ended up there, because it might help explain a bit about how I ended up here. And by “here,” I mean insanely, wildly successful, at least, by indie-author standards. More on that in a moment, too.
If you’ve been
stalking reading my early blog entries, you know that writing Dragon’s Trail has been a long journey.
I believe that there’s more to be told in doing a thing yourself than watching it done. Simply having the technical details right doesn’t create nearly as immersive an experience as knowing how it feels and what’s going through the mind of the person doing it, and writing about that. To this end, I spent many years learning to do the stuff that you read about in my books: swordsmanship, horsemanship, stunt work, visiting castles and ruins and pacing them off, making steel in an artisanal forge. Through developing a working knowledge of these things, I made friends with the real experts. A few years back, one of them referred me to the panel selection gurus at Norwescon, and I ended up on a whole bunch of panels over the course of the convention, speaking on swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, castle construction, military strategy, theoretical weapons, celestial navigation — pretty much everything except writing — and having a kick-ass time.
I was working on Dragon’s Trail during this time, but I didn’t tell anyone. I went to Norwescon the next couple of years, and took a slightly different tack with my panels, turning them more and more into Fantasy Mythbusting. This is when I first did my apparently now-infamous shoulder-throw, seoi-nage‘ing a guy in full armor while wearing a Brooks Brothers sportcoat, and then shooting my cuffs like James Bond. Norwescon is primarily geared for content creators, so we got some really good questions (especially after that), and it hit me, as these people were citing chapter and verse (“In the Tower of Joy fight, how did Ser What’s His Nuts stab that guy through his coat of plates?”), that there was a rabid and under-served readership who was sick and tired of feeling lied-to by authors and movies. Readers who get pissed off when authors hand-wave details or just get stuff wrong. Unbeknownst to them, I was working on a book — and the beginning of a series — with decades of effort behind it, aimed directly at them. I hadn’t known that they existed until I found myself in front of rooms full of them.
I had another advantage, here, because I write and lecture for a living. A lot of fantasy authors, I’ve learned, aren’t good in front of crowds; they get weird. Well, weirder. Me, though, I like a big room. I really, really, enjoy speaking at cons. Man, I enjoy speaking at cons. If I could just write books and travel around the world talking about all this stuff to rooms full of interested — and interesting — people, I’d be the happiest idiot in the world. Get me up there with a longsword and a laser pointer, and I’m in my happy place.
Also, at this point, I’d just gone through a whole thing with the first editor I’d hired, who’d recommended that I take all the technical details out of Dragon’s Trail, because it “would just confuse everybody” if swords didn’t cut through armor like lightsabers and horses got tired. Also, he promised me, nobody would ever believe that you could do judo in armor. (“It’s too heavy.”) I had just, like, a week before, found an editor who understood what I was going for, and I had set my sights on self-publishing, and these lovable maniacs who were now following me around from panel to panel asking me questions in the hallway were exactly the people I had been writing for all these decades without realizing it, and they were right here.
This year, when I went to Norwescon, I was an author, not just an expert. I brought my greatsword. I wore a sport jacket and my trademark low fade, because looking like American Dad has become my shtick. (This year, one conventioneer said, “Not everyone can pull off a broadsword and a tweed jacket. It really works on you, though.”) Most of all, though, Dragon’s Trail was done. I propped up a copy in front of me at every panel, and did my thing. I’d also taken a huge leap and booked a slot for an autograph signing. You know, in case anyone was interested. Because, why not.
I didn’t take the signing very seriously, and that one is also on me. I was so sure that it was going to be just me, alone in a room watching the clock surrounded by stacks of my novel, that I invited panel attendees to come and hang out to continue discussions offline. I actually showed up a few minutes late to my book signing because I stopped and grabbed a burger to take with me. That’s how I thought it was going to go: eat lunch, talk shop, hand out a few copies from my box of books.
This is how it went: I walked into the ballroom, and saw a lot of authors behind tables with no one in front of them, and one huge-ass line stretching into the middle of the room in front of an empty chair. My first thought as I walked in, carrying my cheeseburger in a styrofoam box, was, “Damn. Professional goals.” And then I saw that it was my book in people’s hands in the line, and I got one of those moments of vertigo when the world shifts sideways a couple of feet and you realize that everything’s different, now.
The bookstore had sold out of copies of Dragon’s Trail. People were bringing up programs for me to sign instead.
It crossed my mind right about then that I was actually onto something. It had been six months since the launch of Dragon’s Trail, and it had done a slow liftoff, and was just getting to the point that it was generating its own sales spikes that weren’t tied to any promotions, which meant that it was starting to get discovered and socialized. After Norwescon, my daily sales doubled, and I ended up with a contract to keep Dragon’s Trail in stock at the University Bookstore in Seattle, which has the biggest and awesomest Science Fiction section in the city.
A couple of weeks later, Dragon’s Trail got accepted by BookBub for an international-only promotion. If you’re not familiar with BookBub, they’re more or less like Groupon for e-books. It you don’t have it on your phone, get it. They have an app that sends you deals on discounted books. Really good books. Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Debbie Macomber. The week before Dragon’s Trail was featured on BookBub, the featured fantasy novel was Dune. Also, they occasionally feature wonderful indies that you may not have heard of.
Indie authors have a love-hate relationship with BookBub, because it’s a potential career-maker if you can get featured. However, it’s curated content and it’s extremely competitive; you’re competing with the major houses, so you have to produce a book that’s competitive with the majors — cover, content, editing, proofreading, reviews — in order for them to work with you. The popular consensus is that BookBub hates indies, and they don’t. Trust me on this. They love indies who can put out a book that can hang with the big kids.
This is another big part of the story, and critical to everyone asking me how I managed this, and what my secret is. Dragon’s Trail went through multiple iterations and at least a dozen total rewrites since its inception 30 years ago, including a couple of complete shifts in story that spawned entire other novels (at one point, Ulo was the hero and Jarrod was the villain, in what has become a novel called Of Memory and Empire; I still have a draft of this, and it will be the final book in the series, serving as both a prequel and Ulo’s origin story). On top of that, I have a half dozen stunted beginnings and hasty drafts of sequels, hundreds of pages of clipped scenes, and literally boxes upon boxes full of notepads and journals with flowcharts, dialogue, and beat sheets that I hammered out while getting rejected fifty-odd times (shit, maybe a hundred if I include Of Memory and Empire) by traditional publishers and agents. Dragon’s Trail is my debut novel, but it’s also, at this point, my life’s masterpiece. I had a good two million words under my belt as a fantasy author before I wrote this final version, and all that work put me way the hell ahead coming out of the gate. So, 30 years after I started, I’m an overnight success.
With BookBub’s help, Dragon’s Trail hit the #1 slot in Fantasy on Amazon Canada. All fantasy. It broke the Top 100 books — again, all books — in Australia, and hit the #2 slot in Sword and Sorcery in the U.K.
We exceeded BookBub’s projections for the promotion by a considerable margin, and chalked it up as a successful proof of concept. We were now certain that if we could just get the book in front of people, they’d buy it. We’d seen this in smaller promotions that we’d run — X number of eyes equals Y clicks and Z sales, pretty much consistently — and we’d just seen that those numbers more or less replicated at much larger levels. This was huge. We weren’t quite sure how to capitalize on it, though.
And then, last month, BookBub selected Dragon’s Trail for a U.S. feature, with many times the audience, and boy, we hit that son of a bitch into the lights. It demolished projections and ended up on a total of 29 Best Seller lists across every major retailer, landing in the Top 100 overall on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and ending up at #1 in Epic Fantasy on both. We’re going into the third week since the BookBub feature, Dragon’s Trail has long returned to its normal price, and we’re still sitting here watching the numbers every day with our mouths open.
I’ve been trying to keep my head down and just plow ahead on Book II, The New Magic. I’m halfway into the third draft, and it’s still not feeling right to me. It’s disjointed, and there are pieces of the story that don’t fit but are critical for the series and I’m not sure how to deal with that, yet. Also, it’s just not funny. Yet. It will be. At least, I hope. I haven’t yet dismissed the idea that Dragon’s Trail was a total fluke and that I suck at writing.
The pressure was considerable, before; now, it’s enormous. Nothing like a good walloping dose of success to really kick your self-esteem in the nuts. I recommend everyone try it. Being successful makes everything so much harder, holy shit. Who knew? It’s fun, though, in its own awkward way. I feel like I’m standing on the top rung of a ladder, and not sure what to do next; enjoying the view, but also wondering if I can shimmy onto that branch up there if I jump.
Complicating this, I’ve been mobilized for yet another Active Duty tour through 2018. I was requested by name for this one, meaning that somebody somewhere thinks that I’m the only mook in the Army who can do a thing that needs doing. To be fair, I more or less invented the thing they need done, but to put this in perspective, someone who gets paid a lot of money to make important decisions decided that I, the guy whose commander once refused to pin the Reserve equivalent of a Good Conduct Medal (ARCAM) on him, am their only hope, which should give you some idea of how much shit we’re in right now. Anyway, it’s been waking up at 0400, morning PT, and long days of garrison life attached to an Active Duty unit. Saluting, formations, and all that wind-up soldier stuff. Marching. Blerg. I do not function well at echelons above drinking buddies. I’ll be done with that part of it in a week or two, and then I’ll be back where I belong, resting my feet on my desk and calling my teammates by their first names. In the meantime, there’s not much writing being done.
It took me about two years to write the final draft of Dragon’s Trail, most of it on back to back tours. This does not bode well for the sequel, but I’ll do what I can. In the meantime, the sudden, overwhelming, and unexpected success of Dragon’s Trail has motivated us to work on national distribution into bookstores, and hopefully, a hardcover this fall. I’m still going to try to get The New Magic out by the end of October, but Gotham needs me.
So, that’s where I’m at. The past ten weeks mark the most success I’ve ever had at anything, by any measurable standard. I’m insanely happy right now, and I wanted to thank all of you new readers, and all of you old friends who’ve stuck around to see this. This was as much you as it was me.
What’s hard to believe, and exhausting to contemplate, is that while what we’ve accomplished is widely considered the indie author’s Holy Grail, there is a whole new world, much larger, that just opened up as a result. After all this work, this tremendous, life-changing achievement must now serve as a small beginning. There’s much more to come. Hang on.