Being an indie author is hard. First you write, then you edit and then you market - each of these have their difficulties. This series of interviews lets me, struggling author of the recently released The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole -- pick the brains of fellow travelers. Some are huge stars, others are struggling award winners and many are inbetween.
Jason Gurley was recommended to me by Hugh Howey and he very graciously agreed to answer questions for this series.
Your bio, in addition to saying you are a fellow Portland local (hello!), says that you only started publishing last year: but, my friend, you have quite a number of publications listed to your name? Are we seeing a backlist of 'locker novels' from you or are these all original works produced in the last year?
Hello! I'm a recent Portlander -- Portlandian? -- so I'm really just beginning to meet all of the interesting writers who also live and work here.
Everything that I've published to-date -- which, as you noticed, means everything that I published in 2013 -- is a new work. That doesn't mean I don't have novels in a drawer -- I have three or four there -- only that I think they should probably stay in the drawer. The one exception is a novel called Eleanor, which I've been working on for a long, long time, and which I hope to finally finish and publish this year.
With this series i've been able to meet a great number of writers. Some are on the path - or have arrived - to be full time, working novelists. Some want to keep their day jobs, others have the goal of doubling their income by half. Where are you on this spectrum and where do you hope to end up?
Lately I find that thinking about that at all is counterproductive. When I wrote my first novel, I was eighteen, and I set a goal for myself to be finished working a day job by the age of twenty-five. That gave me seven years to become famous and sell a few million books, right? Doable -- right? I'll be thirty-six this year, and that means I've been writing books for about half my life, and you could ask a few million people, all in a row, who I am and what I write, and I'd be willing to bet 100% of those surveyed would stare blankly at you and say, Wait -- who? Who are you asking me about? Never heard of him.
So I try not to think about that sort of thing. I'm fortunate to really enjoy my career and the things that I do for a living, and I'm happy to create books and tell stories when I'm not doing that. It makes me a more well-rounded person -- I hope -- and helps me to appreciate the smaller successes even more.
You chose to set 'Greatfall' in Hugh Howeys world of 'Wool'. Were you just riding the mans coat tails or was this a deliberate decision?
Can I say 'both'? No, I'll answer the latter -- it was a very deliberate decision, but one that came about in an interesting way. I'd just begun self-publishing in early 2013 when I heard about Hugh and his success. A coworker was a passionate fan of the books. When Hugh came to Powell's Books here in Portland, I went to hear him talk and read. After the event, he invited anybody who was interested to join him for dinner down the street. About a dozen people went, including me. Over dinner, someone asked about fan fiction, and he said he encouraged it, and that he fully expected somebody to out-write him in his own world.
I thought that was great, and while I have no illusions that I actually did that, I really had fun shining a light into the dark places he'd left unexplored. Wool and Shift and Dust were phenomenal, but the beauty of them was that Hugh carved a clear path for his big, epic story -- and you could see a thousand little paths that hadn't been touched, just waiting there.
One of them was the concept of a silo overtaken by religious fervor, and that's where I decided to play.
'Greatfall' made an Amazon bestseller list, (well, who hasn't i'm in the top 200,000 on Amazon so i'm also on the list, just farther down). What did your marketing plan look like?
Isn't that cool? Greatfall was one of a terrific bunch of silo stories to join Kindle Worlds when it debuted last summer. It's been enormously gratifying to see how people have responded to it. I'm not an author with any kind of name recognition or brand value, or anything like that -- I'm just a guy who writes stories when he can, and publishes them when they're ready. But Greatfall just sparked some kind of something, and readers seemed to love it. It's been on Kindle Worlds' top 10 bestselling titles list almost every day since, and spent a lot of time at #1. I still can't believe that it has this kind of staying power. When I peeked at the list this morning, Greatfall was #2, just behind Hugh's Peace in Amber (his really moving Vonnegut story). And a short story I wrote as an epilogue to Greatfall -- The Book of Matthew -- was at #3. (They're at #4 and #5 on the list currently.)
Greatfall actually did really well before Kindle Worlds existed, too. But I don't think I could cop to having a marketing plan. I think the book just entered the waters when Hugh's canonical series was starting to really go big -- when it started to capture all of the readers who hadn't yet stumbled across it -- and there were several of us who were waiting right there for readers when they finished Shift and were still waiting for Hugh to finish Dust. The beautiful part of being an indie author is the sense of community that comes with it. Indie authors don't have marketing budgets, not really -- we don't have a team of people going to work for us. We've got each other, though, and sometimes that's even better.
When I published Greatfall, the path had already been blazed by other fan fiction writers. W.J. Davies had caught fire with The Runner. Lyndon Perry (The Last Prayer) and Thomas Robins (The Pawn) and Patrice Fitzgerald (The Sky Used to Be Blue) were out there with the first books in their series. Michael Bunker -- who is beginning to break out, and who I think anybody who loves books should be reading -- was out there writing his own revolutionary story (The Silo Archipelago). For a little while, it seemed that there was a new fan fiction story every other day.
Then Kindle Worlds came along, and Hugh's silo world became a sanctioned one with KW's formal submission process, and the world just blew up. There are more silo stories out there than any one person can read, and I think that's a pretty amazing thing.
Your bio proudly proclaims your day job, so what does your writing process look like? I work and have an 18 month old, I swear most of my writing is done during stolen moments (like this moment here, have to fun, we are now flinging books off the shelf).
Yeah, it's never quite as easy as you think it will be, right? I'm between day jobs right now, which means that my process has shifted just a bit more. I think that's evident by how many short titles I've published recently. But generally, I work a full day, like anybody else, and then I come home and spend a few hours playing with my daughter (she's two) and hanging out with my wife (she's awesome), and then as the house goes dark and everybody begins to sleep, I start writing. Sometimes that's as early as ten p.m., but more often it's eleven or later when I'm able to start. On a good night I'll write until one or two in the morning.
Between jobs, though, I've found more time than usual. (I also do book cover design, so there's even more work competing for my attention.) As a father of a young child who deserves my full attention, and with other demands on my time, I've learned how to do what you just described -- to steal moments, and fill them with furious writing bursts. I'm fortunate to write very fast, so if I can steal a half-hour, I can usually knock out a couple thousand words. I think if I didn't have speed -- or words just bursting to get out, honestly -- I'd probably be pretty discouraged by the limited writing opportunities.
You have a great article about the toils of becoming a working writer. This is important. In university my friends and I just sort of believed if we wrote it our words would float out into the mind of some editor and agent and they would just KNOW we were the future of literature. Can you tell me a bit about the journey to become a writer?
I definitely believed the same thing. I'd read so many anecdotes shared by successful authors that I just expected my experience to mirror their own. It doesn't work that way, though. You know, some of the best advice I've ever heard came from my short stint working on a graphic novel, as I was getting to know people with successful webcomics. They told me that I should count on being invisible for at least three years, and explained why that was a good thing -- those three years (at least for a comics person) are all about building your library of content, and working out the kinks in your style, and finding a voice. Those three years are a gift, sort of a playground where you can get better and better at what you do before the world catches on. I wish I'd heard that advice years ago. But I know I was too cocky to listen to it back then.
My own journey really began in high school. I loved writing, and adored books, and I'd written short stories since I was a kid. I remember reading them in front of my classmates now and then, as part of an assignment, and getting such a charge from people laughing at the funny moments in my work. (Maybe I should have become a comedian?) In high school I took a creative writing elective -- this was senior year, I'd moved to a new high school, I had too many credits to graduate and so I could afford to just take 'fun' classes. The teacher recognized very quickly that I was already quite good at the things she was going to teach, so while the rest of the class worked on writing assignments, I sat in the corner and just wrote stories, and she would edit them. I produced a lot of stories during that time.
After high school I began writing novels. I finished my first at eighteen. I think I was nineteen when I finished the next one, maybe twenty-one when I finished the third. The third one landed me an agent -- briefly -- and then I was on my own again, and I started writing Eleanor. I'm still writing Eleanor. It's been thirteen years. But at the end of 2012 I heard about Amazon's novel-writing contest -- the Breakthrough Novel competition, I think it's called -- and I decided to press pause on Eleanor, and write something new for the competition. I wrote a fifty-thousand book in about three weeks, and then I realized that it was extremely unlikely to win a contest with so many entrants, and I did something better -- I self-published it. That was The Man Who Ended the World, and it was the first of four novels that I wrote and published in 2013. It reminded me that I still loved to write, and more than that, reminded me that I could finish writing something. That's the problem with novels that take years and years to finish -- you start to forget that you are capable of just completing something.
Why self publish? I self-published 'The Boston 395' after a series of the most amazing rejection letters ever. In one week I got one from a major publisher that said my sample chapters were fantastic but too experimental. I also got a letter that same week from a small publisher that said I was too mainstream, but that my sample chapters where 'the best first 20 pages they had read in a long time.'
Why not self-publish? By the time I had a book that I wanted to do something with -- that I thought readers might really enjoy -- the stigma of self-publishing was long gone. It wasn't about buying two thousand copies of your book and driving cross-country trying to sell them anymore. Self-publishing offered creative control, it offered more promising royalties, and it rewarded hard work. I had plenty of hard work to give. But more importantly, it removed all barriers to readers -- the only thing standing between me and readers was my own work. No agents to pass on it, no publishers to turn it down or decide what readers wanted. Just me, and my book, and potential readers. The validation of a reader is really the only thing that matters, isn't it? I don't know why I'd voluntarily give someone else decision-making power over my own stories. In the end, the reader either likes it or doesn't.
There's also a sense of immediacy that I really like about self-publishing. In January, I knew I was still a couple of months away from finishing Eleanor, and I wanted to give my small group of readers something new. So in about two weeks' time I wrote and self-published four short stories -- one that provided an epilogue to Greatfall, and three stand-alone pieces. As an indie, the only limitation on how quickly I can publish something is the actual time it takes for a book to be processed by Amazon, or iBooks, or Barnes & Noble.
But I think that the greatest benefit is the direct connection it creates between me and readers. I don't have a huge following, but I'm getting to meet my readers and have conversations with them about books and things that interest them. I know a lot of my readers by name, and I know what they like about my work and what they don't -- because they tell me. I value their time, and I don't want to give them books that waste it, which makes me work harder to tell good stories.
In the 90's being 'indie' was huge - we had indie films from Tarantino, indie music labels like SubPop, K Records and Tooth and Nail were everywhere. All my friends were in indie bands. I wanted to make indie movies and read the book 'feature filmmaking at used car prices' as if it were some sort of scripture. But if you wanted to be an indie.writer you were pretty much stuck with friends and family - their just was no real way to make money at it. Thats all changed. What is the future of writing for those of us going APE (Author, Publisher, Editor/Entrepreneur).
Oh, I have no idea. I don't really think anybody does -- the landscape keeps shifting so much that even those who are thinking about this every single day have to change their outlook every week or two. One thing that I think we're beginning to see, though, is that some authors are really struggling to shift their thinking -- and I'm one of them, as a recent blog post of mine will attest -- from the old publishing process to the new one. What I mean is, we've all heard that publishers won't look at our work without an agent submitting it, and so we've all flooded agents with our work, only to hear months later that they're not interested -- and I think it's possible that we view that gauntlet as part of the validation process. If we can get through it, if a big publisher's stamp shows up on the spine of our book, then we've really, really made it. (Michael Bunker called it a form of Stockholm Syndrome -- he wrote a great blog post about what writers want and why they shouldn't want it that goes much deeper on this subject than I will.)
But as indies we never lose our rights, we never need someone else's thumbs-up before we publish, we never have to be told that our genre is dead and we can't write in it -- we can write for love, for art, for money, for whatever we want, and take it to readers and let them decide if we're worth paying attention to.
There's also some interesting talk lately about authors banding together to start their own publishing arms -- by authors for readers, that sort of thing -- to create a branded mark of quality in the indie book space, to help readers find gems they might otherwise miss.
Like I said, we're still in the crazy cell-division phase. Everything's going to be wildly different in a year, in five.
Portland is a great city known for its beer and books. We are lucky to be in a town with a literary institution as great as Powell's and with non-traditional writing instruction like The Attic: A Haven For Writers. As an indie.writer do you feel you are getting the support you need from the community of writers? What should we do on the local level to create systems of support for indie.writers?
Oh, man. What is the Attic? See, I'm so new to this town. Whatever that is, it sounds pretty cool.
I'm just getting traction here. I met a few other indie authors at Wizard World last year -- Erik Wecks and Will Hertling, two genre authors who are doing really interesting things with space opera and artificial intelligence -- and through them I've met a number of others. I did my first public reading with a group of authors last month, and I'm getting involved on a personal level, doing cover design for some of my new author friends.
But as for support -- I don't know. I know that's something that a lot of writers look for, but I'm not certain if I do or not. Writing is very solitary, and I'm generally very, very introverted, so it's usually a great success for me to actually get outside and meet other authors. Right now I meet up with a number of them once a month for drinks and conversation -- that's Will Hertling's doing, his Third Thursday Writers' Meetup -- and that's a lot of fun. Erik Wecks invited me to speak on a couple of panels with him at this year's Wizard World -- that was a really great experience, and a nice way to look back at where I was last year and where I'm at now.
I think historically I just haven't been a big joiner of writers groups and the like. I'm trying, despite myself, to change that a little bit, and get to know some of the wonderful writers here, and learn from them.
The Last Word: Anything you want to say to friends, former lovers, enemies, critics or fans?
Read books! Read lots and lots of books. They're wonderful.
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