Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What On Earth Were You Thinking?

Yea, I get that a lot.

Why on earth did a medical student decide to write a novel. And a fantasy novel no less. And a young adult fantasy novel no less less.

A recent exchange via email with a very nice bloke from the UK forced me to reflect on the whole process. Let's start from the beginning...

How did this mess happen?

The first draft of what would become Zero Sight and Zero Sum was written in the course of 4 months during the summer before I started medical school. The draft topped out at 200K words, and would have served as a nice doorstop.

Now, I had never written anything other than journal articles (think fun thoughts like insulin suppression tests and skin cancer), so writing a novel was quite a bit like falling down a flight of stairs, climbing back up, and repeating the process. I had no storyboards. No world map. No cohesive plot. I only had a vision of a boy and a (very dangerous) girl riding on a bus. That vision was all that sustained me.

I nearly gave up three times. The plot would get away from me, and I'd spend a day or two in despair. But the bloody image of those two kids kept hijacking my dreams. And then, all of a sudden, my imagination caught fire. No other way to describe it. I started doing manic 36 hour writing sessions on my weekends. The plot grew into something tangible, and I could see all the major crisis points. I knew how the story would end, knew how I would get there, and most importantly, I knew the book had to be written. It was like a visceral urge.

Once I reached the end, I spent two months revising the beastly first draft. I focused almost entirely on pacing. I personally believe this remains my biggest challenge as a writer, and I'm consumed by the fear that I might bore my readers.

The second draft of Zero Sight finished, I had two close but honest friends read it. They looked at me with disbelief when I handed the pile of paper to them. Not a single soul had any idea I'd been working on a novel.

And then things got complicated...they actually liked it.

I'd written the book for fun. It was done on a "things you should do before you start medical school" type of whim. My dream had always been to get a paper published in Nature; I had no literary ambitions. But then one of my two readers took the initiative to sent the manuscript to a mutual friend. That friend also happened to be a bestselling author. I talked to him later that year during a wedding, and he suggested I try and find an agent.

Mustn't let them have it! Must keep it safe!
That's when—in my mind—$%# got real. A whole new set of insecurities set in. People I didn't know would have to start reading it. I became incredibly self-conscious about having other people read it. I need to polish it first. Make it "perfect" first. I carried a copy of the manuscript around with me in medical school in the vain hope that I might squeeze in some time for edits. (That didn't go so well. I ended up waiting for summer break.) But a fellow student did get a hold of a copy. He read it from cover to cover, and raised the possibility of cutting the book in two. I near tore out my hair at this suggestion...but only because I knew they were right. It was long. Too long. It needed to be split in two.

Thus began 6 months of reworking the plot and completing the fine editing on the first 100K words. We worked in the late evenings, after we'd completed our other studies. You can see all the places where he fell asleep reading. They're marked by drooping pen marks on the draft.

After we finished editing, Zero Sight was off for two months of beta reads. I received good responses and some great corrections [note: I strongly recommend fellow indie authors never ever skip this step].

It then took me another month to figure out the e-reader conversions, and yet another month to plan out all the promotions. Then Zero Sight was off to the races, and I was off to study for my medical boards.

Why did you go the indie route?

Screw the man, man.
Because acquiring an agent and publishing a book can take well over 2 years, you only get a small percentage of the sales price (5-8%), and your publisher (if you are so lucky) might tell you to re-write entire portions of a manuscript only to decide to not publish it that season. None of these prospects appealed to me. Neither did international fame or chasing a NYTimes bestseller slot. I intend to be a doctor. Being good at medicine is my priority.

And there was one more reason I decided to go indie. It was the loudest in my head, and perhaps the most unreasonable: As I wrote out the query letters for agents, I found myself getting antsy. I wanted to get Rei and Dieter's story out there. I wanted people to read it. Love it or hate it, I didn't much care, but I did want to hear what they thought.

What are the consequences of an indie lifestyle?

Pioneers in the indie writing arena like to tell newbies to "follow the long tail". The goal is to build a following, grow sales over time, and keep our backlists

Indies can follow a different approach. They can publish digitally. With digital books, there is no need to rush out and get sales. E-bookstores have unlimited shelf space, so we don't have to worry about our books getting pulled. Instead we follow a viral marketing approach that focuses on building a readership over time. We send out ebooks to book review sites (no cost). We talk to readers on discussion boards (no cost). We hand out ebooks in giveaways (no cost). We leverage social media (no cost). And we write new works while traditionally published authors are out touring (more potential revenues). This is how you "follow the long tail". Basically, like all evil geniuses, we are marshalling our forces, biding our time, and waiting for our chance to strike... (Okay, got a bit carried away with that metaphor, but you get the general idea.)

A plug: JA Konrath was the indie pioneer I followed. Check out his blog for more details.

So, what's the damage?

The Results of this grand experiment, so far:

Month 1 — 2 sales               (Thanks, mom!)
Month 2 — 83 sales             (Reviews started appearing mid-month)
Month 3 — 172 sales           (And now up to 9 reviews!)

I am now selling 10-15 books a day in the USA, but still struggling to get reviews in the UK and on GoodReads. June is supposed to be a big book buying month. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that the trend continues. Generally, if a book is good, you can expect to see major sales volumes in < 6 months. If not, you probably did something wrong. Either your cover stinks, your blurb stinks, your writing stinks or you got unlucky. For Zero Sight, only time will tell. But If I fail, I'll just get back up and start climbing the stairs again. I like doing this too much to stop.

Are you scared of the big bad sophomore flop?

Yea, it basically terrifies me. Writing a second book is like undergoing elective surgery—the danger is magnified because you have something to lose. I'll be sure to take my time and do it right. In the meantime, please be patient and check out some other indie authors!



Tyson Adams said...

Don't worry, I think people can understand the writing bug. I'm a scientist myself, we don't have to be only invested in one field for our entire lives.

B. Justin Shier said...

A wise old physician once took me aside at a conference. He pointed around the room and asked, "how many old doctors do you see here?"

I looked around and realized he was right. There were fewer than there should have been. I asked the man—who was forty years my senior—what his theory was.

He explained that many of his peers burn out over time. "They threw everything they had at their career. They didn't spend any time building up lives outside the hospital." He shook his head at it. "You can get away with those shenanigans when you're young, son, but the wear-and-tear catches up with you."

I asked him why he was still around.

"I treated myself like a patient," he explained. "I exercised every day, I spend time with my wife and kids, I did woodworking on my weekends and kept my mind flexible with random readings. Most important, I learned the art of politely saying, 'No.' Some folks will give you grief for establishing boundaries, but those are the same folks that are going to be walking around with five coronary stents and two ex-wives in under thirty years.

"Me, I'm going to be working another fifteen years. I'm going to end up treating thousands more patients. I paced myself. I recognized life was a marathon, not a sprint. I made sure to live a balanced life. I'm not going to bonk before the finish line."

His words struck a cord with me. Many old-gen physicians really beat themselves up. I think the younger generation gets this because we're being taught by those that survived. I'm using writing as an outlet. Some of my friends play music or work on medical inventions in their garages. I think we're all better (future) physicians for it.

Anonymous said...

Does Rei get more time in the next book? Or more Dieter and Rei time?

B. Justin Shier said...

There will be more Rei time. And more Dieter and Rei time. And more Rei punching Dieter in the face time.

But am I the only one that is rooting for Jules?

Is the fastest way to a man's heart really straight through his rib cage?


Anonymous said...

Yes it is but not the most satisfying way :) As to Jules she seems nice but if its Rei or Jules I am picking Rei unless Jules gets a badassness to match Rei. Then we will see. So far Rei is getting my vote if for no other reason than the showtunes