Indie Author Interview: James Derry

August 25, 2016

One of the authors with me in the Weird Western StoryBundle is James Derry, author of Idyll.  I got to ask him a few writerly questions:

Novel Dog: Tell me about your experiences in publishing. Any traditional contracts, or are you pure indie? Why did you choose to self-publish?

James Derry:  All of my efforts in traditional publishing never netted me more than a friendly shrug and notes that amounted to: “the genres you’re writing in (horror and Westerns) aren’t easy sells right now.” Which honestly, I thought was a perfectly valid rationale. I never took for granted that traditional publishing is a business, and that most big businesses are institutionally risk-adverse—and that, to them, niche genres amount to barely more than pocket change.

IMG_3045_smBut the big ‘duh’ moment came when I realized that most traditionally published authors don’t make enough money to quit their day jobs. I said to myself, “So I’m going to spend years going through this soul-crushing query process, and even if I succeed at it, just about the best I can hope for is a four-figure advance and a book that’ll be considered burned out after three months? And my agent and publisher won’t even help me market it?” After that, the advantages of traditional publishing seemed very marginal.

ND: What are some of your influences? What inspires your work?

JD:  A lot of the usual suspects: Stephen King and John Steinbeck. I’m inspired by a bunch of modern sci-fi authors—Kim Stanley Robinson, James S.A. Cory, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds—but I think they’re all way beyond my league to emulate. I also draw inspiration from random sources: nature shows, video games, even reality television, because it provides constant reminders that every person—no matter how petty or selfish or self-destructive—is the hero of their own story.

ND: Talk a little about your writing process.

JD:  Usually I’m daydreaming when I find an image or a moment that strikes a chord with me. Those moments become my story beats, and I build a very rough outline around those beats. Then I write a very rough draft where I try to focus on simply connecting one sentence to the next. I try my best to keep it raw and not get bogged down on pretty phrasing, or referencing my thesaurus. Then, there’s quite a bit of revisions as I rework the first draft or move on to the second draft. Once I have the manuscript somewhat polished, I have a couple of trusted sources proof it and offer feedback. Another big help is the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle Fire. I email a manuscript to my Kindle, and then I listen to it in the car or doing chores. I catch a lot of typos that way.

ND: What is some writing advice that you wish you’d heard earlier?

JD:  Don’t be afraid to write a crappy first draft. I think that’s a really difficult idea for a beginning writer to take to heart, because when you’re first starting out, you want to have that personal validation that what you’re writing at least ’sounds’ good, even if you’re feeling wobbly on your story. But writing a crappy first draft is a good thing to do based on two facts: A) Nobody but you is ever going to read it. B) You’re probably going to end up rewriting big chunks of it anyway, because you’ll find scenes where the characterization is inconsistent, or you’ll realize you have too much exposition, or a big stretch of pages where nothing actually happens. If you don’t spend a lot of time on your first draft, then you won’t feel so frustrated when you have to rework it.

ND: Could you set up Idyll for us?

JD:  Sure thing. Here is the blurb:

Idyll is a rugged planet—a new, simpler start for some 10,000 settlers who have fled Mother Earth. But a strange ‘plague’ of contagious sleep has devastated their Settlement, sparked by a mysterious mantra called the Lullaby.

After a three-year quarantine, Walt and Samuel Starboard set out from their ranch on a mission to cure their comatose mother and find their missing father. For days they ride through a blighted landscape: deserted cabins and gravestones and the ruins of towns destroyed by fire. Just when the brothers are about to give up, they stumble upon a second pair of survivors, two beautiful and determined sisters.

Miriam and Virginia Bridge offer new hope, but they also present new problems. Stirrings of emotion and shifting priorities threaten to set the brothers against each other. Can Walt and Samuel overcome years of festering resentment, or will their rivalry tear them apart before they can reunite their broken family? And will any of them survive the revelation of who—or what—unleashed the Lullaby on their home world?

It was a lot of fun to write Idyll, and the story took some surprising turns (even for me!) as I finished up its sequel. I’m currently working on Book 3 of the Idyll Trilogy, and I hope to release it in early Spring of 2017.

All Covers Large

You can catch up with James Derry at his blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.  The Weird Western StoryBundle, featuring our fiction along with seven more authors, is available only here for a few more days!

Weird Western StoryBundle

August 17, 2016

The folks at StoryBundle have gathered the work of nine authors (including me!) into a single  ebook, available until September 8.  Check out the mega-cover:

All Covers Large

So neat… I just can’t stop looking at it.  Okay, sure, you might spot New World and Hair of the Bear (my babies!) in there, but there are eight other titles in the same genre.

Whatever genre that is.  I called New World a “frontier fantasy” back in 2011. The Swords for Hire anthology goes by “medieval western.”  And this Storybundle?  How about “weird western”?  Whatever we call it, it’s got cool stuff:

You’ll find stories here set in the snows of old Alaska and the heat of contemporary Arizona, post-Civil War San Francisco and post-colonization planets, and places the seem as familiar as any wooded mountain or wind-swept desert… until tigers and dragons and horses that are so much more than you might assume burst into the scene.

I’m amped to have my work appear with these writers. And another nifty thing about the way this StoryBundle works is that you can decide how much you’d like to pay for it.

StoryBundle lets you choose your own price, so you decide how you’d like to support these awesome writers and their work. For $5—or more if you’d like—you’ll receive the basic bundle of four great novels in DRM-free ebook format. For the bonus price of at least $14—or more if you’d like—you’ll receive all nine novels. If you choose, a portion of your payment will go toward supporting Mighty Writers and Girls Write Now.

I’m going to be gushing about this cool thing until September 8, when it goes poof forever. Might as well click over and take a look.

Five Years as an Indie Author

March 17, 2016

Five years ago today, I uploaded my first novel to the Kindle. I caught the bug instantly and have indie-published every title since.

ibmpcxt3 Back in 1986, I hammered out my first short story at the keyboard of an IBM PC XT. By 1991, I was looking to publish, so I wrote letters to several magazines, asking them for their writer’s guidelines. I made sure to include an SASE with each letter, so I would get a response. Once I had those guidelines, I could format my stories in the way that each editor wanted, and maximize my chance at getting accepted.  It took money and time, but that was the business.

Have you ever heard of an SASE? That’s a “self-addressed, stamped envelope.” In other words, a form of extinct communications technology. And in those days, if I wanted to submit to a magazine in Great Britain or Canada, I also had to include “international reply coupons.” You can think of those as a particular species of carrier pigeon.

I have vivid memories of letters, envelopes and stamps spread across my dorm room floor. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, after reading of the success of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, I was itching to try self-publishing. It was clear that the ebook market was flooded with readers and starving for writers, and the first writers who had jumped in were doing very well. I knew the ereader craze might be a fad… and that’s why I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it, especially if it didn’t last. I was afraid that if I missed it, I would be kicking myself forever once it was gone.

So I uploaded Outrageous Fortunes in March of 2011, and started getting a nice check every month. I was hooked. Since then, publishers have continued to punish writers with deadlines, complicated contracts, occasional bankruptcies, and lately, censorship. For five years, I have been open to the possibility of pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher… but less and less open, year after year.

And the technology has continued to provide delightful surprises. How far from those SASE’s have we come? This far:


That 34-character-string is an address for a bitcoin wallet. My readers can pay me directly with it (if they know how). No stamps, no checks, no envelopes, no postal service, no banks, no governments. Human to human, anywhere on Earth, instantly.  The path between the reader and writer is now clear of all intrusive debris.

Today, not many of my readers know how… yet.  But as William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

It’s okay, officer. I’m a writer (part 2).

March 7, 2016

Here’s my second post on how fiction writers can do research online without being tracked by the Man.  Last time, I shared my favorite private search engines, but now it’s time for the biggest hammer in the toolbox: Tor.

I use Tor a lot. Tor is… well, give this a try:

The people at the Tor Project describe it like this: “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”

If you’ve heard of Tor at all, you probably heard that criminals use it.  But actually, criminals don’t need Tor (because they’ve already hacked your wifi and stolen your identity, and surf the web masquerading as you).  Tor is for non-criminals who need anonymity online, like thriller writers researching how to kill people.  See “Media,” below?  That’s you, writer!


The software itself is called the Tor Browser Bundle, a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser.  You can download it for Windows or Mac (or for true badasses, Linux) right here.

There’s also Orbot and Orfox for your phone, so you can get your murder-and-mayhem research done on the road.

There’s not much learning curve to Tor. Just download and go. I’ll end this post with a scene from Sneakers that has nothing to do with Tor in any technical sense… except using Tor always reminds me of it:

“They got the satellite in Tokyo. These guys are good.”

It’s okay, officer. I’m a writer.

February 25, 2016

Here’s an issue that comes up all the time on Facebook and in my writer’s group. Question: How can I research online all the murder and mayhem I put in my stories without landing on some law-enforcement  watchlist?

I’ve done web searches on stuff that would curl your toes. If you write science fiction, mysteries, or thrillers, you need hard info on terrorist plots, hate groups, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, end-of-the-world scenarios (and how to bring them about), not to mention blood spatter patterns, corpse decay rates, poisons and how to get them, explosives and how to get them, the sound of a Colt 1911, the kick of an AK-47, and how to whack someone with a bear trap or corn cob or whatever.

Luckily, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a privacy and free-speech advocate. I believe anyone on Earth should be free to use the internet anonymously, without being snooped on or persecuted by third parties.

Here are my favorite tools for searching and using the web safely: 

This is not an Asian fusion restaurant. This is a cool search engine… that’s NOT Google. Duckduckgo doesn’t keep logs, so searches you do there are not saved or stored. “We decided to make a bold move and not collect or share any of your personal information.” They describe their privacy policies in an outstanding tutorial here.


But what if you really want to do a Google search? If you can’t let go of Google, try Startpage: “When you search with Startpage, we remove all identifying information from your query and submit it anonymously to Google ourselves. We get the results and return them to you in total privacy.” Startpage is my all time favorite search engine — not just because they piggyback on Google, but because of their amazing proxy feature.


Each search result on Startpage comes with a “Proxy” button. If you click it, the target website is accessed by Startpage’s web proxy, and the results are passed on to you. That means you can read the ATF’s website, for example, but the ATF never gets your IP address. They see Startpage as the visitor instead of you. Links on the proxied page are proxied as well (as long as they’re on the same domain), so you can surf all the ATF’s pages, and they will never know you were there.

I’ll also mention as the newest of my three favorites. It works like Startpage (without the awesome web proxy), but you can choose whether to piggyback on Google, Bing, or Yahoo.

Now you can unleash well-researched chaos in your fiction, without freaking out the authorities!  In my next post, I’ll show you Tor.

Novelists Don’t Collect a Paycheck

August 4, 2015

And that means we writers need day jobs. I still collect a paycheck from my career teaching math, science, and economics. But the essence of a paycheck is this: you are being paid for your time, whether per hour, or every two weeks, annually, whatever.

And you can only be paid for your time once. Then it’s gone.

Robert Kiyosaki, in his once-trendy but now all-but-forgotten pop-finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, proposed that wealthy people don’t get paid for their time. They get paid for owning “assets” — stocks, bonds, real estate, intellectual property — things that pay you just because you own them. (You can reject Kiyosaki as overhyped, but his book made a huge impact on me.)

As I was reading it, I was floored by the realization that a novel is an asset. (Specifically, intellectual property.) A good novel behaves as if it were a share of valuable stock, paying the writer royalties exactly as a stock share pays dividends. I started viewing my body of work as if it were an investor’s portfolio.

Suppose you’ve published a couple of novels and are earning a little, say a dollar a day, in royalties. Congratulations, you’re a small-time indie author. Now, a good income stock might pay dividends of one percent per share per year, so to get that same dollar a day from a stock portfolio, it would have to be worth over $36,000.

Now, you can’t cash out! But it’s interesting… because which would you rather do? Scrape together leftover pennies from your paycheck to buy assets a little at a time, Kiyosaki-style? Or be an artistic, tortured, wild-eyed novelist?

I vote novelist. Much more fun. Oh, and if you use your author royalties to buy assets, you ace the class.

How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)