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!

The Promised Confrontation

April 1, 2013

[This is another snip from my talk on “suspense” at Write on the Sound in 2012.]

It was a powerful moment for me when I realized that we don’t read fiction to find out what will happen.

We read to find out if what we expect will happen actually does. A key to suspense is to create expectation in the reader – preferably the expectation of “something good.” Readers love upheaval, reversal, conflict, turmoil, transformation… readers love confrontation.

Example: Chekhov’s gun. (That is, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”)
Crisis: which wire?

When you’ve got a confrontation coming up, don’t merely foreshadow it, creating uncertainty. Let the reader know with clarity that trouble is on the way.

Example: Carrie, by Stephen King. The prom-night telekinetic conflagration at the end of this novel is still famous. Let’s look at the clues King planted for us:

Page 5: “a [telekinetic] potential of immense magnitude existed within Carrie White. The great tragedy is that we are now all Monday-morning quarterbacks…” The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White
Page 22: “I’ve seen some high school pictures of her, and that horrible black-and-white photo on the cover of Newsweek.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 27: “And now there’s this other thing. No one can laugh that off either. Too many people are dead.” Carrie: The Black Dawn of T.K.
Page 37: “The outcome of the White affair raises grave and difficult questions. An earthquake has struck our ordered notions of the way the natural world is supposed to act and react.” Telekinesis: Analysis and Aftermath
Page 48: “the only witness to any possible prologue to the the final climactic events was Margaret White, and she, of course is dead…” The Shadow Exploded
Page 122: The trouble at the prom begins.

Exercise: Think of a revealing moment, an exciting confrontation, or a reversal in your work-in-progress. Did you intend this scene as a complete surprise for the reader? If so, play with the notion of letting the reader know it will happen well ahead of time. If you foreshadowed it somewhat, then consider letting the reader know with certainty that the confrontation will be inevitable. Brainstorm a new piece of evidence could you present to the reader (an object, a offhand line of dialogue, a scene from a new POV).


The 10,000-hour Rule

July 14, 2009

So I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s third book the other day, Outliers, which is not about writers. But it is about success, which is good enough. And it says right there in chapter two that it takes ten thousand hours of dedicated practice to become a world-class master at any particular discipline.

(Such as novelist.)

Three things about this rule struck me. First, the “any” part. Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers [there we are], ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

The second thing that struck me was the total lack of exceptions to this rule. Aren’t there any geniuses, with a natural gift, who get there with only, say, 5000 hours?

Apparently not. Not even people like Mozart.

Gladwell cites Michael Howe in his book, Genius Explained, who wrote, “Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions… are largely arrangements of works by other composers… the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No. 9, K.271) was not composed until he was twenty-one.”

And he had his 10,000 hours in by that time, see.

Well… what about Stephenie Meyer? She woke from a vivid dream in June 2003, drafted Twilight by August 2003, and had a six-figure deal by 2005. At this writing, 53 million copies sold. Genius? Luck?

(Don’t read too much into me mentioning Mozart and Meyer in the same freaking blog post. I haven’t read Twilight yet, but no matter how good it is, she’s not Mozart.)

(I mean, please. We all know Michael Crichton was Mozart.)

So I read up on Meyer. Turns out she earned a Bachelor’s in English in 1995. And she cited as inspiration for the Twilight series the works of Jane Austen, both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Shakespeare. Since 2005, she’s been writing faster than her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, can publish.

King and Meyer
Ahem. You’re telling me she hasn’t been writing since she was twelve? That she doesn’t have a trunk full of crappy novels at home?

Stephen King, if memory serves, sold Carrie in his early twenties. What about him? Well, he wrote four novels before that, and he was publishing short stories at his school (and freaking out his teachers) in the eighth grade. King put his 10,000 hours in before Carrie, I’ll bet.

Gladwell says of the ten thousand hour rule: “The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Carrie Cover
By the way, have you done the math yet? 10,000 hours is:

Eight hours per weekday (full time) for five years.
Four hours per weekday (half-time) for ten years.
Ten hours per week (a weekend gig) for twenty years.

Which brings me to the third and final thing that struck me about it.

Which is that I find it encouraging. That’s odd. I must be somewhere near my 10,000 hours (I’ve thought about it and it’s impossible to tell. I keep crumby records). The ten thousand hour rule kills the notion that some of us will get published and others won’t, and it’s Lady Luck, that bitch, who holds dominion over us.

Just as there are no sneaky geniuses who cheat the rule, there are no cursed losers who grind away until they die. Gladwell described a study published in Psychological Review (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,”) and wrote that the researchers simply couldn’t find any “people who worked harder than everyone else, but just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.”

Nice. Even when I’m writing crap, I’m making progress. It’s a handy answer for my superego when it asks me, “Why are you writing when you should be working?!”

Hey man, this is, like, hour 9,973 for me. Back off.

(PS. If you know any exceptions to the 10,000-hour Rule, or if you know how many novels Meyer wrote before Twilight, please leave a comment.)

Fear of Failure

May 29, 2009

I’ve been reading Bare Bones, a collection of Stephen King interviews published in 1988. This is from a 1983 Playboy interview with him, about his young hungry days before he was published:

PLAYBOY: How did your marriage stand up under those strains?
KING: Well, it was touch and go for a while there, and things could get pretty tense at home. It was a vicious circle: The more miserable and inadequate I felt about what I saw as my failure as a writer, the more I’d try to escape into a bottle, which would only exacerbate the domestic stress and make me even more depressed. Tabby was steamed about the booze, of course, but she told me she understood that the reason I drank too much was that I felt it was never going to happen, that I was never going to be a writer of any consequence. And, of course, I feared she was right.

I’d lie awake at night seeing myself at fifty, my hair graying, my jowls thickening, a network of whiskey-ruptured capillaries spiderwebbing across my nose — “drinker’s tattoos,” we call them in Maine — with a dusty trunkful of unpublished novels rotting in the basement, teaching high school English for the rest of my life and getting off what few literary rocks I had left by advising the student newspaper or maybe teaching a creative writing course. Yechh!
Even though I was only in my mid-twenties and rationally realized that there was plenty of time and opportunity ahead, that pressure to break through in my work was building into a kind of psychic crescendo, and when it appeared to be thwarted, I felt desperately depressed, cornered. I felt trapped in a suicidal rat race, with no way out of the maze.

Sometimes we let fear of failure keep us from embracing our writing and making sacrifices to it. King is the first writer I’ve heard of who let fear of failure drive him to keep writing. For him, it was success or nothing — no other options were tolerable. That attitude made him miserable… but it also got him published.

Bare Bones