Today I have an interview for you with friend and fellow author Thomas Watson about his books Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession (a memoir) and War of the Second Iteration (Books 1 – 4 available).
Short author bio: I’m a writer, gardener, naturalist, science fiction fan, and amateur astronomer living in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest. All of these interests are rooted in my Midwestern childhood. I grew up in a rural environment in north central Illinois in a land of streams and ponds, fields and forests, and dark skies at night. It was, for me, the perfect place in which to be a child. At the same time, I grew up during the Space Race, a child of the count-down to launch era. Imagining what might come next, when we’d been to the Moon and back, led me to science fiction, a thing that was encouraged by an aunt who happened to be a fan of the genre. All of this played a role in shaping who and what I am, but running through it all has been the desire to write, to live by and for writing. That’s been true for so long I can’t remember how it started. It may well be that my desire to write is the cumulative effect of a life-long print addiction. My parents claim that I learned to read before I could tie my own shoelaces. Whether or not that’s true, I did learn to read very early in life and have always cast a very wide net. The experience of reading, of feeling the power of words, may have become a desire to see if I could do the same thing. If so, I’m still trying to answer that question, and on some level, that will always be true.
Robert MacGregor is a musician and a starship pilot, a citizen of the Commonwealth and part of the crew of a traveling space habitat, a Survey probeship called the William Bartram. The crew of the giant vessel is sent to make the historic First Contact with an alien species, only to discover the not-quite-alien Leyra’an have already met a splinter group of the Human species. The “other Humanity,” as the Leyra’an call the people of the Human Republic, have been waging war against the Leyra’an for decades. Before Robert and his shipmates are able to contact the Republic and hear the other side of the story, Robert’s wife Alicia, a molecular biologist, discovers an astonishing reason for the very Human form and appearance of the Leyra’an. She barely has a chance to begin a full investigation when the crew of the William Bartram is suddenly and unwittingly drawn into the conflict, with tragic consequences that change the course of Humanity’s future. As the saga of the Second Iteration unfolds book by book, Humanity and the Leyra’an face challenges that threaten to destroy everything they are, or could hope to be.
Hi Thomas, tell us a little about your book.
My first book – Mr. Olcott’s Skies – is an exploration of how I came back to amateur astronomy after a long hiatus, and came to understand at last the hold it’s had on my imagination since I was a small boy. I eventually intend to produce other works on amateur astronomy, as well as natural history and gardening, two other major influences in my life that date back to childhood. For now, however I am thoroughly immersed in the imaginary universe of the War of the Second Iteration. The story is set four hundred years from now, and tells of how a long episode of peaceful prosperity and exploration is brought to an abrupt end by contact with an alien intelligence. The alien Leyra’an prove to be all too Human, to a degree that defies coincidence. The search for an answer to how the Leyra’an came to be ultimately reveals that the universe is a stranger and more dangerous place than anyone imagined. Four volumes in this five part series are currently available: The Luck of Han’anga, Founders’ Effect, The Plight of the Eli’ahtna, and The Courage to Accept. The fifth and final installment – Setha’im Prosh – should be released near the end of 2015.
How are your story ideas born?
You can’t see it from where you are, but I cringed when that question came up. When you ask a story teller where ideas come from, you’re essentially asking for an explanation of daydreams. Why do daydreams happen? And why do some of us feel compelled to take an extra step and make our daydreams accessible to others in an organized fashion? I don’t have an honest answer to that one, even though, like all writers of fiction, I find the question impossible to ignore. I do know that my daydreams that become stories are nourished by real life experiences, and that everything I’ve seen and done, every book read or song heard, every person I’ve loved or turned away from, becomes in a way part of the substance of what I write. Experience is the raw material of daydreams, and the more you have the stronger the stories you tell will be.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
To be honest, I don’t have a favorite part. Writing is, for me, a single process, from the first glimmer of an idea to hitting the “publish” button, and it’s an entirely joyful experience. This isn’t to say writing always comes easy. It doesn’t! But the challenges are part of what makes it worth doing. Writing the draft, making revisions, correcting errors – even working up a cover and doing the self-promotion – all the steps that turn that daydream into something other minds can share add up to the thing I most want to do in my life. So it’s all good!
Did you hire an editor to review your manuscript before publishing?
Professional editors are beyond my financial means, at this time. That’s likely to be true for some time into the future. I decided to try using beta readers, instead, and had the good fortune to find people who are not only willing, but eminently capable of giving me frank and honest feedback. The stories I tell would be much weaker things if not for these beta readers. I’m also fortunate enough to be married to someone who could probably make a living as a copy editor. Those who compliment me on the scarcity of errors in my work have her to thank.
Did you try the traditional route to publishing, i.e. querying agents/publishers?
I did, and it never worked out. I wrote and tried to sell ten novels and dozens of short stories between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. (I did better with nonfiction – magazine articles and essays – for a time, but changes in magazine publishing ended that.) In 1993 I decided to return to college and finish a long-delayed degree. I didn’t do much writing (aside from what would be expected of a college student) until 1997, when I wrote the precursor of The Luck of Han’anga. After three different publishers turned it down as well-written and certainly publishable, but not marketable, I gave up. Or tried to. That was an awkward episode, believe me! Fortunately the self-publishing revolution driven by ereaders and print-on-demand came along in the nick of time!
What have you learned during your self-publishing journey?
The main thing I’ve learned is that there are no guarantees of success, no easy methods or tricks (or even difficult ones!) that will bring readers to your work, and money into the bank account. You can do your best, and in fact be among the best, and ultimately accomplish little or nothing in the long run. The element of luck in this business, an element too many pretend can be wished away if you just follow someone else’s methods, has a profound influence on all authors, whether traditionally or self published. You can write the best example of a novel in a given genre ever to see print, but if no one is interested in that genre this year, your book isn’t going to sell. All you can do is give the story in you everything you’ve got, from the daydream to shameless acts of self-promotion, and then write the next book!
What are you doing to market your book?
Very little, for the time being. I have a zero budget for advertising, so I have to rely on various venues in the “social media” and word of mouth advertising. Twitter and Amazon’s “Meet Our Authors” fora have been useful, with Goodreads, Shelfari, and Facebook providing more limited, though useful, exposure. When funds are available I’ll investigate more direct approaches. One thing I have resisted (it wasn’t hard, actually) is the free giveaway madness that has dominated self-publishing in recent years. I have a short story (“Long Time Passing”) available as a free download that I use as a sort of calling card to introduce the Second Iteration universe. That’s as far as I’ve gone, as far as freebies as a marketing tool is concerned. Free books and price reductions, used with discretion, can be powerful marketing tools. I will use such a tactic at some point in the future, but only sparingly. Unfortunately, both price drops and freebies are being used so heavily (over-used would not be putting too fine a point on it) that their potential is being blunted. In a way, this is true of just about all self-promotional options, these days, there are so many hopeful authors out there eager for immediate gratification. So I’m taking a sort of low-keyed approach, for now, and spending more time writing than working at self-promotion.
How have sales been and can you tell us where have you had the most success?
Sales have been modest at best, but with as little attention as I’ve paid to self-promotion, that is neither surprising nor worrisome at the moment. I’m actually surprised (and delighted) by how many readers I’ve acquired to this point, under the circumstances! It should come as no surprise that the majority of my sales (eBooks and paperback combined) come through Amazon. Between Amazon’s dominance of the marketplace and the blundering we’ve seen by their alleged competitors (please, someone, buy the Nook from Barnes & Noble and give that ereader a fighting chance!) it’s only to be expected. I keep my books available through all channels, using Smashwords and Draft2Digital as distributers, but this has generated so few sales that there are times it seems I’ve become an Amazon exclusive by accident!
What’s next for you? / What is your next project?
That’s hard to say, there are so many ideas stuffed into my head! Sticking to fiction, for a moment, I’d like to dig out some old short stories and see what it would take to bring them up to my current standards, then publish them in small collections. After that, there are ideas at the heart of all my unsold novels that are worth revisiting, and some of them have been talking to my Muse already! Further off, I already know that I’m far from finished with the Second Iteration universe, when the fifth book is released. And then there’s nonfiction: nature, gardening, and amateur astronomy. Isaac Asimov was once asked (in a great, sad irony, as it turned out) what he would do if he learned he only had six months left to live. “Type faster,” was his reply. I have no idea how many years I have left, but yes, it’s just like that.
Do you have any advice for other writers/indie authors out there?
1) Ignore trends. If you try to force your ideas into plots that seem trendy, hoping to make a few bucks, there’s a good chance you will fail to be true to whatever stories are in you. I believe the tendency by some to chase trends is part of why we see so much poor fiction being self-published, these days. Tell your tale, and don’t worry that it lacks zombies, vampires, or explicit sex. (Unless, of course, the story in you is honestly about zombies having explicit sex with vampires.) There’s a reason the phrase “hack writer” is usually used as an insult.
2) Remember that the worst editor in the world is the author of the book being revised and edited. It’s often said that a self-published author wears all the hats of publishing. No. Do not don the editorial cap. Find beta readers or hire an editor, someone who can tell you where you’ve missed the mark. And find someone who can provide some level of copy editing at the very end, to avoid published just another error-ridden “indie” book – and yes, regrettably, that’s something we’re known for. By the way, if all your beta readers have to say is, “Good job!” find alternative beta readers. No one is that good!
3) It is okay to go into this business with high hopes, but leave any and all expectations of immediate gratification behind.