Five Things I Learned Writing (and Publishing) Starshine
Seven weeks after publication the craziness has started to settle down, and I’m finally getting used to a “new normal”—which means I’ve had the chance to muse a little on the whole experience.
In the tradition of the terrific (and irreverent) blogger and author Chuck Wendig’s series “Five Things I Learned Writing…”, I present five things I learned writing (and publishing) Starshine:
1. Google will not send the FBI to your door if you spend six hours on the internet researching the fastest-acting deadly toxins.
Or for researching advanced high-energy explosives.
Or missile guidance systems and warheads.
Or laser weapons.
Or hacking and computer viruses.
I’d like to think the FBI hasn’t shown up at my door because such a browsing history was balanced by long hours spent researching more ‘genteel’ matters, such as pulsars, star types, nebulae, Greek mythology, timber, gemstones, metals, EM radiation…and cephalopods.
And if I go over the line while doing research for Vertigo or Transcendence and the FBI does finally show up at my door, I totally have a defense. I think.
2. Some readers really don’t like a book ending on a cliffhanger. Some readers love it. And that’s okay.
I knew going in that I would catch some flak for ending Starshine on a cliffhanger—and I have, though actually not as much as I expected. It was a conscious choice I made, and I’m willing to take the heat for it.
There is definitely a segment of readers who intensely dislike cliffhangers, generally for one of two reasons: 1) They believe it’s a transparent ploy to get readers to buy the next book, or 2) They believe a book, even if it’s part of a series, should be fundamentally self-contained, with a beginning, middle and end that wraps up the major plot arcs.
Both points are valid. On the first point, Starshine is plainly marked as ‘Book One,’ so it should be clear to a reader from the beginning, of course I want them to buy ‘Book Two.’ But this isn’t why I did it.
The second point merits a bit more discussion. I respect the viewpoint of anyone who dislikes cliffhangers for this reason. However, the simple fact is, Aurora Rising is the story. Starshine represents Act I in what is, in effect, a 3-act play in novel form. It ended when and where it did because it had to; this was without question the end of Act I, for many reasons. What comes next is the beginning of a new phase of the story, not the end of the first phase chopped off Starshine for marketing purposes.
Of course, many readers absolutely loved the dramatic ending – and I love them for it :).
3. Characters truly are what matters.
I talked about why characters should always be the foundation of any story here, but at the time I was still somewhat attached to the notion that a science fiction novel should be focused on, well, science fiction. Still, when writing the novel I strove to create characters who were worth loving, and some who were worth hating; characters who readers could root for and would be compelled to care about their fates. Truthfully, once I sketched out their basic traits and began to write, the characters sprang to life in my head so vividly all I had to do was get them on the page.
Reviewers have said the plot of Starshine is deep and complex, weaving together multiple threads into a refreshing and intriguing storyline. They have said the world-building is rich and vivid and the tech believable and understandable. But above all other aspects, reviewers have again and again called out the characters as the most impressive feature of the book.
I honestly expected readers of science fiction to talk about the planets or the ships or the space travel; maybe the cybernetics or the AIs or the weaponry. Instead, they talk about the characters.
If I hadn’t 100% believed the theory before, I have now been well and truly convinced. Character is, in fact, king.
4. You do not need a traditional publishing deal to be successful—but it takes a lot of work and a lot of luck.
I wrote about the “luck” aspect of success here, in which I referenced Hugh Howey’s insightful discussion on the topic in "Luck and Lottery". I wish there was a better answer than “you have to get lucky.”
But if you really want to make a go at writing as a career, and want to go it alone, be prepared for a more than full-time job:
- You have to do 3 more editing passes than you have any desire to do.
- You have to painstakingly format 3 different versions of the book so each appears polished and professional.
- You have to either spend many more hours creating a beautiful cover, or pay a skilled artist decent money to bring your vision to life.
- You have to write your own blurbs and marketing copy—which is far harder than it sounds.
- You have to jump through all the hoops on multiple sites to get your book listed and its pages looking professional. (You can go through an aggregator like Smashwords for everywhere except Amazon, but you risk your eBook not being formatted correctly or your listing not looking great, and you lose a portion of the royalties).
- You have to do all your own marketing—request book reviews, research book blogs and promo sites, choose where and when to advertise, prep the content for features, etc., etc., etc.
If you are being published by a traditional publisher, they have people who do all of the above for you (except the last item; word is unless you are one of the Top 50 authors in the world, you’ll still be doing most of your own marketing). In return, you might have a slightly better chance to achieve some level of success—but your financial return is likely to be rather less than you expect.
I don’t mind doing all those things listed above, because I’m doing them for something which is my own, for good or ill, succeed or fail. I cannot understate the level of personal gratification which comes from such an endeavor.
I turned down an opportunity for a publishing deal last week. It was a great opportunity with a publisher who has an excellent reputation among authors (a rarity). Convention dictates that I now say, “It was a difficult decision”—but the truth is, it wasn’t that difficult. To me a publisher represents a barrier between me and the story I want to write, and a barrier between that story and the readers.
In making this decision I recognize I have given up a level of institutional support and access to influential marketing channels, but I have faith that people who read Starshine will enjoy it and review it and recommend it to others.
In short, I’m putting my faith in you. No pressure.
5. For goodness' sake, enjoy the ride!
The last seven weeks have been quite a ride. To some extent, every day still brings a new adventure. But the fact is, after the initial “run in circles, arms flailing” elation subsided a bit, it was so easy to move the goalposts. To be consumed by the worry that the next second or minute or hour, it would all come to a screeching stop: sales, reviews, praise, the entire ride. I freely admit that I came this close to missing out on the enjoyment, pride and simple satisfaction that should be the best parts of this kind of experience.
Thankfully, my husband beat me senseless (metaphorically) until I regained a proper perspective ;). Plus, he got an unsolicited assist on the danger in “moving the goalposts” from an awesome family member:
4 days after publication
Two weeks later, after I posted A Singular Day
Consider me chastised.
There’s another ride to enjoy as well. In turning the majority of my attention back to writing with Vertigo, I realized I had already forgotten how much fun it was to make a story come to life on the page—to take those images and scenes and dialogue zingers that were constantly running around in my head and give them permanence (and a place to reside outside my head). Writing is rewarding and fulfilling and fun—which is why I started doing it in the first place.
And because as an independent author, I don’t have to obey the rules….
6. The world is full of kickass people.
As of today, several thousand people have bought Starshine. About 2% of those people have posted public reviews or sent me private emails, and I have to give a shout-out to some of the most memorable:
- A 72-year-old man and lifelong sci-fi aficionado who admitted the romance got him ‘a little hot under the collar.’
- A man from western Nebraska where, according to him, there isn’t much for a sci-fi nerd to do but ‘read, work and drink.’ He chose to read Starshine instead of work (and maybe even instead of drink).
- A reviewer who wrote a far better marketing line than I ever could: “Nefarious galaxy dominating plots, strong-willed heroine, tough-as-nails good hearted bad-boy, stupid politicians (aren't they all? ok, most of them) and so much more.”
- An avid sci-fi fan who was brave enough to publicly admit the ‘incredibly steamy sex scene’ was his favorite part (and eloquently explained why)—so much so he made his wife read it.
- Another reviewer who wrote the 2nd best marketing line, again better than I could: “Subversive politicians, unknown aliens, family feuds, vicious gangsters, enemies with old grudges and a cross border love story.”
- The person who titled their review “Out-freaking-standing!” I giggled with glee for HOURS.
More than 90% of the reviews have been 4 or 5 stars. Still, that means there have been negative reviews. Much of the advice counsels writers to ignore reviews and focus on writing. It’s good advice (and better for one’s emotional well-being), but as an independent author who has chosen to be so, I feel like I have an obligation to consider all my reviews, positive and negative. It isn’t always easy to read negative reviews (okay, it’s never easy), but when they make a valid point I must take it to heart if I intend to continue to improve my writing.
The number one criticism has been difficulty keeping the many secondary characters straight. To that end, the next revision of Starshine (rolling out in a few weeks, mainly to correct a few errant typos) and all AR novels thereafter will include an index of all the characters of any import, along with their affiliation and profession/role. I will also post it on the website so it will be freely available for everyone who has already purchased the book.
So to all you kickass people, you rock. And you’re being heard.