We all have limited time, and part of being a successful author is knowing what to focus on. In today’s show, I talk to Rachel Aaron about how to write more words faster, edit and publish carefully, and how to decide which marketing strategies will work for your books.
In the intro, I reflect on walking 50km last weekend, the launch of How to Market a Book Third Edition, and heading to New York this week for Thrillerfest.
You can also listen/watch an interview with me on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast talking about international sales and marketing, rights licensing, translation and more.
Today’s show is sponsored by my own How to Write a Novel course, which I created while writing End of Days, so you get a behind the scenes look at how the book came together. One course member, Leigh Anderson said, “This course is exactly what I was looking for. I now feel well on my way to writing and completing my first draft. It has been a real breakthrough for me.” Check it out at www.TheCreativePenn.com/writenovel
Rachel Aaron is the fantasy author of The Heartstrikers, an Eli Monpress series, as well as writing science fiction under Rachel Bach. She’s also the author of 2k to 10k: How to Write Faster, Better, and Write More of What You Love.
- Rachel’s journey from traditionally published author to indie
- Why writing fast doesn’t have to be a measure of quality
- Building up stamina to write for several hours at a time
- Why Rachel believes pre-writing is so important
- Writing tips on creating a story arc over a series of books and writing compelling characters
- What has worked for Rachel when marketing her fiction, and what hasn’t worked
- Working with a spouse successfully
You can find Rachel Aaron at RachelAaron.net and on Twitter @Rachel_Aaron
Transcript of Interview with Rachel Aaron
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today I’m here with Rachel Aaron. Hi, Rachel.
Rachel: Hello! Thanks so much for having me.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Rachel is the fantasy author of “The Heartstrikers,” an Eli Monpress series, as well as writing science fiction under Rachel Bach. She’s also the author of “2k to 10k: How to Write Faster, Better, and Write More of What You Love,” which I read when it first came out and I reread in preparation for this, and it’s still a classic.
Rachel: Thank you so much.
Joanna: Oh, no worries.
Start off by telling us a bit more about you and your writing and publishing journey because sometimes it can seem to people that we emerge fully formed.
Rachel: Oh yes, this is one of those overnight successes that was 10 years in the making kind of thing.
I started writing back in 2004. That’s when I really got serious about writing. I just graduated from college, and I had like this really cruddy job where I didn’t do anything. And I’m like, “I’m gonna write my book. I have no responsibilities. I have no excuses. I’m gonna write it.”
And so I wrote, and I wrote a book, and it didn’t sell. And this is before self-publishing. So it was agents, and traditional publishing was pretty much the only option.
At that stage in time, if you self-published, something was wrong with you. And it was because you couldn’t make it in New York, basically, and that is not true. It never has been true. But at that time, that was the mindset that everyone had.
So I was desperate to make it in New York. I wrote a book…and I got rejected by everyone. And in hindsight, it probably deserved it. It was not a very good book.
But then I wrote the book that became “The Spirit Thief,” which is now the first book in my “Legend of Eli Monpress.” Tada!
Joanna: Wow! That’s a hefty book for those watching the video.
Rachel: Oh, this is actually three books. This is the omnibus edition. And it was the one I had on hand. I sold that to Orbit Books in I think 2008, and it came out in 2010. And I also did my “Fortune’s Pawn” science fiction series under the name Rachel Bach with…I don’t know if you could see…but Orbit Books, which is right there. And they were lovely.
I’m a very do-it-myself person. I quickly got very tired of people telling me, “It has to have this cover. No, we didn’t talk to you. It was marketing,” you know, the stuff that you hear a lot in New York.
At that time, I made a bunch of indie friends because I’ve been going to conventions. And this is 2013, and I’m meeting these people at conventions who had a quarter of my sales but were making twice as much money as I did. And I was like, “I think something is wrong.”
So I was like, “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna go indie.”
I have this crazy weird dragon series. No one in New York is going to want it anyway. It’s just so bizarre. I can’t even describe it. It’s like cyberpunk and dragons and future Detroit and mages, and it’s just… I loved it.
One of my biggest problems that I had in trad publishing was I didn’t fit neatly on a bookshelf. I tended to write these books that blended genres, like “Fortune’s Pawn” is action-science fiction with kissing.
And the Eli books are epic fantasy, but in an urban fantasy voice and pace, so they’re very fast. This isn’t isn’t “Game of Thrones.” It’s this very fast, almost as love letter to ’90s fantasy with big action sequences, big characters. And I didn’t fit anywhere.
And so dragons definitely wasn’t gonna fit anywhere, my dragon’s books. So I was like, “I’m gonna self-publish them.” And my first one, “Nice Dragons Finish Last,” which is right here… I love this cover. It’s one of my favorite covers.
That was the other reason I went indie. I got to do my own covers. I loved it. I was a graphic designer before I became an author.
Joanna: Right. That helps.
Rachel: So very useful career before becoming an indie author. It’s been enormously successful.
It’s won tons of awards. I actually just won the “Romantic Times” Editor’s Pick Award for “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished,” which is this one. And that’s the third book in the dragon series, and that’s my second RT award for the series. I’ve never had a series that’s done this well, and I did it with indie. And it’s been absolutely amazing, and I am very happy.
Joanna: Wow! And it’s great that you started by saying you’re like the 10-year overnight success. And so 2004, almost 13-years at this point. But it’s really great to hear that you’ve done both sides. And it’s so kind of odd now to hear, like 2006…I’d forgotten indie wasn’t around then.
Rachel: I forget that it’s…before 2009, there wasn’t a Kindle Direct Publishing. There wasn’t KDP. It just didn’t exist.
Joanna: Yeah. And that just changed everything. You hear people complaining, and it’s like, no, this is amazing. It’s still amazing and getting even better.
Rachel: I remember when my indie friends like actually met John Hartness at ConCarolinas, who is a hilarious dude and writes really funny books. And he has been indie pretty much since…I think since the beginning. I don’t think he’s ever done any trad pub. And I met him at ConCarolinas, and he was just this dude with a table full of books. And I just started talking to him about his numbers…because when authors get together, we talk numbers. That’s what we do. We talk shop. You can’t stop us.
And I was just like, “There is absolutely no way you are making this much money. There’s no way you are earning these numbers. That is ludicrous and insane.”
I went and looked it up, and I was like, “Wow!” It’s like seeing the keyhole, the garden through the keyhole, and I just had to go and get it myself. I’m a really do-it-yourself person, very much like to be my own boss and make my own decisions. I don’t like people telling me what to do. So it was a natural fit.
Joanna: I think that’s really important to remember as well. And of course you’ve mostly written fiction, but you have this one nonfiction, “2k to 10k.”
Rachel: And it’s funny. It was like my one good idea. It was like the one big idea that I had. And I’ve tried to do other non-fic, and I hate writing nonfiction. I just hate it.
Joanna: I saw that on your blog. It made me laugh. I think that book was the first book in the writing productivity niche. Chris Fox came after and Monica Leonelle and people like that. So let’s get back to that.
There are still people who think that writing fast means bad quality. I know this question comes up a lot, but I wanted to hear your take on that.
Rachel: When you sent me the questions, I was really debating about how mean I was gonna get on this answer.
Joanna: You can get mean.
Rachel: Because I am not a mean person. I try to be like the most positive person in every room, because no one’s got time in their lives for that kind of negativity. It just drags you down.
This thing makes me the maddest of just about anything people say to me. And they’ll say it to my face, you know, “Oh, you write 10,000 words a day. You must be writing shit,” or, “Your words must be crap.”
I just want to strangle them because, look, I am a professional author. My time is money. Every day, I sit in my chair, and I write for about six to seven hours a day, sometimes eight, if things are going really hot. I don’t have time to throw away 50% of what I write. That’s stupid. No one has time for that.
If I was writing 2,000 words an hour and if half of it was crap, I was throwing it away, it would be easier to just go slower and write 5,000 good words. But I don’t do that. I write 10,000 words a day.
I have lots of books. They’re all very highly rated. They’re successful. I don’t say this to brag but to point out that, objectively, my writing is not crap. I have 700 people in Amazon who say it’s good. I’m gonna go with them, and with the star ratings.
So it’s just objectively wrong. I’m obviously not doing that. And the 2k to 10k method isn’t about just throwing words of the page. That’s stupid.
Outside of NaNoWriMo, no one cares about your daily word count but you. It’s an internal metric to try and help you make yourself better and to help you go faster. The point is to write a good story.
2k to 10k, the whole idea of it is to remove the indecision because you spend so much time in writing trying to decide how to say it, what to say, how to say it, what’s the best thing here? But a lot of that decision-making isn’t about the actual words. It’s about the characters and their motivations and what’s happening in the scene.
But the writing is the most time-consuming part of writing, the actual writing it out. So what I do is I just take five minutes before I write a scene, and I write what happens in the scene. I say, “In this scene, Eli will do X, and he’s gonna do X for Y reason. And Miranda is gonna be mad.” You know, I just write it out.
It’s really simple shorthand. But that way, if I’ve made a dumb decision with the plot, you very quickly find that out, and you can fix it in your notes.
It’s like sketching a drawing before you paint it. You’re just getting down your ideas. And once you know where you are going, you will write that scene faster. I guarantee it. I will bet you money.
If you come to me and you do this, we sit down, I will put 100 bucks on the table so you will write that scene faster because you just can’t help it.
I don’t know, if you’ve ever had a really good writing day, when the words are just flowing and you just know exactly what to say, that’s what my method aims to make every day like. That’s how I try to live every single day because that’s the good writing. The one when you’re going fast, that’s when it’s super good.
At the end of my “Fortune’s Pawn” series, I wrote the last two chapters. I wrote 15,000 words in 1 day is my record of all time. And those words were the only words in the book that I barely touched them with editing because they were perfect.
They were exactly what I wanted, because at that point, I knew everything I wanted to say because it was the end of the series. And it was the very last book. And it just flowed out of me. And to this day, I’m so proud of that ending.
And so the idea that if you write fast, you must be writing crap is just blatantly wrong. And quite frankly, I find it really offensive because one of my big things is that every writer writes in their own way. I’m not going to slow writers and saying, “You must be lazy”.
Everyone writes in their own way. If you’re writing and you’re happy and you’re getting your book done, that is all that matters. You are doing it right for you.
Joanna: I think that’s really good advice. And I’m going to come back on a bit more on the plotting. But I do want to comment on your writing sort of five to six, eight hours a day thing. A lot of people are not writing full-time, for a start. So people listening, you know, obviously, that’s not expected unless you’re full time.
Rachel: Obviously not, yeah.
Joanna: But like you say, we are full-time writers. If people just hang out at their day job for like three hours a day or one hour a day, then that wouldn’t be like a full day’s work.
I do want to comment on stamina because I think it’s actually really hard work to do that. Today I did four and a half hours, and I’m exhausted. I mean this is a new series. I’m still trying to work out a lot of what you’re talking about. But writing fiction is very tiring.
How have you built up your stamina, if you look back? Is it just like muscles – starting off smaller and working up?
Rachel: Well, for me, it was a combination of two things. One, it was experience.
I’ve been writing since 2004. I’ve written I think four million words. I’ve written a lot. I just know how to do it. I just get in. I turn it on and I go. And that’s just experience. That’s just writing. The more you do anything, you’re just going to get faster and better at it.
But it’s also my personality. I tend to be a hyper-focused person. I get a job, I get it done.
If I decide I’m going to clean the kitchen at nine o’clock at night, we are not going to bed until that kitchen is clean. That’s just how it is. I just don’t stop things. And that’s just me personally, and I’m not saying that’s like the best way to be. That’s just how I am.
My husband, who also is writing now, and I’m very excited because I think writing books is the absolute best thing anyone can do. It doesn’t matter if you want to be published or if you’re just doing it for fun or if you dream of being a bestseller, whatever. Writing a book is like…you know, and I’m biased, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful creative processes any human could attempt. So I love it.
He can’t do more. He does more than about an hour two hours, he gets really, really exhausted. And that’s just the difference between us as personalities.
He’s able to multitask a lot better than I am, whereas, I’m hyper focused. And they’re both good. We both get the work done. It’s just a difference of personality.
Joanna: Oh, that’s great. And we’re going to come back to the husband thing a bit later. Talking about plotting, I mean you talked there about almost the writing beats a few lines before the paragraph. Now, the 10,000 words a day, for example, that’s not every day of the year.
Joanna: You’re talking about plotting and prewriting.
Talk a bit about that process, because I think people in their heads are like, “Oh, you mean every day you get up and write 10,000 words?”
Rachel: If I did that, I would have a lot more books.
Joanna: Yeah. Well, that’s the thing. And I think it’s really important to be clear that when we say writing, you’re talking about the actual typing.
But the writing process includes other pre-work.
Rachel: Yeah. And for me, I generally will hit between 8,000 and 10,000 words a day in about a six-hour day on first drafting. That’s my first draft speed. If it’s wrong, I’ll just go back and fix it later.
My goal is just get it down because writing is not a performance art. No one is watching. You can throw all of that away and do it again if it’s bad. Just get it out there so you can fix it.
There’s lots of people who like really like to make it right before they move on. And that’s fine. I’ve just found it’s faster for me to just go through it. And every time I freak out, because I do freak out, I realize what’s wrong, I’m gonna go, “I gotta go fix it.”
Instead I say, “No, Rachel, this is just the first draft. So just work it out.” I make a little note. I say, “Fix it later,” and I just move on with my life.
Joanna: The pre-writing, just explain how you do that.
Rachel: This actually touches on a question that you’re going to ask in a bit about the series writing.
The number one most important thing about plotting is just you have to know where you’re going. You’ve got to have a place you’re going to. You don’t have to know every single detail of the journey there, but you’ve got to know how the book is gonna end.
Why is it going to end that way? What positions are your characters going to be in when they get to the end? Because if you’ve ever driven anywhere and you’ve been lost, it takes forever. It is terrifying. It’s meandering. It’s awful.
That’s what writing without a destination is like. Some people love exploring. I hate it. I hate not knowing where I’m going. I have to know. It’s that goal-driven thing again.
And so what I have found, the absolute best thing for plotting for me is to know where I’m going. And then I ask myself how did I get there. And I just sort of work backwards.
For my plotting, I actually use a bunch of the strategies from “Anatomy of a Story” by John Truby. I have fallen in absolute love with this book. I’m not paying him anything. I just think he’s amazing.
This book is actually for screenplays. I’ve been getting a lot of tips about plotting from the screenplay industry because screenplays, they have nothing to work with. You’ll have screenplays where you may have 30 minutes of dialogue of the whole movie to get everything out. And so these guys, the screenplay people, they know the tricks. They’ve got fantastic tricks that you can steal for writing your novels.
But mostly, in my plotting, I focus on where am I going and why am I going there. And then I figure out how do my characters make that journey, what decisions lead us to these end goals, to make sure that I get there in a logical and dramatic way.
Because you gotta get there in a fun way. If stuff just goes right, that’s a boring book. My kind of thing is that if the book is dragging, just have something go horribly wrong. Take a yes and flip it to a no, and then suddenly you’ve got all kinds of new stuff going on.
Joanna: That’s a really good tip.
I think you’re right about the screenwriting. A lot of authors now are using screenwriting tips and story structure.
I think the structure is important for series, as you mentioned.
This morning, I started the first book in a new series. And the feeling with a series is, well, as indies, we need series because a lot of our money is made from series.
How do you go about constructing a bigger story arc over the individual book?
Rachel: I am going to tell you what I have learned, not what I did, because what I did was wrong.
When I started the Heartstriker series, when I started Eli, both times, I just wrote a first book like I liked it. And I had all these big ideas, and I knew where I was going, because I think one of the most important things for any long-running series is to have a metaplot, have something really big in the world.
I’m not talking, “Luke, I am your father.” You know, that’s just a reveal. I’m talking about a sweep of the universe style, metaplot, something that is fundamentally wrong in your world that this giant series is going to address. The Dark Lord is coming, or we’re all really robots or something, some huge problem that your series will address and will attempt to solve or remedy.
What I do is with every book in the series, I take a little step closer or a big step closer to that end. That’s why I determine how long a series is is how many books is going to take me to get to the point where my characters are big enough and powerful enough and know enough to actually address the major world problem.
I tend to go very big with this. The fantasy in my books is all about significant personal actions. My books are really all about one group of characters that changes the entire world. And that’s really huge, and you don’t have to go that huge. I just like it.
If you want to write a series that’s not gonna meander and get lost…because you have a lot of series where like the tension just falls off and then people don’t buy the next book. And that’s because you let the tension drop as an author. You gave them a resting spot. And you’ve always got to be relentlessly pushing toward that larger plot, even as you resolve individual arcs within the story.
That is something I learned the hard way after having to rewrite “Heartstrikers” book two like seven times and “Heartstrikers” book three like four times.
That’s why even though I write 10,000 words a day, I’ve only had one book a year because I wrote myself into this enormously complicated corner, and I was absolutely determined.
Especially now that I’m indie, I actually have a rule, which is if it’s not good, it doesn’t print. A book can be bad for six months. Rather, a book can be late for six months, but it is bad forever. That’s my rule. So I will not publish. I will be late.
I will miss deadlines. I will not publish a book if I am not happy with it. And I think as a result, I’ve ended up with really high-quality novels. One of the things I really resented about traditional publishing was the pressure of the deadlines. It’s like it doesn’t matter. It has to ship. And I’m like, “But it’s bad.” I really love being able to have more control over that.
But anyway, that’s sort of my thing with the plotting is to know where you’re going, if nothing else, know where you’re going. And even if you’re just writing a book with the idea that it might be a series, take a moment and figure out what kind of series do you want that to be.
I sat down to write almost an episodic adventure series about dragons in Detroit. And I ended up with this sprawling epic family drama, because that’s just where the characters naturally went. I was trying to force them into a box they didn’t belong, and they were fighting me, and that’s why I had to do so many rewrites.
If I’d just taken a few days at the beginning and realized, “Wow, Rachel, you have a giant sprawling family drama with almost 100 characters,” I would have known this in advance.
Sit down, look at what you’re writing, figure out what kind of story it’s going to be and where you want to take it, and if that’s the story you even want to write. You may be like, “I don’t want to write a giant sprawling family drama”.
At the beginning, before you’ve written the giant dragon family, that’s a good time to perhaps change your mind.
Joanna: I think that’s really good. I think it’s also important to know what you’re talking about there is writing fast but publishing slow. That quality check I think is something that indies are now… Well, there’s almost two schools of thought. There’s the write fast, publish fast, the minimal viable product type thing.
And then what you’re talking about, which I think is much better with fiction. I think nonfiction, you can get away with that approach, publishing faster. But with fiction, these are books that can last a very long time, you know, 70 years after the death of the author.
You want it to be something that will continue selling for a long time.
Rachel: And I think this is where my traditional background really, really helped me because when I first started self-publishing, my number one goal was to make it so my self-published books were indistinguishable quality-wise from my New York books.
I wanted them to have beautiful covers and beautiful editing and to be error-free and to be really good books. And because I have a very, very loyal readership and that has followed me through multiple genre changes, and I am very grateful to them, but I earned them by giving them a quality product.
Quite frankly, if you’re just writing as fast as you can, you will produce a lot of books, and you will probably make a pretty good living. But you’re not going to build the readership that’s going to take you to the real bestseller status, to being a writer who is loved.
To deliver that, you have to deliver real quality. And real quality means taking the time to do as many edits as are needed. And sometimes you luck out, and you hit it just that first try right out the gate. That’s fantastic. And if that happens, you know, pop the champagne. That’s awesome.
But a lot of times, books need work. I mean every book I write needs multiple edits because I don’t always have all my best ideas at the beginning. Sometimes I get an amazing idea in the middle of the book. And I have to write that in. Then I have to change everything to make that idea work. And that’s fine and natural.
Joanna: I also think fantasy…because this series I’m writing is actually urban fantasy, and I’m like, “Oh my goodness…”
Rachel: It’s fun.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly.
Rachel: Welcome to urban fantasy pool.
Joanna: Yes, thank you. But it’s actually a lot bigger. I think fantasy as a genre is a lot bigger than like the action-adventure thriller I was writing. It is bigger in word count, but it’s also more complicated in that you need to make up a lot more, if it’s not all real-world, for example.
Those things might develop later, and then you have to go back and fix maybe the earlier draft when your magic system matured or whatever.
Rachel: Yeah. And also fantasy, especially second-world fantasy where you’re making up a magical system, you’re making up a new place where people live, you’ve got to have all your ducks in a row because if you start messing up the magic system and breaking your own rules, you’re going to lose readers’ trust.
They’re just gonna go, “This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” because you don’t. You’re making mistakes. You’re god in this world, and you’re messing it up.
Fantasy is my favorite genre because you can do so much with it. You can do literally anything with fantasy. And I love reading it. I love writing it. And, really the sci-fi I write, is just future fantasy. It’s just fantasy in the future.
Joanna: Good point. I guess a lot more technology and things like that.
Rachel: Yeah, but I mean any sufficiently evolved technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I keep looking over here because I’ve got all my books. I’ve got piles, and I hold this up. Another thing about the reason it took me a year, this is 180,000 words.
Joanna: Wow! Is that a six by nine?
Rachel: Yes. This is one of the CreateSpace books, which, by the way, they did a really good job with it. They really printed it very nicely. I’m quite happy with it.
Joanna: That’s excellent. Okay, let’s come back to character, because you mentioned there fantasy is about significant personal actions. And you also put in the book characters with proper agency write their own stories.
How do we create characters like that and relax enough in our writing to let them do their own thing?
Rachel: I do a lot of prewriting. I do a lot of preplanning with my plots because I love to plan. I love to world-build.
I like to get everything in line before I write. And especially since I write very complicated books, this is really important because if I just started writing, I would get confused. And I have gotten confused.
I’ve had to redo a bunch of rewriting because of stupid stuff I should’ve worked out before I started. And that’s just me. Again, this is all very personal. So I’m not telling anyone, “Don’t just dive in.” You’re free to…if that’s how you like it, you’re free to do that. This is just how I avoid the problem.
At this point in my writing career, I’ve evolved to use two methods, a hybrid of two methods.
One is called GMC. I should talk about this on my blog. And it’s not mine. I didn’t invent it. I’ve actually forgotten the woman’s name. But I linked to her on the blog because she’s fantastic. And she has a book called “GMC.” And it’s goal, motivation, conflict.
Every character who appears in your novel, who is any sort of a role, like if they have a speaking role, they need to have a goal. They need to have a motivation. And they need to have a conflict.
The goal is something they’re trying to get, right? You know, “I need a glass of water” is my goal.
The motivation is why do I want that glass of water? Well, I am desperately thirsty and will die if I do not drink this glass of water.
And the conflict is there is an alligator between me and the glass of water. It’s the reason I can’t get what I want. And if you just have those three things for all of your people, you will automatically have a motivated dynamic cast that’s gonna go and do their own thing because they’re all going after their own motivations and their goals. They’re all running on their own little engines. And you don’t really have to do much except figure out how exactly they do that, what are their personalities.
And that’s the part where I use another system, which is actually, again, “Anatomy of a Story,” the John Truby system, which basically develops characters in parallel with their opponents.
His theory is that basically all stories are the stories of conflict between people. You have your main character who wants a thing, and you have the people who are opposed to that character. And these are not all antagonists.
If you have a boy who wants to go out and save the world and his mother is desperately trying to stop him because she loves him, she’s trying to get in his way, she is an opponent to him. She is standing in the way of his goals.
And what you do is you develop all of these opponents together with your main characters. Many books have three opponents. You have a minor opponent and then a major opponent and then an opponent who is against the character, but not really, and they often end up becoming an ally.
For example, in romance, the two love interests are often opposed. They’re often against each other at first. They’re competing for different goals, which is what throws them into conflict. And that’s the entire idea.
You are generating conflict by setting up these people with opposing motivations and goals and things that they want.
He also goes into things that they need but don’t know it yet. Every character will have something that they need to happen to themselves, but they don’t know it. Maybe they’re selfish, and they need to learn to be not selfish.
But you don’t start a book and go like, “I’m selfish. I will need to learn to be not selfish.” They don’t know. They don’t know this is their problem. And so that gives you a motivation. That gives you an arc that this character is gonna follow. And that’s their development through the book.
What you do is you figure out what are all these people’s problems that need to change, and then you figure out who’s against them and then what are that opponent’s problems, why are they doing the things they’re doing.
My goal anyway is that every scene in my book is the result of a decision someone made for a good reason. Nothing just happens in my novels. Every scene that we go into is because someone wanted to get something or someone wanted to stop someone or someone had a really great idea that turned out to be a really bad idea.
Every scene is because of something the characters did. And it’s a result of a decision. And if you just do that, that is the definition of a character-driven story. The story is literally being driven by the decisions of the characters.
And if you just keep following that, just point the people at where you want them to go and just let them gnaw their way to it, you will end up with a gripping drama. They desperately want whatever it is you’ve set them up for, and they will find a way to get it one way or another or be horrifically and tragically defeated.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. We’re already running out of time here.
Rachel: I always talk too much. I’m sorry.
Joanna: No, it’s great. We’re gonna switch gears into the marketing and the business side. And you have this great post back in the spring when I first emailed you about marketing for the latest dragon book in the series. I think your husband wrote it.
Rachel: Yeah, he’s amazing.
Joanna: He’s amazing. And it was basically a list of all the different things that you’ve done for marketing and the things that worked and things that didn’t work.
What did you learn from that? And how do you recommend marketing these later books in the series?
Rachel: We are actually in the middle of an experiment. For my third book, “No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished,” we went the full-court press.
We hired a marketing company to help us out. We did Facebook. We did Twitter. We did email. We did everything we could possibly think of. We did Google AdWords and Amazon ads and everything.
What we discovered was that a lot of stuff did not work. It just didn’t matter how much money we put into it. We were not getting sales back.
The biggest strikeouts for us were the blog, because I was doing all these blog posts and spending a lot of my time on the blog, which I loved doing, by the way, except for writing. Again, writing nonfiction kind of drains me. I find it very tiring to do. I like it. It’s just it’s not like fiction which gives me energy. I write fiction. I come out of it and feel like, “Yeah!” I write non-fic and I come out feeling like I need another cup of coffee.
But we discovered that the blog was not doing anything for the writing. It was doing nothing but sapping away my time, even though it was getting a lot of hits. So we decided to not do that anymore.
Facebook and Twitter, same thing, we were doing a lot. We were posting a lot. We were spending all the money. We were trying desperately to engage. And we just were not seeing a return on our time investment and…or our money investment. And we were just sort of like, “Well, you know, we gave it the college try. I guess were done.”
And so now I’m doing my launch, my new book, which comes out at the end of July, and it’s called “The Dragon of a Different Color,” and it’s the fourth book in my dragon series and the next to last one. And we’re not doing any marketing for it. Like I announced it. I did my email blast for it. But that’s about it.
We’re not putting money into it or anything. And we’re gonna see how it’s going to go because, so far, it’s going better than book three was at this point with all that marketing. And so I’m like, “Well, I guess it really didn’t make a damn bit of difference.”
But a lot of caveats to this. My books are hard to market. I write books that cross genres. A lot of times, people don’t know they want my books until they see them.
How do you sell someone something they don’t know they want? You know, it’s classic. If you’re writing something that is much easier to very quickly describe in an ad, you might have better luck.
Also, I am terrible at Facebook. I hate it with a passion of a thousand suns. And so I didn’t engage as much there as I wanted, which is fine.
Honestly, if I had any advice about marketing, it would be experiment with a lot of different types and discover what works.
The magical combination is a marketing that actually does what you want it to do and that you enjoy doing. Things that you don’t hate, because if you hate it, that’s going to come through. You’re never going to be able to put on that much enthusiasm for it because you just hate it.
Everyone hates something. And for me that was Facebook. There are tons, so many authors with so much success at Facebook, and I’m just not one of them. I hate it. And it hasn’t hurt my career. So, obviously, I’m fine.
Joanna: It is interesting. The blogging, I think it’s really a very good point because I agree with you.
I don’t think blogging is that useful for fiction authors. I think it’s incredibly useful for non-fiction authors.
Rachel: Oh yes. And I was trying to build a nonfiction platform before I realized I didn’t actually want to be that person. I didn’t want to have that career. I’m like, “I don’t wanna do this.” I want to write fiction. That’s what I want to do, and so that was easy.
I will say the thing that worked really well, because there were some stuff that came out really well from this, and the number one thing we did that worked just amazingly was list bait for my mailing list.
I had a mailing list that was probably about 1,800 people. So it was nice, but it wasn’t huge. And we heard on “The Self-Publishing Podcast,” actually, they were talking about using list bait. And my husband, Travis, who is the guy who comes up with all of this, by the way…I just sit in my writing cave and like growl at people, and he comes up with all the ideas. He’s amazing.
He suggested I write a short story about… And “Heartstrikers,” we could offer to the mailing list. And I did it’s called “Mother of the Year,” and it’s really freaking funny, I think. It’s alittle Bethesda short, who is my terrible dragon mother, and the worst person in the whole world, really.
I offered it to people who signed up for my mailing list. And signups went through the roof. I’ve doubled my mailing list in a space of about three months. And it’s now over doubled. I’m not so sure how many we have. We have a lot.
Joanna: That’s probably affecting the launch of this next book.
Rachel: Exactly. That’s what I was getting to.
We did that mailing list launch, and my sales just shot through the roof. When people sign up for your mailing list, these are people who want to be marketed to. And they’re the best customers.
You have to treat them really well. I went to Romantic Times in May, I went to a panel with Sarah from Smart Bitches, Sarah Wendell, who’s brilliant. And she had a fantastic point about mailing list, which is that a mailing list is a promise. If you say to someone, “I’m going to email you only when I have new fiction,” only email them when you have new fiction. You want your email to them to feel like a present. It’s like a present in their box, not like, “Oh, it’s that lady emailing me again”.
If you say, “I’m going to email you every day with awesome recipes,” you better email them every day with awesome recipes. This is your promise that you have made this person who has given you their email. And you should never abuse that.
I’m actually very much against authors who trade mailing lists because you’re betraying your promise. They signed up for your mailing list, not that other author’s mailing list. And it works, but I find it to be kind of disingenuous.
Joanna: I agree. I think you can do joint promotions where you share something on your list, and then if they choose to sign up for someone else’s, then great.
But it’s interesting because what you’re talking about there is creating something specifically to get people to sign up, that is not available anywhere else. My Author 2.0 Blueprint for nonfiction is exclusive, but I haven’t got anything for fiction.
Rachel: It really is worth it.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly, and that’s a really good tip for people.
Rachel: The other thing is that you want the mailing list to feel exclusive. You want people to feel like they’re getting stuff no one else has.
My mailing people, they get first access to everything I do. They’re always the first to know. I email something to my mailing list, it pops up on Twitter, “Oh my God, guys, guess what I just found out.” They get to be the first to tell their friends about your book.
People get really excited about that. And when your fans are that excited about your book, that’s amazing. That’s like the best marketing that you can possibly have.
I highly recommend making them. If you don’t have a mailing list already, make one and make it awesome. Promise people something you can deliver. I only email people when I have a new book coming out, that’s my promise because I can keep it because I suck at doing things monthly.
I only email them when there’s a new book. But the result is when my email comes in, everyone opens it. I have amazing open rates because they’re really excited because they’re the first on the block to know about new Rachael Aaron, and they’re super excited.
Joanna: I think that’s really great because there’s a lot of push about growing an email list, but it’s what you do with that that makes the real difference.
Coming back to that blog post, it says at the end that you guys are looking at selective focus and drastically scaling back on some things. Now this is something I keep saying I will do. You mentioned blogging that you’re going to stop doing.
What else are you drastically scaling back to focus on?
Rachel: We stopped blogging. We stopped the nonfiction blogging, which is kinda sad. But it was just eating hours and hours of my time that I needed for writing.
We stopped Facebook ads. I stopped posting on Facebook as much because it was eating my time and eating our money and not giving anything back.
What you’ve really got to do is you’ve gotta come up with a metric for measuring your advertising. Are you looking for book sales? Are you looking for views on your webpage? Are you looking for mailing list signups?
Pick a number, like a hard number, and then do an experiment with the marketing to see if you can make that number bigger. Give it three months or something, give it some time to actually work because marketing is slow.
But when it’s done and it’s not doing what you want, cut it loose. Don’t waste your time on things that don’t work. Don’t throw good money after bad. And as authors, you know, we want desperately to do something. You want some button you can press to make your book sell, because you can feel really powerless.
Your poor little book is a fish in the vast ocean. And you’re trying to get attention. That’s why you should always keep experimenting and be able to measure what you’re doing.
But you should never just keep doing something on blind faiht. At that point, you might as well be buying lottery tickets or throwing pennies into a wishing well. If you’re just throwing money away if it’s not working, or you can’t prove that it’s working, what’s the point?
I actually stopped going to conventions. I loved them. They were super fun. But I have a young child, so they put a lot of stress on my family because my husband had to do everything while I was gone. I got sick almost every time because you leave your hermetically sealed writer cave and go off into the wider world. They would often wipe out about a week of work. And I’m like, “I can’t afford this. I’m not making enough fans and making enough connections to afford this.”
I’m hoping that will change in the future because, again, conventions are really fun, and I love them. But love wasn’t good enough. The ROI was just not there. And so that’s an example of things you just gotta scale back. So that’s really what we did.
Focus on what works.
Joanna: Exactly, focus on what works or try things, like you say, as an experiment and then stop them if they’re not working. And things change. This is what’s so really important. I mean you started off talking about 2004. Book marketing from 2004 is just completely different now.
Rachel: It’s all advertisements and like subway banners and stuff.
Joanna: So it was all print newspapers. Things have really changed. And things will keep changing. And I think they’re changing even faster. So everyone should revisit their writing habits, revisit your marketing tactics, all of that.
Last question, I want to talk about working with your husband.
Part A, does that mean you’re successful enough that you could hire your husband to work with you?
Rachel: Yes, it does. We live in America, and if healthcare gets gutted, we’re going to be in a real problem because we are self-employed. We formed our own company.
But there’s only two of us. We depend on the marketplaces to buy our health insurance. And we’re already paying through the nose because my son has cerebral palsy. So he has a preexisting condition, and he needs leg braces. And those are very, very expensive.
And so I’m very, very worried. We may either have to move to Canada or my husband might have to get a job specifically to get health insurance.
Joanna: Consider Europe. You know, our health care is so much better than yours.
Rachel: I have to tell you I’m thinking about moving to France.
Joanna: Yeah, France is amazing. France is like the number one. I mean, really, it’s amazing.
Rachel: But I love being American. And I’m very American. So it’s really, really upsetting to me in a deep level.
Joanna: Fair enough, and we try not to be a political show, but I get it.
Rachel: But healthcare things are scary for all writers.
Joanna: Yeah, it is very important topic for people to consider if they want to write. I mean getting a part-time job or something that covers it is a good idea.
Secondly, what are your tips for working with a partner and communicating the understanding of what you do as a writer.
You said now he’s starting to write. But many people listening don’t get support from their partners. People don’t understand why they want to do it or how long things might take.
What are your tips there for that sort of relationship?
Rachel: Very clear divisions and responsibilities. Travis and I are very lucky because we got together in 2002. And we basically just clicked. And we didn’t get married till 2006. We’d basically been married since like our very first date. It was ridiculous.
We were just two puzzle pieces that snapped. It was great. I’m not gonna lie. It’s awesome. I’m like, “I’m so lucky.” And he was my second serious boyfriend I ever had. I’m just like, “I’m done.” I never have to do this again. We’re done here.
But what you really need to do is you need to have a very clear line of responsibility. Publishing is a very emotional business because it’s your book. You’ve put so much of yourself into this product.
When stuff goes wrong, and things do go wrong like all the time, you get mad. You get very mad. And knowing who is responsible for what keeps you from just being mad because you never want to poison your loving relationship with, “Why didn’t you do that thing?” You don’t want to be that.
What we do is we have a very clear division of labor and things that we are responsible for. We do it based on our personalities, what we like to do.
I do all the writing, and I take care of all the freelancers, my editors and my cover artists. And I do the covers. And everything basically before the book is published is me. That’s all me.
And then once the book is published, it goes into Travis’s domain because he handles the money, the business, the looking at stuff, listening to all the podcasts, keeping updated.
At this point, he knows more about publishing than I do because he’s the one who’s really educating himself and staying on top of things and coming up with all the cool new marketing ideas. Because that’s what he likes to do. He genuinely enjoys marketing. He loves spreadsheets and numbers. He’s a numbers guy. And so it just works really, really well.
And he also takes care of the house, and he’s my househusband in a lot of ways, which is great, which has saved us a lot of heartache. Because it’s very difficult to keep a functional house when you’re both working full-time.
My duties for him are really part-time, and he spends the rest of his time doing house stuff. And I let him make his schedule however he wants. So long as it gets done, I don’t care. I’m like, “If it gets done, I’m fine. I just need these things done by these days.” And he does them.
He’s a very responsible spouse. And I think that’s really important because we’re both pretty responsible people, and we have a lot of trust. And not everyone’s relationship is like that. And that’s not to like hate on anyone, but we just are very lucky that we already had a good working relationship. So it was very easy for us.
For other people, if you want to work with your spouse, you may have to be very, very specific about what they’re going to do. But those set responsibilities really help people know what is expected of them.
If people know what is expected of them, you get a lot less conflict. That’s true in any business.
You know your spouse. It may seem like kind of a nice idea, “Oh, we should work together.” But you know in your heart of hearts whether or not that’s a good idea. And sometimes you’re better off spending your money just hiring an assistant.
Joanna: I think that’s a really good point. And also, when you’re the one who starts the thing, like when you’re the writer, it’s tempting to just try and give them the stuff you don’t want to do. And that might not be what they’re actually best at.
Just an amusing question, I find myself assigning my husband Asana tasks, which is like sharing software. And I’m like, “Oh, he needs to do that.” I’m going to put it in Asana. And then it’s like, “I’m giving my spouse a task on Asana. This is a bit naughty.”
Rachel: The important thing here is that with Travis and myself is I just give him a category, and he does it. And it really is whatever works. And it’s a personality of the person.
You’ve really gotta watch out for becoming a boss as opposed to a partner. This is my business. I’m the one who makes the money. I’m the one who decides what we’re writing.
I’m a pretty alpha person. Whereas, Travis is much more laid back. He’s not really a guy who’s going to give other people instructions. He’s a guy who’s very responsible and is going to get that job done. And that’s why I married him, and I love him for that because he is the person who gets stuff done. He just does it. You don’t have to say anything to him. He’s just super responsible, and I love that. And I find that so supportive and fulfilling.
If you have a spouse, and you don’t trust them to do what you need them to do, getting them into your business is the road to failure. It’s the road to a lot of heartache.
So you’ve got to be very careful when you do this to make sure that it’s actually going to work out. I’ve seen this in other authors, they either see the author as a meal ticket or they don’t really understand what you’re doing and they’re not legitimately interested in publishing. And so they’re always kinda eh about it. They don’t really put their heart and soul into it like someone you could hire would do because they also want to be in publishing. So motivation is very big.
Joanna: These are all really fantastic tips. Jonathan and I are coming up to two years in a couple of months working together. I keep saying to him he has to come on the podcast. I have to interview him on the podcast about me and how we’ve managed it because I think it’s something that a lot of people want, and then it might not necessarily be exactly how you imagined it.
Rachel: Exactly. And it’s also something that feels very natural, you know? It’s like, “Oh, well, I stay at home, and I write all day. Why don’t you stay at home and help me all day?” And then we could just both be at home, and it’ll be great.
And it is great if you can make it work, because some couples I know, they need eight hours apart from each other. And then they come home and they’re fine, you know, and they do very well. But they need their apart time. And it’s just personality.
There’s no right or wrong way to have a relationship, as long it’s not an abusive relationship.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. Well, we’ve covered a whole lot of really interesting topics today.
Where can people find you and all your books online?
Rachel: Oh, well, if you go to rachelaaron.net, and that is rachelaaron.net, I have everything there, all the blog posts we talked about, the original 2k to 10k post, the marketing post. I post sales numbers. We actually have got some sales numbers, some new ones to post. They’re pretty cool. All my information about KU, everything that we did that’s on the blog, it’s all still there. You can go read it, and you can just link that right off my website, which is rachelaaron.net again.
And we also…it’s also where you can find all of my books, traditional and indie-published. They’re all on my website. And there’s audio editions of everything. There’s print editions of everything. There’s e-books of everything. So whatever you like, I’ve got it. Just come read about dragons. They’re super fun.
Joanna: Right. Well, thanks so much for your time, Rachel. That was great.
Rachel: Thank you. This has been a marvelous interview. I had a really good time. Anytime you wanna do it again, just let me know.
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