I was just interviewed for an article in the Southern New Hampshire University magazine, and I thought you might find my responses interesting. I mean, I found them interesting, but I could be slightly biased. I’m teaching a class next term on Book Publishing in the Modern World, so the questions they asked seemed like a good way for me to share my thoughts on publishing, which of course you guys have already been lucky enough (ahem) to hear already. Enjoy!
Name: Sean Hoade
Profession: Novelist*, Adjunct Professor for Creative Writing MFA Program at SNHU Online.
Published work: Three novels, one short story collection, a plethora of short fiction.
Genre of writing: A little bit of everything, but currently concentrating on zombie tales and books with a Lovecraftian theme.
Possibly a cookbook.
Have you always written?
I’ve always been into storytelling, even as a young boy. However, I thought my destiny was to make movies and writing was a means to that end. Write a little screenplay, make a little movie, write a slightly bigger screenplay, make a slightly bigger movie, and so on. I wrote a 50-page novella, I guess you’d call it, when I was 11. I wrote it in present tense because that’s how movie scripts were written. But it was a novella. Eventually I had to face the fact that I had neither the patience nor the leadership skills needed to get even a tiny narrative film made. Luckily for me, even as this revelation flushed my Speilbergian dreams down the crapper, my interest in and love of writing fiction quickly filled the void. I found that I didn’t like to wait to see the story for however long it would take to write, produce, cast, direct, edit, and release even a zero-budget independent film. I wanted the story now, or at least as close to now that the creation of the short story or novel would allow. I went from wanting to be Steven Spielberg to wanting to be Stephen King. I don’t think I fully grasped the concept of being my own creative voice at all at that point.
My Stan Lee phase was especially troubling.
What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I was at a strong advantage because of my initial interest in being a screenwriter-slash-movie director. This is because when I was 12, I got ahold of Syd Field’s book Screenwriting and studied it religiously for years. The three-act structure, the idea of rising tension, the reversal, the climax, all of that I picked up from Field and here, 33 years later, I think of stories in this way. So I think about the general idea of what I want a story to be about — let’s say about the young Charles Darwin and his lifelong relationship (not always a friendship) with the also-young captain of the Beagle. I think about what I want the broad strokes of the story to be — as I tell my writing students, I kind of create a movie trailer in my mind with the high points that would be in such a trailer to entice viewers (or readers). Then I figure out the premises of the characters as Egri explicated the concept, and then I get to work on drawing a diagram of the dramatic structure of the book. This will frequently change as I develop the idea, but it’s important to me to have that written out and drawn from the very beginning. Also, I do a complete rundown — at least in my mind before I write it — of the goal of a character in the present scene, his or her opposition to reaching that goal, and then what the outcome is. It’s always one of these four: YES, NO, YES BUT, or NO AND FURTHERMORE. It makes for compelling storytelling with each scene linked like jigsaw puzzle pieces. I highly recommend it.
What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
It’s kind of funny, because I suffer from terrible, crippling procrastination. I could put off the sunrise if it were up to me. So sitting butt in chair and just writing is essential. If you write 1,500 words per day, that’s six or seven novel drafts a year, every year. And even if you write stuff that isn’t that great, you can use the rewriting process to bring out the strong and put the weak out of its misery. A lot of beginning writers avoid the rewriting process like the plague, and it kills their careers. I say all of this because I must force myself to do these things. I want to lie on the couch and, as my wife calls it, “gather wool” thinking about my next story. However, there is a time for the couch and a time for the chair at your desk, and 90 percent of your time should be spent on the latter. That is my biggest challenge: hauling my behind into my office, staying off Facebook, and getting words written. I spent a lot of my life not doing that, too much of it thinking about writing and calling myself a writer but not actually producing anything for readers’ consumption.
“The main thing I write these days is my name on the back of disability checks.”
The way I have overcome this, weirdly enough, is by setting myself an unbreakable deadline. Or, if not unbreakable, one that would cause me great embarrassment if it were to be missed. I did this with my most recent novel, Deadtown Abbey. I did a Kickstarter to help me pay the bills while I wrote it, which was putting it put there in the public sphere, friends and family and people I didn’t even know but who like to support creative work. Even this wasn’t enough, however; in putting my hand out for a little cash to help a poor writer get his novel finished, I had to set myself a deadline. So, since it was a horror-ish novel, I made arrangements to sell it at an upcoming zombie-themed convention. This was all public, written about in my blog (seanhoade.wordpress.com) and held up for all to see. I now had to finish or I would have to stop calling myself a writer because anyone who knew me would be like, “Oh, sure, you’re a writer who takes supporters’ money and then doesn’t do what he promised.” That was a nonstarter for me, so getting the book finished in time for the Con was something that was going to be done, period. No argument. And it happened.
Now that Deadtown Abbey has been purchased by a publisher and a contract for nine more novels with that publisher has been signed, advances paid, that sort of thing, I no longer have to set my own deadlines — I have the needs of the publisher to receive each book on schedule, and that means nine books of about 65,000 words each between March 2014 and December 2016. It’s extremely motivating, but what’s best of all is that I know the exact audience I’m writing for: It’s the readers this publisher markets to, and before that it’s my editor and publisher, of course, whom I do not want to disappoint by not completing the work or giving them less than my best. “My best” is just on a tight schedule now, and that’s exactly how I like it.
All right, I might be feeling a teeny bit of pressure.
What has the road to publication been like for you?
Here’s the thing. The publishing world is much different for authors now than at any time in history because of the rise of the Print On Demand (POD) publisher, which exist only because of the Internet. Any writer can get his or her work “published,” even if it’s by a “press” that is just that writer. I have written on my blog about the different publishing tiers and what they mean, so I would ask anyone who’s interested to check it out there. That said, I went with a POD publisher for my first novel, Ain’t That America, in 2000 as well as a different POD publisher for my second novel, Darwin’s Dreams, in 2008 and my short story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, in 2011. I tried sending the novels out to agents and publishers but didn’t get any bites. Learning about POD publishers, however, let me get my books on the fledgling bookseller Amazon.com back when they were small. It got my book access to worldwide markets and all the benefits of that. The rise of ebooks in the past seven years or so changed the publishing dynamic yet again, making it even easier for books to find their readers. So I am a veteran of all of that.
Deadtown Abbey, which I POD’d for the Con soon after writing and editing it, is the first book that I have placed with an honest-to-goodness publisher who gets books into stores. And as I mentioned earlier, I now have a huge contract with them that has me the captain of my own destiny. This is it. At 45, this is my best opportunity to become the popular writer I have always sought to be.
You oughta see the audience for an unpopular writer.
How do you market your work?
I highly recommend to anyone doing self-publishing or who knows that they will be published under a certain title to get onto somewhere like GoDaddy.com or Hostway.com and buy the domain name. Then go on Twitter and start an account with the title as well. For example, with Deadtown Abbey, I got deadtownabbey.com and @deadtownabbey on Twitter before the book was even finished. If you’re going to do your own marketing, this is essential. If the title is already taken, I think writers should come up with a new title. It’s that important.
Naturally, if one has a publisher you’d want to work within their marketing efforts. But they might be quite happy if you own the domain name and Twitter for your book, because even if they just do a redirect to your book’s page on their corporate website, that is a valuable tool. It’s important to remember that publishers have full-time people dedicated to social media as well, so either they could post under your book’s Twitter handle or you could be asked to do it. I also think Facebook is a huge promotional tool, but you don’t need to have a unique account name for that. I have a “Sean Hoade, Writer” page on Facebook as well as pages for my individual books on there, plus I have the blog and my www.seanhoade.com website.
Whatever genre a new writer is working in — if it’s in any particular genre at all — he or she should try to get a table at as many conventions or other gatherings devoted to that genre as possible. I’m going to the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon in early April as well as the Salt Lake City FanXperience Con later in that same month. Even if you don’t sell a single book — which is highly unlikely — you can make connections there that will serve you well when it’s time to seek reviewers for your book. I got invited to the SLC Con because I met the head guy for that at my table in the Con where I debuted Deadtown Abbey. I’m learning very quickly that one should never miss a chance to make a friend in the writing world.
Well, maybe not never .
Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
When I was a young teen, Stephen King was the writer all young scribblers wished to be. He was prolific, famous, and extremely good at his craft. Later, I got into good meat-and-potatoes writers like Ira Levin and Elmore Leonard, who did wonders with minimal description, intensely indirect dialogue, and stories so tightly wound they always seemed on the verge of snapping. They made Ain’t That America possible, as did John Ridley (who just won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave), who showed me that protagonists didn’t have to be likable to be rootable. Poe and Lovecraft were hugely influential to me, more in subject matter than style, which led to Deadtown Abbey. The twenty Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian led directly to my writing Darwin’s Dreams. Perhaps more than any other writer, however, the work of former newspaper columnist and current novelist Dave Barry is an ongoing clinic on how to be funny in writing. More will be forthcoming, but Deadtown Abbey is my only amusing book-length work so far. Intentionally, anyway.
This cat knows what I’m talkin ’bout.
If you keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
If I can count the Oxford English Dictionary as one book, that would be first. It is history and encyclopedia and style manual all in one; plus, of course, it is a brilliant dictionary and achievement in Western letters. (If the OED were not allowed as a single book, then I’d pick as big and comprehensive of a dictionary as I were permitted. But I want the OED.
Second would be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It’s my favorite novel and an absolute masterpiece that would be required reading in every high school if I were in charge of the world. The tragedy of its writer’s suicide makes this hilarious book also very poignant.
Third, I think, would be a large-format book of the world’s great paintings from the French cave art of 20,000 years ago to the impressionists and cubists. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this would hold far more than any other single book I can think of!
Some pictures may only be worth the letters W, T, and F.
As always, I love me some commenty goodness. Please have at it below.
* With the contract and such, I can actually say this now and not be a pretentious ass! Or at least not as much of one as would normally be the case.