My Year of Writing Dangerously – Guest Post by Russell Blake

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Russell Blake to you guys!  If you remember, a few months ago we sat down and chatted about his writing, but today, he’s here talking about his writing and the process of it! 
Welcome, Russell!

My Year of Writing Dangerously

My name is Russell Blake, and I embarked on a self-publishing career just a little over one year ago, in June, 2011. My first book, Fatal Exchange, started slow, as did my second, The Geronimo Breach, in spite of glowing reviews and excitement over the novels. Now, a little over a year later, I have 14 novels out, have been listed as one of the top indie writers of 2012, and have sold about 70K books (and given away almost 200K) – none of them .99 cent wonders. I’ve been extremely fortunate that reaction to my work has been positive and that sales seem to be continuing to build, with some peaks and valleys along the way.

Process

Emerald invited me to come on her blog and share some lessons I’ve learned as a writer. With that in mind, let’s start with process. Everyone has their own approach. There is no right or wrong. Hemingway wrote a few hours every morning and edited each page until it was finished, then moved on, never looking back. I’ve tried a number of different approaches, and the only one that really works for me is 12+ hour immersion days, week after week, until a book’s first draft is done. Then I’ll go back and do a second draft, working 5-6 hours a day, and then a polish draft for about the same number of hours per day, and then send it off to my editor. He will edit it, then I’ll incorporate the edits, then send it to a copy editor who will do a like edit for grammar, and then finally, it goes to a proofreader, who catches anything the line editor, my editor, and I missed. Even then I reserve the right to go back and modify a book once it’s released – I have done that on a few, and they are invariably better for it. I think if your gut says you can make it better, even a year after going live, then make it better. It is, after all, your work and your responsibility.

The one thing I’ve learned is that it is important to develop discipline and to write every day, without fail. Think of it as developing a writing muscle that atrophies if unused. So no excuses. I would say anyone who fancies themselves a writer should write, at least one hour a day, every day of the year. Two hours a day is better – you’ll see more improvement as a writer the more hours you throw at it.

The other important thing one should do is read. Expose yourself to new styles, new authors, new imaginations, new approaches to the storytelling craft. With exposure comes ideas. You need to feed your muse to keep her happy.

Plotting

Some spend weeks or months plotting a novel. Others begin with an idea and start writing. Again, there’s no right or wrong approach. What works for me is to draft a few paragraphs of what I think the story is about, then do a series of one sentence chapter summaries. By about chapter 15 I stop, and start writing. The second half of summaries will be more fleshed out once I’ve written the first half, so I don’t sweat having the whole thing drafted up front. The important thing for me is to start writing and get the story moving. I can organize whenever I feel a lull or I need a break. To me, all the outlines and structure in the world don’t matter if you aren’t writing the damned book. So write it and the plot will sort itself out, is my advice. I’ve also heard of folks who do elaborate character outlines, etc. but to me that’s just another excuse not to write it. Not judging, but anything that slows me down isn’t helping.

Ideas

I have no clue how other authors come up with their inspiration for new stories. I usually just have an epiphany, often in the form of a question. “What if Bin Laden didn’t die in the raid?” is an example. From that comes an entire story of what might have happened, and how it happened, and who did what to whom, and what it all means. I think anyone with an inquiring mind has these sorts of cerebral bursts regularly, and it’s important to take one that captures your imagination and then flesh it out. Maybe it’s a short story, or a novella, or a novel. I never know until I start writing. And I don’t force it. I have a rough idea about halfway through how many words it will take to tell the story, but I don’t get hung up on word count. Too often, I think a lot of the filler and descriptive expository comes from glancing at word count and wanting to stretch it. My philosophy is to tell the story as economically as possible, not forsaking the beauty of language, but not tapping away to get another thousand words, either. Just write the story. It will be as long as it needs to be. Don’t pay attention to word count. You’re not a factory worker paid by the syllable and readers aren’t going to much care. They’ll only care about whether the book, and the story, are good.

Pricing

So much has been written on pricing. My newest thinking has distilled a year’s worth of experience in a rapidly evolving market to a few simple ideas. First, .99 cent books are widely perceived as the slush pile and aren’t taken seriously. I can see why a few high profile authors churned out novels with ten word paragraphs, 90% dialogue and 55K work lengths and sold them for .99 – they wrote the modern day equivalent of the dime novel and got the value of their work pretty much right on. They might be readable, and even entertaining, but they won’t be particularly good. I’ve read some, and can burn through a modern dime novel in about two hours – about the time it takes to read a Hardy Boys adventure, which is about right because they are both written at a first to second grade reading level. But I think readers quickly figured that out, and now .99 carries with it a stigma. That being the case, I price in the $4-$5 range. I have one book above that, a new release, Silver Justice, but the older releases are all $5 or less, and selling well. I haven’t noticed much difference between sales at $2.99 and $3.99, so I stuck with $4.99 and that seems to be the right number for me, right now. Doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s right number. Many authors are at $2.99 and selling briskly. I just haven’t seen much difference in my sales, so my audience isn’t price sensitive – until the price exceeds $5.

Promotions

By far, the most successful promotions I’ve done have been KDP Select free days. Back at the start of the program I could see 25K downloads in two days, then sell 1000 or more additional books in the 10 days following the promo. That all changed May 1, and as of now, it’s more like you have to get into the top 100 overall to see even a marginal bump in post-free sales. One author who tracks these things said if you don’t see at least 3000 downloads on day one, you’re screwed and will see no positive impact, and may see your ranking actually slip. I’ve also noticed that free is no longer as effective even in giving away free downloads. Could be because once you saturate everyone who follows the sites that track free, you have to wait until a whole new group signs up, or otherwise you’re just pitching to the same audience as before – and most of them already have your book due to the last promo. Having said that, I am constantly exploring other ideas, and I’m sure this time next year there will be a slew of different tactics that can be used effectively. One special note is that I use Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe’s services on book launches, with good results. So I continue to plan to do that as I weave my unsteady way down this bumpy self-publishing road.

 

Russell Blake is the acclaimed author of Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, Zero Sum, The Delphi

Chronicletrilogy, Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, Revenge of the Assassin, Return of the Assassin, The Voynich Cypher, An Angel With Fur, How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated), and Silver Justice. He lives on the Pacific coast of Mexico and enjoys his dogs, writing, tequila and battling world domination by clowns. His thoughts, such as they are, can be found at his blog. And follow his rants on Twitter – @Blakebooks

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Interview with Author Russell Blake

I recently had an opportunity to talk with thriller author Russell Blake, and pose a set of questions that seek to dig into his process and opinions on writing and self-publishing. The answers may surprise, as some fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but you have to admit that he seems to be doing something right. 

Welcome, Russell!

You recently posted a series of blogs on book promotions that have worked for you on Amazon, including one that cites some pretty amazing sales figures. Ten thousand sales a month? What gives?

The blogs are intended to give other indie authors a window into my world, and share what’s working, and what isn’t. Trust me, the sales figures amaze me as well. I really started my journey as an author when I released my first thriller, Fatal Exchange, in late June, 2011. That’s not that long ago. That sales have ramped that quickly and the work’s been received with such enthusiasm surpasses all my expectations. I tend to orient my blog for other authors, because many of my Twitter followers are authors, and that’s my field of interest. And I want to send the message to my fellow scribes that incredible things are possible, even without an agent or publisher.

Why are your books selling like that? Price? Genre? Promotions?

I wish I knew. It’s certainly not price. I have my titles priced between $2.99 and $5.99, with special promo pricing on a few at $3.47 or $3.77. But I have avoided the .99 cent route. That always smacked to me of undervaluing the work, and I think it set an expectation in people’s minds that your work’s crap. I give away a couple of books for free – Night of the Assassin, and The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1. I’d rather give them away then try to hawk them for .99. I think that sends the wrong message, and it’s last year’s tactic to generate a splash. Only when everyone’s doing it, the splash value goes away. It’s probably a combination of having released a slew of titles so having a decent backlist, the genre I’m in (adventure/conspiracy thrillers), and luck. A lot of this is luck, unfortunately. Nobody wants to say that, but it is.

 

I find it hard to believe it’s all luck. You released, what, 12 titles in 2011? That’s not luck.

Agreed, that part isn’t. I write 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, when I’m in a book, and spend another 3 or so hours a day on social media and promotions, so it’s a grueling workload. I like to think I’m the literary James Brown – the hardest working man in publishing.  But 2012 is the last year I’ll be keeping up that pace. While it’s been good for the author career, it eliminates pretty much everything else from my life, and that’s not healthy long term.

Let’s talk about your latest book, The Voynich Cypher. You say it’s a departure for you. In what way?  

I typically write conspiracy thrillers that are in the Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth vein. But I had this idea stewing to try my hand at a Dan Brown/Raiders of the Lost Ark style pure adventure thriller that incorporated a treasure hunt element. After writing The Geronimo Breach, I outlined what I thought was a compelling plot for a book that used an ancient manuscript written in code as the basis of its story. Fortunately for me, such a document actually exists – The Voynich Manuscript. I crafted an intricate series of hunts within hunts using that document, and the protag from my Wall St. trilogy, Zero Sum, who must decrypt the most enigmatic document in history while being chased by secret societies and megalomaniacal billionaires, who will stop at nothing to protect or possess its secrets. I’m very happy with the way the book turned out, and think fans of the Da Vinci Code and Sahara will find it compelling.

How was writing that different than your other books such as King of Swords or The Delphi Chronicle?

Research. Months of it. Arcane books on the authorship of the Voynich, on its cypher and illustrations, on cryptography, on medieval history and secret societies, on the history of the Catholic Church, on European and Middle Eastern geography… hundreds of hours of research. It’s difficult writing that kind of a book, is what I discovered. Although I hope the end result is worth the effort. So far, advance reviews and feedback have been glowing, so I’m hopeful.

What’s next for you? Anything in the works?

I’m finishing my polish on the sequel to King of Swords, titled Revenge of the Assassin. Then I’ll take a couple of weeks off, and plot out my next one, which will either be a sequel to Revenge, a sequel to Fatal Exchange, or a sequel to Delphi. My goal is to release seven to eight novels this year, so I have to stay busy. But I’ve already got two in the can, so I’m on schedule. Voynich launches March 17, and Revenge will go live end of April, so my readers will never be more than six weeks away from another book in 2012.

Thanks for joining me today! 

You can pick up your copy of The Voynich Cypher here.

 

More on Russell:

Russell Blake is the acclaimed author of thrillers Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, Zero Sum, Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, and his latest, The Voynich Cypher – a Dan Brown/Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure thriller based on a real-life fifteenth century manuscript written entirely in unbreakable code. He has also penned the non-fiction tomes An Angel With Fur, and How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated). Views expressed are solely those of the author.