Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thinking Through the Story Pitch at the Beginning: Author Interview with Dave Cravens

Your work background covers the visual media with TV commercials and promotional trailers. What made you decide to move over to writing fiction?
I appreciate good storytelling.  No matter what medium I’m working with, I strive to tell a good story.  As a kid this manifested itself in many ways – I’d draw and write comic books, I’d make videos with my friends, and I’d write short stories and novels. 

The last twenty years or so, I’ve worked in video games as a video editor, then a cinematic director and most recently as a writer – it’s great collaborative work that takes hundreds of people to successfully realize a vision.  But as fun as it is, I’m still working on someone else’s world or property.  Creatively, I wanted to get back to the world and character building I did as a kid.  I wanted to express my creativity without the restrictions inherent to licensed material - for better or worse.  So I decided to return to an old love and write original novels.

Your first published novel was back in 1999 with Crusaders of a Dying Breed. Why did you chose to write in the YA genre?
Crusaders was an incredible learning experience for me – with a lot of hard lessons.  Going through high school, I attempted to write two novels.  I would get about 80% of the way before becoming disgusted with my own work.  I’d stop without finishing.  That needed to change.  So in college, I set out to finish a novel – any novel – to make it past that mental hurdle.  I chose Crusaders because it was based on stories and comics I had drawn my senior year in high school and the ideas were still fresh in my mind.  That was undoubtedly the YA influence.  To make sure I finished, I wrote the novel backwards.

How long did it take you to write that novel? How did you go about finding a publisher
It took me most of college to finish Crusaders.  After graduating, I submitted to traditional publishers and made it to the second round with a few of them.  They said they enjoyed it and liked my style, but ultimately passed because they couldn’t figure out how to sell it.  Crusaders mixes a lot of genres: fantasy, science fiction, young adult, comic books, adventure, etc.  I was told many times that it should be my third book to publish, after I established myself as a writer.  They insisted that my first outing should be something more traditional.  Pure fantasy.  Pure science fiction.  Pure YA.  Pure whatever.

 That's when you decided to indie-pubish.
Yes, when I received that feedback, I would foolishly dismiss it with a reactive: “What are you talking about?  You said it’s a fun read!  Why wouldn’t people buy something fun to read?”  So I published it myself and was among a new generation of authors to take advantage of “on-demand” publishing.  This meant books were only printed as they were ordered, so there was no waste in unsold copies.  It seemed like the perfect solution. 

In the end, the traditional publishers were right.  Crusaders was incredibly hard to market, and I had no idea what I was doing.  It fizzled out pretty fast, and then I got sucked into the video game world for the next twenty years.

But you came back to indie-pubishing
Now, I feel like I’ve come full circle with self publishing.  Whereas with Crusaders, it was a necessity, with The God Thought, it was a deliberate choice.  I’d met with several agents for TGT and the response was fantastic, but going that route would’ve meant another two years of wrestling with a publisher before it ever hit the shelves, and I would still have to do all the same things, marketing, etc. that I would be doing if I self published.  So I thought “the hell with it” and opted to self publish.  I could maintain complete creative control, and success or fail, could put the thing out on my own terms.  It’s a hard road, but I don’t regret it a bit.

What did you learn in writing and publishing that first book that helped you with your current one?
While waiting for The God Thought to come online, I decided to read through Crusaders for the first time in two decades.  It was a great read, witty, but I cringed every time I found a mistake in the text, which happened far too often.  I never had Crusaders professionally edited or proofread.  I couldn’t afford it at the time, but it’s still a decision I greatly regret.  It is impossible for any writer to self-edit their work, no matter how many drafts you go through.

One of these days, I’ll revisit the work and give it the polish and professional attention it deserves.  But lesson learned: ALWAYS have your work professionally edited and proofread.  That’s something I took very seriously for The God Thought. I also enlisted test readers throughout the entire process of writing TGT.  Since the book is a hybrid of transcripts and narrative chapters, I wanted to make sure the ideas were being communicated clearly and people weren’t getting lost. 
 
For my first draft, I had a team of seven people who would read five or six chapters as I wrote them.  They’d give me blunt feedback as to what they understood and where they thought the story was going.  I’d never written a first draft like that before and I found it incredibly insightful.  It also kept me from getting too attached to any bad ideas that I might have fallen in love with on the way.  I could see clearly what wasn’t working and correct it.

Why so long between novels? 
I just wasn’t ready for another go after Crusaders, and started working full time.  I had a lot of growing up to do - as a creative, as a writer, as a director – as a person.  My day job keeps me incredibly busy and fulfilled, but I’ve got that itch now to expand creatively.  Writing is something I can do on my own time, at my own pace for the rest of my life.  I understand it will be a long climb as a new independent author.  I’m essentially starting from scratch.  But I’m very proud of The God Thought.  It’s reviewing very well, and I love hearing from readers who had a great time with it.  The word will eventually spread.  It just takes time. 

Give me a short blurb on your current book, The God Thought.
The God Thought is about a farmer who one day has a moment of clarity so perfect, so divine, that all of life’s mysteries and secrets are revealed to him.  Legend calls it the “god thought” because some believe it is what “God thought” to create the universe.  But when the farmer experiences this, a terrible energy is released.  The explosion levels a small town in the Midwest, killing thousands of people, including the wife and daughter of our protagonist, Oliver Wells.  When the story begins, Oliver has just returned from a year-long sojourn of trying to pick up the pieces of his life. He is accosted by a stranger who tells him about his connection to the farmer.  Oliver sets off to confront the man responsible for the death of his family, and soon finds himself in the crosshairs of secret factions looking to exploit the farmer’s knowledge.
 
What type of feedback have you received on the book that surprised you?
When I tested early drafts, it always surprised me how different men and women would interpret specific scenes or language depicted in the book.  It was important for me that the story appeal to both sexes, so I put a lot of focus into finding a common language that could illicit the responses I wanted.  Change one word in a sentence describing a romantic encounter and it can become very appealing to men while turning women off entirely, or visa versa.

What do you think makes a sci-fi work or not work for the reader?
Believable and relatable characters are key for science fiction.  There’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens in The God Thought, and I revel in the spectacle of it, but what legitimizes those crazy things is how the characters react to them.  If a character doesn’t feel genuine, especially in their reactions to the world you’ve created, a reader isn’t going to buy anything that happens in your story.

Who are your favorite sci-fi authors?
I’m a big a fan of Suzanne Collin’s work in the Hunger Games series, and I respect the work of Michael Crichton.  I also love a good Dan Brown novel.  He’s not science fiction, but I’m a sucker for conspiracies.  Whether or not there is a shred of truth in any conspiracy I find them fun, imaginative and they get my brain going on crazy ideas. 

What type of research do you do for your books?
I research as I go.  If I can’t find accredited sources online that will answer my questions, I’ll contact experts in the field.  Sometimes they get back to me, sometimes they don’t. 
 
How do you write? Do you do an outline first?
These days, when I start a project, I’ll mull the idea around for a long time.  Eventually I’ll start pitching it to a few select people just to see how they react.  Concept ideas need to be really strong and thought out before diving in.  That may sound rather obvious, but I’ve seen so many of my contemporaries charge headfirst into a project saying things like: “I’m going to write an exciting adventure!” Or “We’re going to make a great 3rd person shooter action game!”  Fine goals, but what is it about your idea that’s going to draw people to it?  What is it about your idea that’s going to differentiate it from the billion other ideas out there?  If you can’t sum it up and get people to take notice with a good “elevator pitch” you should go back to the drawing board.

What type of publicity has worked best for you in generating sales?
I’m still early in the marketing process, so I don’t know that I have any good answers for that.  I wish I could say “if you do X and spend Y then you will generate Z sales!”  I wish I knew that formula. 

The reality is, the number one thing that sells books today is the author’s name.  No one knows who I am - so that’s a wash.  The number two thing that sells books is a referral from a friend.  I need to get people to take a chance on it, read it, and then enjoy it so much they grab one of their friends and scream to them: “You have to read this!”  That’s why sites like Goodreads are so important.  It’s a collection of hardcore readers who devour books and are looking for their next “fix.”  Hopefully you can get on the radar and make your book their meal.  But your book better taste awesome.

What has bombed?
What doesn’t work so great?  Facebook.  It’s easy to “like” something – it’s non-committal.  You’ll get a ton of “likes” by advertising, but they often won’t lead anywhere.  You need to find ways to have your readers commit to the next step and make the sale.

I’ve been told that the more books I publish, the more I’ll sell.  That seems rather obvious, but I’ve no interest in cranking out books for the sake of cranking out books.  I want them done right.

Since you previously have experience in doing promotional trailers and few authors have that skill, what would you suggest to a newbie who wants to do a trailer?
I’m not convinced that book trailers make that big of an impact on sales, but that may be because I haven’t seen one that has succeeded at it.  There are a lot of cheap looking book trailers out there and a lot of cheap companies who will gladly take your money to create one.  So if you decide to do one, try to be clever in your approach and spend the time and money to make it look good.  I’ve got a great script for my own, but will only pull the trigger if I become convinced the money will come back in sales.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now, you wished you had known sooner?
I’m amazed at how slow the publishing industry moves - even with all the advances in technology and communications we have today.  But the fact is, reading, editing and proofing one’s writing takes a considerable amount of time.  Compare this to a pointless 90 second video about Whiskers the Cat recorded on a smart phone, and how that thing can go viral and get a gazillion hits in less than a day – it’s a little depressing.  But the fact is, watching that video is a low risk investment for viewers.  It’s free, it’s short, and if it sucks, a viewer has only wasted 90 seconds of their time staring at their phone, something they check all the time anyway. 
 
Reading a novel is a more sizable investment of time and energy.  Readers have to focus on what they’re doing, they have to think about what they’re reading, and it takes longer than 90 seconds to appreciate it.  The fastest anyone was ever read my book is in ONE DAY.  On average, readers will get through it in ONE WEEK.  So if I’m counting on my book building momentum through word of mouth, I need to be incredibly patient for that process to run it’s course while seeking more avenues to court first time readers. It’s a marathon that I’ll be running over the course of years to come.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing that you would like to pass along?
Always finish what you start.  Even if you think it’s the worst thing in the world you’ve ever written, just finish it.  There is something to be learned from seeing that experience through that will make you stronger the next time around.  You must develop the habit of closing. That’s a big hurdle for some writers – it was for me.  But you need to be able to finish your novel, or you’ll forever be stuck with in the land of “what if?”
 
What other books or stories do you have in the works?
My current challenge is deciding on what to focus on next.  I wrote the first draft of a fantasy novel years ago, now I want to go back and polish it.  I would love to revisit Crusaders and give it the proper love.  There’s a crazy side project called Ghost Provokers: The Official Guide to Kicking Ghost Butt based on a comedy web series I used to do with friends of mine.  I’ve got an unusual idea for an erotic thriller that I want to explore.  And of course, there is the sequel to The God Thought.  I’m still an unknown author, so I could probably focus on any of these and move the ball forward.  But as they are all very different genres I want to be smart about the decision I make.

That's if for today's interview. If you'd like to learn more about Dave's current writing or upcoming works, here are a couple of options: www.thegodthought.com   www.facebook/thegodthought