August 30, 2012

interview with indie writer michael williams

Today I welcome fellow Literary+ member Michael Williams to the blog. He has kindly answered several questions about his writing and publishing journey:

How did you get started as a writer?

I grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, in a very rural area where storytelling was and is still highly valued as a practical skill. I heard countless stories of the antics and adventures of ancestors and other locals from my older relatives and I read all my older sisters' library books and was generally exposed to fiction and creativity from very early on. I loved hearing stories told and I loved retelling them after. I recall telling a teacher when I was in first grade that I wanted to write books when I grew up. I was lucky to be raised in a family and an environment where that ambition was lauded. For instance, my fifth grade class had to write stories every Friday using our vocabulary words from that week and for mine I wrote an ongoing series of stories about a detective named John whose cases involved lots of monsters and, you know, scientific terms from our science lesson. My teacher was quick to praise me for showing enthusiasm. I was incredibly lucky to be encouraged by so many of the
adults around me.

What was your first complete story (published or otherwise), and what inspired you to write it?

Hrm. There are a lot of ways to answer that - maybe the Nancy Drew clone I tried to write in third grade? :) The first story I wrote that received relatively objective positive recognition - a contest in a single class - was a political thriller in junior high. I wrote countless short stories in college, mostly science fiction adventures and genre parodies. I suppose the most serious answer is my first National Novel Writing Month entry, in 2002. It was also a political thriller, sort of, and it was inspired by my interest in how the seemingly abstract philosophies and random circumstantial influences on political processes and mechanisms can manifest in the ordinary lives of regular people. When a law is written or modified or repealed to satisfy some current in the ever-moving river of public opinion, how does that impact the people whose lives are changed by that law? It was called "Life, Liberty And..."; I found writing something the length of a novella to be an incredible challenge and also deeply satisfying. I wrote it about a significant change in gun laws and the potentially tragic ways that erupted in a variety of persons' personal narratives, so it also helped me realize strong characterization is what drives my interest in continuing to write. When a bit of the story was about someone I found interesting then I wrote effortlessly and at length. When it was about someone I disliked then it was pretty painful - and very good practice - to keep going.

As an indie author, what are some of the struggles you face between writing and publication?

Promotion and time-management, hands down. I write stories that can be difficult to classify as one or another genre, which makes it difficult to get someone else - such as a publisher - to show interest and very difficult to promote on my own. For a while I sent solicitations for various works to small publishers I thought might be more open to something annoyingly difficult to describe - I freely acknowledge that about my work - and the responses I got were all very kind refusals. If one writer isn't making it easy for the publisher to target a given market niche then surely another will; it's a better use of their time to move on to the latter. Working purely independently is tremendously freeing but it means all the work of promotion is on me and I have to try to tackle those marketing problems. I've never been great at sounding my own horn so I find that very uncomfortable. It's also a huge time sink to try to identify people who might be interested in my work and sell it to them.

I hear this over and over again from other indie authors, also. I've observed writers who are clearly trying to come up with creative ways to market their work without making it feel like marketing and I sincerely love it when they attempt to execute those ideas, win or lose. Right now, all the buzz and enthusiasm around online publishing by independent authors is that it's so easy to make a book available and that is one hundred percent true. "Available" is a different thing from "noticed", however, and no one has worked out the Smashwords or the Kindle Direct Publishing equivalents for marketing a book. There's no turnkey way to build an audience. I feel like we're all groping around in the dark. I also have confidence that we will figure it out and that the answer will be different for each of us. That confidence doesn't prevent me from feeling frustrated about how hit or miss promotion can be sometimes. :)

Why did you decide to self-publish your work?

There are a number of reasons, but first among them was that I thought it would be a low effort way to let my work succeed or fail on its own merit. The whole process of finding a compatible agent and a willing publisher and marketing a book as a part of that machine has obviously worked for many people and I don't want to see that go away. There are writers for whom that works and works well. I felt like it was a big gamble to make my work available to anyone at all, though, and why compound the risk of failure by adding in a bunch of precursor events where it could get torpedoed before a single reader had the chance to make a decision on their own?

Let the record show that I was incredibly wrong. Self-publishing is not even remotely low effort. :)

Another reason is because I had been curious about self-publishing for a very long time but so few authors seemed willing to discuss openly the consequences of going that route. Very few authors seem willing to discuss how many sales they make and the effects of various price-related promotions and things like that. I felt like I might possibly help someone learn about the process if I went ahead with self-publishing in a really open and transparent fashion and that's how The Perishables Project was born. John Ward, my cover artist for "Perishables", suggested we do the cover collaboration in the open on Google+ as a way to promote both of us. I loved that idea and then stole and extended it to everything about my publishing processes.

What is your favorite part about writing?

Being surprised by a character's choices in a story. I am strongly motivated by characters and developing characters before starting a project is easily the preparatory step I enjoy most. I could just sit around writing character sketches for the rest of my life and be pretty happy. The part of actually writing a story that I most enjoy, though, is when those characters - whom I think I know pretty well already when the story starts - reveal something unexpected about themselves. All our characters come from within, of course, but the best ones surprise us. That's when I feel like a session is going really well. Strong stories hinge on characters making important choices and those moments when they have to choose and I'm not sure which way they'll go until we both get there are definitely what keep me at the keyboard.

What inspires your writing?

Primarily I want to craft a story that allows a reader to find something in common with a character who is completely unlike them in almost every way. I write stories with supernatural or science fiction elements in which the characters are inherently Other: vampires, ghosts, spies and other types of characters who are fundamentally removed from the day to day life of readers in the real world. I want readers to appreciate the humanity of those characters and empathize with them. Empathy is something we all need opportunities to develop. Stories that made me realize and appreciate different perspectives and the competing priorities of others were always revelatory to me as a child in a town populated by a pretty uniform culture and people. Our culture - especially American culture, and most especially American political culture - has become increasingly striated. We need stories about and real exposure to characters and persons who are outside our comfort zones so that we can learn compassion and overcome the boundaries our society increasingly tries to build between us.

On a purely personal, internalized level, I like to see a problem solved. I tend to write stories about detectives, adventurers and other types of characters who are, at least superficially, concerned with resolving a single question or set of questions and whose desire to find that resolution leads them into situations that are more complicated than they initially appear. I'm an engineer by trade and I find it tremendously satisfying when the characters do eventually answer their questions in concrete ways. Characters are not just programs and stories are not just problems to be solved, of course, but that is definitely a big part of what I look for on the page.

What is your favorite genre to write? to read?

I prefer to read detective fiction and to write urban fantasy with mystery elements. Detective fiction scratches that problem-solving itch but I don't consider myself clever enough to write a story that is built entirely around a mystery and I like the ways the fantastic can reveal things about the real by mixing the two together. I sometimes call what I write "suburban fantasy" because I love the story possibilities suggested by introducing the chaos of fantasy into a setting as intensely uniform as suburban life. Developers build little neighborhoods where every house comes from one of two or three floor plans and there are only half a dozen color options in vinyl siding and I love to throw a vampire or a fairy or a ghost into that and see who freaks out. :)

I love reading detective stories more than anything, though. My favorite author by far is Raymond Chandler. I've consciously chosen never to finish the last of his books that I started on because I'm not quite ready to live in a world that has no more Chandler for me to read.

Do you have any advice for writers planning to self-publish?

First, read about others' experiences, especially bad ones. There are a lot of scams out there and it can be very easy to fall victim to one. I recommend anyone thinking about self-publishing immediately bookmark "Writer Beware" and their associated blog. Writer Beware is an ongoing effort by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and also of the Mystery Writers of America. They document scams, provide information on how to spot a scam before one becomes a victim and how to assess whether a given service or service provider might be trying to lure in a dupe by sounding legitimate. They routinely discuss and review services marketed to indie authors and self-publishers and they are well worth reading. I would consider them required reading of anyone who wants to give this a serious go.

My second piece of advice is to finish the work before starting to consider how to market it. Don't try to write to the market; write what you want and know that the right audience will accrete to it in time. It's often said that there's no point trying to spot and jump onto a given trend bandwagon and I think that's true: trends move quickly and audiences can tell the difference between a work that was written because the author felt it was worth developing and one the author thought might make a quick buck.

My third piece of advice is to seek out other writers, especially those who are self-publishing, and build relationships with them. Don't be afraid to be honest with other creators if you're inexperienced. Don't be afraid to ask questions you're afraid might sound dumb. I was in a literary and artistic fraternity in college and it was incredibly enriching and encouraging and challenging to develop a network of peers as we all struggled to find and express our art and our inspiration. We had to seek one another out and we had to let ourselves be vulnerable with the ones we grew to trust. Art is not brought into being in a laboratory and artists do not treat one another with clinical detachment. Make friends with other writers. Challenge the friends you have to produce something of their own. Find people who will encourage you to create and challenge you to make it better than you did the day before. Don't lay your heart bare to total strangers, necessarily, but don't be afraid to be the one who initiates a connection with someone else in your network. When I initially decided to try self-publishing, I sent messages to half a dozen cover artists and said, very honestly, that I had no idea what I was doing and was curious to discuss self-publishing with them in preparation for producing a work for which I hoped they might be interested in being the artist. Three of them never responded; one gave me a very polite "thanks but no thanks"; one told me they would be interested but they were business-like in a way I felt wouldn't be a match with me; the sixth was John Ward, whose enthusiasm to discuss publishing and his own work was a perfect match in every way. I had to gamble by sending those emails and I am incredibly glad I did.

My fourth piece of advice: immediately dismiss anyone who wants you to spend money to talk to them in the first place. The power of self-publishing is that we can do this ourselves if we're willing to invest the time. The first sign of a scam is someone who wants to charge you for the pleasure of their company.

When you aren’t writing, what do you do?

Computer security. That either sounds really boring or really exciting to most people. I love what I do, but it's a lot closer to being a plumber than it is to the movie "Hackers." I'm also a part-time graduate student and I'm active in the alumni organization for my fraternity. Then of course there's my obsession with tabletop roleplaying games. I think the shortest answer is that when I'm not writing I'm a huge nerd who also runs and bikes a lot.

What is one random or strange fact about you?

I've watched "Twin Peaks" from start to finish so many times I've lost count. It's at least fifteen times at this point. I think it might be the apex of television; it might have to share that title with "The Rockford Files", though.

What is one question that you’ve never been asked, but you’ve always wanted to answer?

Where do you get your characters?

Lots of writers get asked where they get their ideas but no one has ever asked me where my favorite characters come from. The answer is that they mostly come from roleplaying games in which I've played. Writing is mostly a roleplaying exercise for me: come up with a character and an initial set of circumstances and turn the character loose in those circumstances to see what they do. That's why I write almost exclusively in first person.

Any books or projects you want to plug?

My first published book is called "Perishables": It's available for essentially every electronic device and platform and in all the major ebook stores. I have the first drafts of two sequels written and am doing the initial work to revise and expand first of those sequels: a book called "Tooth & Nail" which I expect to release in December; I hope to have the third book, called "Deal With The Devil", available in Spring of 2013. They're all what I call "wry horror": they're about monsters and people and their interactions, yes, but they're also about communities and relationships and family and everyone has a sense of humor.

I am tremendously honored to have won the 2012 Laine Cunningham Novel Award with "Perishables", given annually by The Blotter, a monthly literary magazine distributed in cities and towns in the southeastern US.

I also would like to take a moment to plug The Perishables Project which documents my attempts to market the book. Initially I was going to document what it took to sell ten copies to strangers, which turned out to be easier than I thought, but I kept going anyway.

Finally, I recommend folks read Smoke & Shadows, an ongoing urban fantasy serial produced by members of Literary+ (a marketing collective for independent authors on Google+). I've got a couple of episodes of that coming up and am enjoying it so far for the way it shows how different our styles are and yet we're able to contribute to a shared world.


Michael G. Williams is a native of the mountains of Western North Carolina. He grew up playing in the woods and reading Edgar Allan Poe. His favorite novel of all time is Dracula but his favorite novelist of all time is probably a tie between Isaac Asimov and Raymond Chandler. He’s written numerous short stories and the first drafts of ten novels, all for his own entertainment.

Michael lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his part­ner of ten years, two cats onto whom he projects a more complicated psychology than they are capable of having and more friends than he could possibly deserve. He’s a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi and is an avid tabletop roleplayer, runner, cyclist and photographer. 


  1. Reading this post is very timely given my current self-publishing venture taking root. Thanks Brooke and Michael for a great interview with some very helpful answers :-)

  2. You were lucky to have so much encouragement! And how clever of you to write an ongoing series in class for your spelling words. I'll bet you got an "A." Thanks for the tip on Writer Beware - think I'll head over there now.

  3. Thanks, Brooke! It was a real pleasure talking to you.

    @Gwen - please do check out Writer Beware! It's an insanely valuable resource.