Publishing veteran Michael J. Sullivan will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the author of 29 novels and uses a wide range of publishing options, including self-publishing, small-press, big-five, Kickstarter, print-only, foreign translations, and audio. He’s sold more than 850,000 books, been translated into 15 foreign languages, and appeared on more than 150 “best of” or “most anticipated” lists, including those compiled by Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Goodreads, and Audible.com. His most recent novel, Age of Myth, hit #2 on the Washington Post Best Seller’s List for hardcovers. Because of his wide range of publishing experience, Michael has taught several courses with Writer’s Digest and been a guest speaker at multiple fantasy conventions, as well as BookExpo America (the largest publishing tradeshow in the world). He’s currently working on his fourth Riyria Chronicles novel. The second book in his Legends of the First Empire series, Age of Swords, will be released by Del Rey in the summer of 2017.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
There’s so much advice to give!! Hopefully, we can get into this more during the workshop, but I’m going to narrow my focus to two equally important pieces of advice…and they go hand in hand. The first relates to developing your craft, which doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years (or decades) to find your voice and get your writing skills up to a ready-for-prime-time level. Art, all art, takes time and practice, so this isn’t a sprint but a marathon. Stephen King says you should treat your first 1,000,000 words as practice, and Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours working at a task to get proficient. I think these numbers are about right. For me, I wrote for a decade and created 13 novels (most of which were utter trash), but they taught me a great deal. So my advice is to prepare yourself for a long haul, and never stop focusing on continued improvement. Persistence is the most important trait of the “writing business,” and the only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.
You took off a significant amount of time from writing and then returned to it with a series geared toward your daughter. What advice do you have for those who are returning to writing after a long break?
Yeah, I was away from writing for more than a decade…but I wouldn’t call my absence a “break.” I had come to the realization that I wasn’t going to make it, so I quit (and vowed never to write creatively again). And, yes, my life would have been much different (for the worse) if I hadn’t picked up the pen once more.
When I came back to writing (more than a decade later), I changed my mindset completely. I wasn’t working at becoming an author; I was writing for pure enjoyment. At the time, I wanted to make a book for Sarah (who’s dyslexic) in the hope that it would help her with reading. I just wanted to create something that the two of us would enjoy. Since I had already decided not to publish, I didn’t have any pressure. My takeaway from my second time around was that I saw the process of writing as the reward, and so I enjoyed the journey. The fact that it turned into a career was a happy byproduct of doing what I love regardless of what result it might produce.
You’ve published both traditionally and as an indie author. What did you learn as an indie author that helped you in traditional publishing? What did you learn in traditional publishing that helped you as an indie author?
Great question! What I learned as an indie author is that you have to be twice as good to get half the credit. The self-publishing stigma isn’t so prevalent these days, but when I started, people believed that no self-published book was worth reading. When I took that route, I adhered to a single mantra, “Make my self-published book indistinguishable from those released by traditional publishing.” That meant I had to have excellent editing, captivating cover design, and enticing marketing copy for the back-of-the-book description. Today, there’s been so much success in self-publishing that a lot of the skepticism is gone, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is “good self-publishing” and “bad self-publishing.” Doing the latter is easy, but why bother? If you are going to self-publish, then you MUST produce a high-quality product, a task that is monumental, especially for someone just starting out.
I was earning well as a self-published author, so part of the reason for going traditional was to get a glimpse “behind the curtain,” if you will. I learned a lot (both good and bad) once I saw the sausage-making process. One thing that became evident was the added income that traditional publishing brings by opening up markets that aren’t always possible with self-publishing. Foreign translations, bookstores, libraries, and audio books have been very lucrative for me, and while I could have gotten “some” traction in these areas without traditional publishing, they provide a substantial amount of income that offsets the smaller percentage received from domestic print and eBook sales.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Thankfully the big-ticket items are pretty well covered. I don’t suffer from writer’s block, nor do I lack ideas for books (I have the opposite problem). I write fairly quickly, so my initial pass isn’t nearly as clean as it could be. When I do my re-read, I find all kinds of awkward sentences or ones that are just too wordy. The way I cope with it is I usually spend the first part of the writing day going over what I wrote the day before and cleaning it up. Spending some time with the previous day’s work gets me back into the story quickly and saves a lot of work for my clean-up crew who does the line and copy editing.
On your website you talk about how you moved from writing novels organically to writing novels with an outline. How much of the story do you outline ahead of time? How do you keep the writing fresh and fun when you use an outline?
Wow, you really do your research! Yeah, I found when I wrote without an outline that I wasted a lot of time. It’s never good when you get 40,000 or 50,000 words into a book only to realize it’s not going anywhere. My outlines are pretty light. Usually, it’s just a few bullet points for each chapter that provide a roadmap for the story. But I’m still a discovery writer as well. While writing, all kinds of great little possibilities pop up. Sometimes it’s a character that suddenly takes center stage or a fascinating revelation that never occurred to me until the story takes shape. So, my books rarely conform to the original outline…but…and here’s the important point: I don’t change direction in my novels without knowing what the new endpoint is. Going on a trip is a great analogy. I might plan a particular route, but then find a lovely B&B that makes me stay at a certain place for longer than I thought. While I’m there I might find a backroad that will take me to a different town, and I might even change my destination, but I don’t go down that road until I know what’s at the end of it. I hope that makes sense.
Here ends Part 1 of our interview with Michael J. Sullivan. In Part 2, which will be posted next Sunday, Michael will talk about his writing and revision process, what he’s read recently, and his upcoming projects.