Today’s guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Dan Koboldt, who has worked as a research scientist in the field of human genetics and genomics. Currently, he’s a principal investigator for the Institute of Genomic Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. His debut novel THE ROGUE RETRIEVAL, about a Vegas stage magician who takes high-tech illusions of magic into a medieval world that has the real thing, was published by Harper Voyager on March 1st, 2016. The sequel, currently entitled THE ISLAND DECEPTION, published in February 2017, and the third in the series, THE WORLD AWAKENING, releases today!
Are you a Planner or Pantster?
Oh, I’m a pantser from way back. But I prefer the term discovery writer. I don’t start a book with no plan whatsoever. When I have an idea, I work out the central premise (how it starts) and I and I usually know how it’s going to end. It’s the stuff in between that I like to figure out as I go.
When I started, I was a pure discovery writer. That’s one of the perks of being a new writer trying to break in. I had no deadlines, no contracts, and no reason to outline anything. That changed after my first book deal. I had to learn to write a competent outline for the as-yet-unwritten future books in the series. Luckily, I discovered Larry Brooks and his StoryFix 2.0 story structure. Outlines still don’t come easily to me, but now at least I have a decent framework.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?
I’d say it’s usually 3-4 months, assuming that one of those months is November. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo for almost a decade, and it contributes an important boost to my writing productivity each year. I wish I could write at that pace outside of November! I really admire authors who consistently write 2,000 words a day.
Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?
It’s easier for me to focus on a single project, but I rarely have that luxury. There were times this year when I was writing one project, revising a second, promoting a third, and pitching a fourth. It’s hard to keep them all straight! That being said, I’m the kind of person who enjoys multi-tasking, because not every activity stimulates me all the time.
Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?
Nope. But I didn’t know what I was doing.
How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?
I wrote two books before The Rogue Retrieval, though I never queried them. I look at them as learning exercises that helped me become a writer. It’s always possible that I’ll go back to them someday and see if I can make them into something publishable. But it would take a lot of work, and I have newer ideas that get me more excited.
Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?
I’ve quit (or walked away) from a few projects, sure. Usually that happens when I look at something and realize that the emotional and physical cost of finishing them exceeds the benefit I’m likely to get in return. In other words, I decide that my time is better spent elsewhere.
How long did you query before landing your agent?
I researched the query process before I started, mostly because I found it fascinating. Thanks to the wonderful resources like Anne Mini’s blog (now defunct) and QueryTracker, I think I managed to avoid some of the common pitfalls of new writers. Of course, that doesn’t mean I got no rejections. I received plenty of them. If memory serves, I queried about 30 agents over the course of four months before getting an offer of representation.
Who is your agent and how did you get that “Yes!” out of them?
I’m represented by Paul Stevens of Donald Maass Literary Agency. The story of how we began working together is a bit convoluted. I landed my first agent through standard querying, and she sold my book to Harper Voyager in a one-book deal. After that, I was all set, right? Well, not so much. My agent and I had a falling out shortly after that was published.
So I didn’t have an agent, but there was an option clause in my contract specifying that my publisher got an exclusive look at my next manuscript. Which, as it happened, I’d just finished: it was the sequel to The Rogue Retrieval. I sent it to him, along with an outline for a possible book three. My editor said, “Let’s do both.”
That two-book offer put me in a rare and much-envied position for a writer seeking representation. I reached out to a handful of agents (ones I really admired) to say that I had an offer and was looking for someone to handle the contract. Paul called me that afternoon. We clicked right away. He was familiar with my imprint at Voyager and knew it wasn’t a big money deal, but he offered anyway.
Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?
The first thing I’ll say is that you’re not alone. Many of my writer friends whose work I admire are in the query trenches with you. I always encourage writers to query widely, and not to set their heart on one particular agent or agency. Keep querying until you find an agent who loves your book as much as you do. And while you’re doing that, write another book. Not a sequel, but a different book that you can query if the first one doesn’t find a home.
How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?
The moment for me was when I opened up a surprise package from my publisher, and found my advance copies inside. That was a great moment, and I’ve had many others since. Every time I see my book at a bookshop or in the library, I get the same thrill. I also get it when someone new reaches out to let me know they read and enjoyed my book.
How much input do you have on cover art?
My publisher has been very good about this, and asked for suggestions. For The Rogue Retrieval, developed the concept art from a stock art image I’d suggested. Their cover artist does amazing work with the art, layout, and coloring. For The Island Deception, my editor sent me two different cover concepts. I loved them both, so I asked them to save one for book three. It turned out to be my favorite of them all.
What’s something you learned from the process that surprised you?
The kindness of strangers! So many people who didn’t owe me anything showed up to support my books. Obviously, my family and friends have always gone out of their way to help, but it surprised me how often strangers would lend a hand, too. Book reviewers are a great example. These people volunteer their time to read and review books, often on short notice. They’re the unsung heroes of the publishing industry, in my opinion. Several of them reviewed each of my books as they came out, simply because I asked. I’m a little surprised, and very grateful.
How much of your own marketing do you?
I do most of it, which is the case for many authors. In 2016, the year The Rogue Retrieval came out, Harper Voyager published more than 70 titles. They have done a great deal to get the word out about my books, but they’ll never have as much time or dedication to them as I will.
I think authors should not devote much effort to platform until they have not only an agent, but also a book deal. Until then, you don’t know for certain that you’re going to need a platform. Furthermore, you may not want to establish your brand until you know what your debut novel might be.
For writers who haven’t gotten that far yet, it’s more important to focus on (1) writing, and (2) engaging the community. The latter is especially important so that you have a support network as you move forward in your publishing career. Some of my closest friends – and most ardent supporters – are writers I met before I broke in. Don’t worry about platform too early. Instead, find your tribe.
Do you think social media helps build your readership?
No. I think social media helps you engage your readership (hence the word social). It offers a wonderful, powerful tool to connect authors with the people who read their books. However, contrary to popular opinion, most people do not get their book recommendations from their social media feeds. Maybe if you’re fun and interesting online, someone is more likely to take a chance on your book. Word of mouth and reviews are far more powerful drivers of book sales.
Once there is a relationship (i.e. once a person buys your book), social media is a great tool to develop it. The reader enjoys access to an author whose work they admire. The author gets the comforting reassurance that someone out there read his book and cared about it. That’s a powerful thing. Social media is also useful for notifying fans about price promotions and future releases.
It’s important to recognize that when you don’t pay to use an online service, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. Companies like Facebook and Twitter are making it increasingly difficult to reach your followers without paying for that privilege. They’re in this to make money, after all, not to serve humanity. Authors should thus focus on getting social media followers onto their mailing list. That’s the only way to guarantee that you can reach your fans when you need to.