Below are a crap-tastic load of questions I get asked on a regular basis. Read ’em, dammit. The main question I get, however, is for advice on writing. I helped write an episode of GrammarGirl that put my advice into a 10-step program. You want to know how to get rolling? Click here to listen to GrammarGirl’s episode on “How to write your first novel.”
1) How is Mr. Sigler in his everyday life? Is he just another simple folk?
I’m a hard-working, blue-collar type. I’m not sure I qualify as simple folk.
2) Which one is more scary? A tiny triangle that grows inside you, a gun pointed to your head or an earthquake? Why is that?
To me, something inside your body that you can’t stop is the greatest terror of all. The more you learn about biology, the scarier it gets. Your body is like a self-contained universe, with microscopic battles going on every second of every day. To think that in the right circumstances, those battles will play out regardless of your will is frightening. Cancer is the perfect example. It’s real. Sometimes it can be fought, but sometimes it can’t, you’re just told that something is growing inside you, it’s going to kill you, and there is nothing you can do about it. And unlike the gun to your head, it’s going to be slow.
3) How consuming is writing a book, how long does it take and what amount of research is required?
Writing one of my books is all-consuming. I don’t know how it is for other authors, I only know that for me, there are long strings of 14- to 18-hour days to get the major story down. Now that I’m writing professionally, there are hard deadlines that have to be met. I can either choose to work normal, eight-hour days and compromise on story quality due to time constraints, or I can work two “shifts” a day and basically double the amount of time I can put into the book.
Coming up with a book concept can take a month, it can take ten years, I don’t know until all the elements come together and give me a framework upon which to place plot and character. Once I have that framework, it takes me about a month to hammer out the first outline. After that, the first draft takes about six weeks of nonstop writing. During that time, characters develop and start to do things I don’t want them to do, they act outside of my outline. When that happens, I know I’m on the right path — when characters start to behave like real people and refuse to go into the haunted house, that’s a good thing. However, it makes you re-work the plot over and over again.
I submit the first draft and usually get a two-week reprieve, during which I do more detailed research on the plot elements. The research either bolsters what I have, or forces me to make more plot changes. Then the first draft comes back from the publisher, and I have a month to get through the second. Repeat as necessary through the fourth draft, and you have a book. Before I started working with Crown Publishing, I usually went through ten to fifteen drafts before I considered the book finished. Having professional editors really helps identify problems early, which reduces the overall production time. Also, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m getting better at seeing problems early in the process.
All these things together mean it takes me six to nine months to write a novel.
4) Why do you write horror? Would you ever consider writing a romantic novel?
There is romance in my horror-thriller ANCESTOR, but I don’t think I could write a pure romance novel. There has to be action, suspense, and the threat of death or injury to make a book come to life for me. I don’t really enjoy reading romances, so I wouldn’t enjoy writing them.
5) Will book finally evolve to an electronic gadget like kindle? Or even diminish in a couple of centuries to a simple text through Twitter?
I think books are going electronic. Paper books will become premium products. high-quality keepsakes that you buy to celebrate a work that resonates with you. Books are merging with smart phones, and reading on your smart phone will become a common as cracking open a book was fifty years ago. We’re also looking at shifts in format. Audiobooks are growing, and you can listen to those on your smart phone as well. The cost of producing an audiobook is dropping dramatically, making it accessible to all authors, even unpublished authors. That means smart phones give you telephone, internet, music player, audiobook player, book reader, email, calendar, text and social media all in one device. No “book-reading gadget” can compete with that. All the Kindles sold amount to 0.02 percent of the smart phones already in customer hands, and smart phone sales are exploding.
6) What’s your opinion about illegal downloading? Is there an impact on literature?
What you call “illegal downloading” I call “free advertising.” Author Cory Doctorow summed it up best when he said “piracy isn’t my enemy, obscurity is.” The more people who hear my stories, the more people likely to become diehard fans that are happy to spend money on products because they know they are going to get quality for their money. Until now, publishing has expected you to give them money before you get the product.
The future will change that, in no small part because consumers pay money for products that turn out to be crap, weak stories in which the author did not put in the proper amount of work and dedication. I give away all of my stories. That gives me greater market exposure, gets more people familiar with my name. That will pay off in five to ten years when I am putting out the third and fourth book in a series, and a percentage of those “pirates” can’t wait for the story and are happy to pay for it when it first comes out. If you are open with your customers and willing to let your stories speak for themselves, there is no such thing as a “lost sale.” People who aren’t going to pay for your stories aren’t going to pay for them, period. But they may download a copy, love the story, then talk to people in their social circle — now I have people who wouldn’t have heard about me getting a positive, word-of-mouth endorsement.
7) Top five horror/sci-fi movies?
3. The Prestige
4. John Carpenter’s The Thing
5. Evil Dead II
8) Why do you kill your characters, even your main characters?
To me, the joy of reading is the suspense of not knowing what will happen. Sometimes you guess right, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you have no idea. If you’re reading a series and you know the main character will live because there are four more books, that takes away some of the suspense. If the reader has no idea who’s going to live from one page to the next, every threat takes on greater dramatic significance. That’s how I put people on the edge of their seat, how I make them stay up all night to finish. If it’s a Sigler novel, everyone is expendable. Everyone.
9) You started out trying to get EarthCore published as a print novel through a major publisher. What led you to change course and give it away as a podiobook instead?
I did land a print deal with an imprint of AOL/TimeWarner, and EARTHCORE was supposed to be out in mass market paperback in May 2002. However, in the post-911 recession, TimeWarner scrapped everything that wasn’t profitable. My imprint wasn’t profitable yet, hence, the whole project was shut down. It took me about three years to get the rights back. By then it was 2005, I discovered podcasting, and thought it was going to be the future of novels, short stories and storytelling.
10) Wasn’t it a bit scary, at the time, to give away content you’d been hoping to charge for, without knowing if you’d ever see a dime from it?
It wasn’t scary at all, it was a huge opportunity to be the first to do something like this, and use that to build an audience. I saw the connections people make online, and knew that if I created a great product, some people would like it and instantly send their friends MP3 links via IM, forums, chat rooms, blog posts, email, etc. Giving the first book away was about building a brand name, and proving that my work resonated with the marketplace. At the time, I assumed I’d pick up 10,000 subscribers and land a print deal. I hadn’t counted on the fact that publishers had no idea what podcasting was, or MP3s, or downloads or really even the internet, for that matter. I accomplished the goal, but it took five books and three years to get there.
11) How exactly did you go about building up an early audience for your podiobooks? Was enough to just put it out there for free, or did you have to actively spread the word?
I’ve worked constantly to spread the word, pick up fans, and get them to spread the word. Just putting a free work up isn’t enough, you have to market it. A lot of people will listen because it’s free, and a certain percentage of them will like your work and become fans. Therefore, my real goal as an entertainer is to make sure the most possible people find out about me and give me a shot. The larger the base, the more fans generated by that same certain percentage.
12) Now that you’re a New York Times bestselling print author, and people are clearly willing to pay for your work, why do you still give your content away? Is that just because you’re a nice guy, or is it part of a strategy to sell more content?
There’s a few reasons. First, my father had a phrase, “you dance with the one that brought ya.” I got to where I am because of my fans. They helped me in a lot of ways because my work was free, and I’m not going to bogart it from them now that I’ve achieved a couple of goals. Right now I give everything away for free, even the stuff that’s on sale. It’s up to the customer to decide how they want the story — free podcast, free PDF, paid iPhone app, paid book. And times are tough; some people want to buy the books but they don’t have the cash right now. So no problem, that’s what the free podcasts are for. Maybe someday they buy my books, maybe they don’t, doesn’t matter to me because that’s the customer’s choice to make. Second, “free” still gets me new people who try my stuff becuase they don’t have to shell out the bucks. If you have a choice between spending $25 on a Stephen King downloadable book, or get mine for free, odds are you’ll try mine first, even though King is a proven author and always delivers. You know if you don’t like mine, you can go back and spend the $25 anyway, so there’s no risk.
13) How are your years of participating in social media paying off?
I’ve built up an online following in various social media places, like Facebook, Twitter and on my own site scottsigler.com. Simply making the product available in these different areas lets people find the book based on their preferences. Some find it via Twitter, some via Facebook, and some via my podcasts or my website. The larger the following, the more people want to buy the product, so that’s why doing this for several years gives me the best chance to find customers that really want the book.
That’s what social media does for me — when my fans finish a story, I’m still right there, accessible, they can stay in contact and monitor what’s coming next.
14) For an aspiring book author who’s just starting out, what advice would you offer them? Has your successful career path written the definitive blueprint, or have things shifted already?
There is no blueprint, things are changing too fast. The first piece of advice is get used to the fact that you are in the minor leagues, there is clearly a minor-league system, and in the minors you have to give your content away to build up a following. Be prepared to do that for three to five years before you have enough people to make a difference. It will not happen overnight for you, nor do you want it to, because audience feedback will help shape your storytelling style.
The second piece of advice is that the days of “just writing” are gone. You may hear the old guard talk about how a writer should write, and how they “let other people handle those other things.” Well, that was because these guys signed their publishing deals fifteen, twenty years ago, when there weren’t 500 channels, when there weren’t metroplexes, when video games were nothing like they are today and the internet was basically non-existent. People have so many entertainment choices now, you have to fight for your customers’ time. You have to market AND write, you have to be a businessperson AND an entertainer.
Third and final bit of advice, understand the fact that readers want to connect with the author. Embrace social media, reply to emails, to blog comments, interact with them whenever possible. Don’t be an arrogant douchebag. You are not important. Your work is not important. What’s important is giving people value for the time they spend with their works — write great stories, and be accessible. The days of the author’s ivory tower are long gone.
15) You seem to be a fan of horror as well as of science fiction. Could you please tell us something about your literary career? How did you start writing? When did you publish your first works?
I’ve been writing monster stories since the third grade. As a kid, I loved all the giant monster movies and wanted to write stories like that. I wrote books for the role playing industry from high school through college and a few years beyond, so that was my first book publishing experience. I worked for several newspapers after college, which taught me to write a lot of copy, write it well, and write it fast. I decided to seriously pursue fiction as a career about fifteen years ago. I actually started recording stories about six years ago, thinking that if I could put 4-5 chapters on CD, editors and agents could listen to it in their car while commuting – I hoped that would get me out of the slush pile and give me a chance to be considered.
16) What do you think of the general idea of an alien invasion, the existence of other levels of reality or other worlds which exist alongside ours?
An alien invasion is clearly possible. We have a planet with resources, and if another race needs those resources, we could be faced with invasion. It’s happened within humanity more times than we can count – a culture finds a new land, wipe out the native species, takes the land for itself. I don’t buy the “multiverse” concept, no matter what mathematicians say – I don’t believe there are alternate universes where an infinite number of alternate Scott Siglers are doing an infinite number of things slightly different than what I am doing now. I’m not a big fan of parallel-universe stories, as I think it’s a bit of a cop-out for the writer, it’s too eash to say “gosh, what if Hitler lived!” and then write a story from there. I want material with more imagination, something that creates an element never seen before.
17) Although “Infected” is not a mere “splatter novel,” there are nevertheless a lot of bloody and brutal scenes and images. What do you think about the role and explicit realization of violence in literature?
There are two kinds of “splatter” books – those that do it to be shocking, to be controversial, and those that have serious violence as part of the fabric of the story. In INFECTED, I wanted the reader to experience what Perry was experiencing. If you’ve got murderous parasites growing in your body, there’s only one way to save yourself – cut them out. This is not something you do off-camera. At the same time, the violence isn’t gratuitous, it’s not violence for violence’s sake. If the story requires violence, I say use it. Real life is not a nice thing. There is far more and far worse violence in the world than in my books, so I don’t shy away from it.