A few days ago I asked 2016 Campbell Award nominee Brian Niemeier if he’d be willing to submit to an e-mail interview for the readers of this blog. He’s graciously agreed, and he’s taken the time to answer a rather lengthy series of questions. To avoid the dreaded “TL;DR” kiss of death, I’ve divided the interview into three parts. The first part focuses on Mr. Niemeier’s most well known work, the Soul Cycle series. This second part focuses on writing and Mr. Niemeier’s experiences therein. The third and final part focuses on Brian himself. Without further ado, here’s the first part. Text in bold is mine. The rest is Mr. Niemeier’s, presented exactly as he gave it to me.
You’ve stated elsewhere that you actually wrote Souldancer first. How did that happen?
Like most behind-the-scenes accounts, that statement is true, but the whole story is more complicated.
I spent high school and my early college years marinating in SFF stories from various media: novels, movies, animated and live action television series, American and Japanese comic books, video games, pen and paper RPGs. I think that eventually these influences coalesced into a set of ideas that were as desperate to break out of my head as Frank Morris was to escape from Alcatraz.
I tried all sorts of creative outlets—even building homemade models. I filled pages with notes, which, unknown to me at the time, constituted world building. As an early form of beta testing, I worked some of these concepts into a couple of D&D campaigns. I went as far as drawing half of what later became Nethereal in comic book form (trust me—you do not want to see it).
Only after all of these attempts had failed to express the story in my mind did I try writing a novel.
One benefit of all this trial and error was that I knew exactly which story I wanted to tell. Set on a once-thriving world laid waste by a fiery cataclysm, it was the tale of a young nomad abandoned by his tribe in the desert. At first he just fought to survive, but he rapidly got embroiled in world-shaking events. At the critical point, he had to choose between saving himself and risking his life for love.
Somehow I finished the first draft of Souldancer. It was a monster weighing in at over 300,000 words. It also sucked, as first drafts of first novels are wont to do.
At that point, I shelved the project, consoling myself that I could at least scratch “write a novel” off my bucket list. I left my unfinished secondary world and went back to school.
For a year afterward I bounced around between bouts of comical underemployment before my mom, who is a librarian, said, “Why not sell your book to a publisher?” I objected that it wasn’t in salable shape, and she reminded me that I had the time to get it in shape.
Revisiting Souldancer Version One after many years showed me that 1) it needed far more work than I thought, and 2) the start of the book wasn’t the story’s natural beginning. I dug out my old notes and started writing what I came to realize was the outline for a whole new book—a prequel to Souldancer that ended up being Nethereal.
There are years of redrafting, revisions, submissions, rejections, and research between then and now; but that’s the rough background.
What made you decide to get serious about writing?
The knowledge that my life is contingent upon some form of gainful work, and that I honestly can’t do anything else for a living but write.
In all candor, my only choices are earning a living as a professional writer, or early death. So I’d better write.
How long did it take you to write your first novel?
That’s tricky. If we’re talking Souldancer, from first draft to final draft, it took me over thirteen years.
How much time do you spend writing every day?
Four [Editor’s note: I assume he meant four hours per day], when I had the luxury of unemployment. Now I have a full time job with an unconventional schedule, so I write when I can for as long as I can.
Did the second one go faster?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I switched back and forth between the first two books over a span of sixteen years, which are now kind of a blur. I’m gonna say they took equally long to write.
The third one will definitely be finished much faster, now that I know what I’m doing.
Did you try submitting your works to any traditional or indie publishers before you self published it? If so, what was the response like?
I started submitting Nethereal right around the time that indie started becoming viable. My research was still telling me that tradpub was a smarter move—with Kindle an unproven novelty and Borders still open, I don’t think I was wrong.
Every aspiring author knows what the responses were like. They fell into two categories: nothing and “Thanks for your submission, but this just isn’t a good fit for us.”
NB: one instance of the latter type of reply came to me from some editorial intern at Tor Books. I suppose I owe him a drink.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
I’m not one of those guys who tried to break in for years before finally throwing up my hands and uploading a stack of unsold manuscripts to Amazon. Nor do I think that all publishers are in league with Satan.
For me, whether to go traditional or indie is a purely mercenary decision. I was still shopping Nethereal around to agents and editors until quite recently.
I kept doing my homework throughout the submissions process, and it was the hard data presented on sites like Author Earnings and A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing that ultimately won me over to the indie side.
It was still a tough call, but now the numbers overwhelmingly support self-publishing. The market shares of tradpub and indie have flipped over the past two years. The only publishers who are likely to weather the storm are reader and author-centric houses like Baen and Castalia.
What’s been the hardest part of self-publishing for you?
Marketing. Like most authors, I’m an introvert. Then again, the idea that traditional publishers’ marketing departments handle all of their authors’ promotions is simply false. All authors bear the primary burden of promoting themselves these days, so marketing is a difficult aspect of publishing in general; not just indie.
For us other indie authors, what’s been the most effective method of marketing your books?
Because I started from scratch with no advertising budget, I couldn’t build a highly effective platform right out of the gate. To compensate for my lack of resources, I got more prominent folks to lend me their platforms.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean sponging off of others. I always make a good faith effort to offer people something of value, however small, before asking them for help. If you want an author higher on the totem pole to promote your book, promote one of his first. Before seeking a guest spot on a podcast, review one of their episodes.
Of course, I’m still slowly building my own platform; improving my blog and expanding my social media following. The end goal is to make these traffic sources self-sustaining, but it takes patience.
What’s been the least effective thing that you’ve tried?
Promoted tweets. You may as well just burn the money—and I’m not the only one saying this.
[Editor’s note: I’ve had exactly the same experience. Promoted tweets are a total waste of money.]
Tune in tomorrow for the third and final part, where we discuss Brian’s life and how he came to be involved in the Superversive science fiction movement and the Sad/Rabit Puppies campaigns.
- An Interview with Brian Niemeier – Part 1
- An Interview with Brian Niemeier – Part 2
- An Interview with Brian Niemeier – Part 3
- An Interview with Brian Niemeier – Part 1
- An Interview With Declan Finn – Part 2
- An Interview With Mike Cernovich – Part 2
- Book Bomb for NETHEREAL
- An Interview With Mike Cernovich – Part 1