27 December 2013

Interview with author Bill Cameron

The news is all good: I survived the Christmas holiday (specifically, the trip to and from the family gathering) - yay! - and today on the blog I bring you an interview with mystery author Bill Cameron - hip, hip, hooray!

Photo by Jill Cameron
I first met Bill, an award-winning mystery writer, a few years ago when my genre fiction writing class (taught by Chuck Caruso at Marylhurst University) went to his reading of Day One at Powell's Books and he joined us afterwards at a nearby restaurant for a drink and to talk about the writing and publishing biz. After that, I followed him on Twitter, ran into him at Wordstock once or twice, and then stumbled across the reading series he started at Rain or Shine, at which point I became an official fan of Bill Cameron.

On to the interview!

You're, like, one of the nicest people I've ever met. I literally can't even imagine you hurting a fly. You'd probably trap it in your hands and set it free outside. Why do you write noir crime fiction?
Well, I’m not nearly as nice as the scam I’m running might lead one to believe… uh, I’ve said too much.

But seriously, in the end I can only write the stories I have in me. There’s no doubt my fiction features a certain amount of personal demon exorcism, and I feel lucky that I have an outlet. I’m not sure how much writing shapes the person I am and how much person I am shapes my writing, but I do find the act of writing helps me sort through my own shit. 

Still, pretty much all the mystery and noir writers I know are really nice folks. Of course, who knows what we all have stashed in our basements or buried under the garden shed… I’ve said too much again. 

What was the first novel you ever finished writing ? How long did it take you to write it? 
Of my published novels, Lost Dog was the first and it took me *ahem, murmur, murmur* years. Okay, it took the better part of a decade. This wasn’t continuous day-in, day-out writing though. I suffered through many fits and starts, and even set the thing aside for a couple of years at a time.

My actual first novel was an unpublished magnum opus entitled The Hunter of Fishes (AKA Moby Dick in Space). That one took me about a semester to write during my freshman year in college, and it was godawful dreck. Necessary godawful dreck - since I learned a lot while writing it - but dreck nonetheless. That was followed by a never-quite-done novella that I turned around pretty quickly, but as a rule, I’m not a fast writer. My next actually finished novel was also unpublished, an epic fantasy, which took several years. Even short stories take me a while, with the record currently being held by “Heat Death,” which I worked on for thirty years before finally calling it done. Of course, until I either find a publisher or self-publish it, I could end up working on “Heat Death" again. (At the moment, it’s being considered by a mystery magazine.)

How long did County Line take from inception to publication?
County Line was my fastest turnaround once I started actively working on it, about 15 months from the first sketchy outline to final draft. But the seeds of the story were planted three years earlier while I was working on Chasing Smoke. Once I realized I was writing a series rather than stand-alones, I began to think more long term about my character’s arcs. Though the story of County Line didn't crystallize until I started actively writing the novel, I ruminated on it for years.

How did you find your publisher, F+W Crime? 
My agent did all the heavy lifting for me. The trick was finding my agent! That happened the old-fashioned way: I wrote the best book I could and then queried the hell out of it.

I’ve been with Ben Leroy, the publisher of F+W Crime, since Chasing Smoke. In those days, he was publisher of a small press called Bleak House Books. My editor there, Alison Dasho (née Jannsen), followed Ben when he formed Tyrus Books, and I had the privilege of going along for the ride. Alison edited Chasing Smoke, Day One, and County Line, which makes her a critical partner in my writing career. Shortly before County Line was released, F+W Media purchased Tyrus, so that’s how I ended up there. Alison is now with Thomas & Mercer, but Ben continues to helm Tyrus Books as an imprint of F+W, as well as F+W Crime and Prologue Books. Both are two of my favorite people in the whole world, great to work with and fun, fabulous people.

Why did you decide to self-publish your two most recent books, Chasing Smoke and Lost Dog? What did you learn from that experience?
Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke are actually my first and second books, and were both traditionally published in 2007 and 2008. Since then, the print rights to Lost Dog have reverted to me, and all rights to Chasing Smoke have reverted. Since it was mine again, I quickly set out to self-publish an ebook edition of Chasing Smoke for Kindle and Nook. Alas, the ebook rights for Lost Dog are still held by the original publisher. At some point, I hope to reclaim those as well, but at this point the only novel I’ve released myself is Chasing Smoke.

I have also self-pubbed a number of short stories, either as small collections or individually. Some of them are previously published, and some are original releases. That gives me a half-dozen or so titles available.

The main thing I’ve learned is if you don’t make a concerted effort to promote your work not much happens. Still, once you establish even a small digital presence, at least a few sales will happen. I don’t do much self-promotion these days, but I’m fortunate to receive a nice trickle each month from my digital offerings.

There are enough independent publishing success stories that it’s clear you can make it work if you put the work in. While there’s no set path to success, the one thing these stories all have in common is the authors put a lot of time into marketing their work. One friend, a writer who’s reached the New York Times bestseller list as an independent author, once told me she writes about four hours a day and markets six to eight hours a day. I don’t know how typical that is, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn most successful independent authors put more time into marketing and promotion than writing.

How much money do you make off your books? If you think about the time you spent writing & marketing your books, would you say you've made at least minimum wage off of each one?
The simple answer is not much, though I can’t really complain either. For my last three books, I kept pretty careful track of the time spent writing each. County Line has earned roughly minimum wage, but the others have been far less (and Lost Dog has never earned back the money I spent marketing it). The good news is the books continue to bring in a few sales, and each new release tends to goose sales of earlier work.

I would love to be able to make a living as a writer, and that day may yet come. But for now, I’m keeping my day job.

You're a member of several mystery/crime writer organizations and you also started the Rain or Shine reading series in Portland. Why? What role does community play in your writing career?
I owe a lot to writers and teachers throughout my life, and I feel the best way to show my gratitude is to give back. Besides, I like hanging out with other writers. We’re good people.

When you lose your confidence in/enthusiasm for your writing, how do you pull yourself out of it?
For me, the thing that works best is giving myself permission to simply not write. 

Let’s be honest: the world has plenty of books. To me, the only good reason to write is because I want to. I recently went through a long period when I didn’t want to write at all, and after fretting about it for a while I finally just let it go. In time, the malaise passed and I began to feel the desire again. Clearly I needed some time off.

That said, I don’t think it’s wise to just let my whims be my guide. During any project, there are going to be days when the last thing I want to do is write. At those times, I have to force myself to the keyboard and power through. More often than not, bludgeoning a few hundred painful words out of myself breaks things open. It’s not uncommon for my best words to come out of the days I least wanted to work.

Though there are nearly as many writing processes as there are writers, one thing the most effective writers have in common is consistency. If you want to write, you have to write—good days or bad.

One of my favorite writers, Victoria Schwab, often blogs about tricks she uses to get through her writing day. Her blog, and her books, are well worth a read.

What writing project(s) are you working on now? 
I’ve got a young adult mystery out on submission, and I’ve started work on a new mystery about a mortician, which may be the first of a new series. Gotta finish the first novel before I can say for sure, but I’m setting things up from the beginning to make a series possible. I hope to finish a draft by spring (though it remains to be seen if that’s gonna be northern hemisphere spring or southern).

What advice do you have for new and aspiring authors who want to publish and sell a book?
First thing's first: finish your book. While it doesn’t hurt to learn a little about the publishing world, getting buried in minutiae isn’t much use until you have a manuscript that’s ready to go. That means not just writing, but re-writing. Get feedback, listen to that feedback. Bite your tongue when the criticism is tough. Learn, practice, tinker. Get the book done, and get the book right. Then you can worry about what to do with it.

Once you have a book to sell, there's no one correct path, so take the time to figure out what you want to do and what you’re able to do. Maybe you like to pull all the strings: in that case, an independent publishing path might be for you. Or maybe you work better as part of a team: then traditional publishing may make more sense. Still, it’s important, I think, to be flexible and recognize that even your own interests can change. Maybe you want to be a hybrid.

One writer who speaks eloquently about this is Chuck Wendig. His blog, Terrible Minds, is full of superb, measured thoughts on writing and publishing—both indie and traditional. Plus, his books are fabulous.

Hungering for more? Visit Bill's website and/or connect with him on Twitter (@bcmystery).

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview! Bill summarizes the whole writing/publishing thing very succinctly. Thanks.