Randolph Lalonde, you're busily engaged in two things that warm my genre-loving heart, space opera, and serial installments online. What's your origin story? How'd you come to writing in that genre, and in that fashion?
RL: I have been writing novels since I was a young teenager and, aside from creating a role playing game in a far-flung SciFi universe, I hadn't written anything in that genre. I wanted to, but for some reason I kept writing mostly fantasy and horror. Space Opera was definitely the church in which I worshiped, but wouldn't preach in.
Shortly before 2008, I started thinking about all the ideas I had for a SciFi novel and narrowed it down to the story of one character. My new year's resolution for 2008 was to write every day that year, and I started work on the first novella in the First Light Chronicles / Spinward Fringe series: Freeground. I've been crazy about writing the Spinward Fringe series since, and anything else I was working on had to be back-benched until the first leg of that series was complete.
AC: So how's the genre writing gig going? ;) (For those following along at home, our own K.M. Weiland and Randy were both part of a vigorous discussion about whether genre killed the fiction star. And as an aside, I know for a fact that Katie believes a good story is a good story, no matter the genre.
RL: I'm happy in the Space Opera genre, to be honest. The readers are fantastic, and I believe the Space Opera genre readership in general is growing. The Internet has always been where SciFi (especially Space Opera), fans thrive and have a voice. I credit them as much as entertainers with drawing as much attention to their beloved genre as possible.
Do I still think genre is limiting? Yes. At the same time, I benefit from being slotted in the Space Opera genre because it helps the people who are most likely to enjoy my brand of entertainment find my work quickly.
AC: In the comments at John Scalzi's Sci-Fi post at AMC's Filmcritic.com post about Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, Alex Hays wrote something interesting. He said he considers "hard" SF to be a genre and "soft" SF to be a setting. Alex goes on to suggest that Star Wars falls into the latter camp. As a fellow Space Opera aficionado, what do you think about that definition?
RL: I can agree that Hard SF and Soft SF could be considered separate genres, but I'd rather see that as a distinction readers make for themselves. The last thing publishers and authors should do is sub-divide the SciFi genre any more than it has been.
My focus is on characters and story primarily, that's how readers connect to my fiction and what ultimately entertains them. While I do plenty of research on everything from the size of a ship and her crew to advancements in nanotechnology, I'm not writing a story about exploring new gadgets. I do the research because I enjoy writing about characters in a dangerous galaxy, and making that setting believable requires it. The sub-sub-sub-genre labeling of Hard or Soft SF something I find too limiting.
AC: You created a book trailer for Spinward Fringe. Has that been a success? As a result of your experience, would you recommend online trailers for fiction?
RL: I managed to get the rights to the footage and music for that trailer for about $75.00, and I was looking to do a small project on a NLE (Non-Linear Editing) software package I'd gotten for free. Since I have an interest in film, editing, special effects and I knew where to get the content I needed, it was a perfect weekend project.
If you're not interested in any aspect of making a trailer, then I don't recommend doing one. Promotionally, it hasn't been terribly useful, though current readers really seem to enjoy it, so I'm glad it's there for them. An author's promotional efforts are better spent connecting with readers on common ground.
If you really want to put a trailer together I have a couple pointers that may help. Make sure you get the rights to whatever footage you use so there are no legal issues later. Do as much of it as you can yourself so you're only investing your time and there's no one to pay. Do it because you enjoy the product, not because you expect massive sales as a result. Oh, and try not to spend money.
AC: In his memoir and book on the art and craft of writing, On Writing, Stephen King talks about how he carves time out of every working day to read. What does your writing day look like? Morning person, night owl? And do you make time for non-writing activity to help your writing activity (and if so, what)?
RL: I normally write in the morning while I'm having my morning coffee. Breakfast comes after my first thousand words. I try to read a couple books a week. Some weeks I finish one, while there are weeks where I go through more than five. These days I've been reading as much non-fiction as fiction, but historically I read more fiction.
After I finish writing, normally sometime in the late morning or early afternoon, I attend to business. With an online Spinward Fringe store opening in the next month or two, a series of existing eBooks to curate, and other things I can't talk about right now ramping up, I keep pretty busy.
In my spare time I try to learn new things. Recently I've been studying film making El Mariachi style* (see the Robert Rodriguez book, Rebel Without A Crew), and I'm learning to play guitar. So far my proficiency at strumming 'E' is improving at an alarming rate.
AC: In August of 2009, you wrote that you'd turned down a more traditional publisher's offer to self publish your work. How has your career fared since then? Considering the changing landscape of traditional publishing vs. self publishing, do you still think that was a good idea? Would you recommend your experience for other authors?
RL: I'm happier than ever with my decision to turn down that offer. I won't go into details, but my instincts told me I was being asked to sell my cow for a handful of magic beans.
On the other hand, I don't have any publishing credits and access to professional editors comes at a cost. To self publish well you have to have resources of your own or be willing to develop them yourself.
The Spinward Fringe series has been doing better and better since I refused to sign on the dotted line.
I still wouldn't recommend self-publishing for everyone though. I spend a lot of time doing jobs a publisher would, and I'm going to be working with an editor to add polish to the series, which is an expense I'll have to shoulder myself. I don't mind, I've always been a DIY Guy. Readers also get to read the first 165,000 word novel for free, so if it's not their cup of tea for any reason, they haven't spent a dime. This first-one-free policy makes most publishers twitch uncontrollably, but I have the freedom to make that happen. I believe every self-published author should do the same. If we're bypassing the agent, publisher, and possibly editor, it's only fair that we give our readers the first taste free.
I still have my first rejection letter, received from Asimov's at age thirteen. There may still be reams of paper with my byline on top in a slush pile somewhere, I chased the dream of having a publishing credit for a while like everyone else. If you truly dream of being with a major publishing house, then I wish you the best of luck. Don't expect to do it for a living taking that route, however, because I know for a near fact that I would not be earning a real living writing SciFi if I were with a trad pub.
Would I sell something outside of the Spinward Fringe series to a publisher? Yes, because I'm still like most authors — a sucker for an easy writing credit. Just kidding**.
AC: You successfully made the leap to fulltime author. What's your top tip on how you accomplished that leap?
RL: Keep writing. No matter how bad you think your work is, or how much positive attention one of your stories draws, keep at it. Don't falter from failure for long, and never bask in the glow of good reviews for more than you should. The key is the craft. The only truly failed writer is one who stops writing and never returns to their instrument, whether it be a keyboard or pen.
AC: Tim O'Reilly said that "obscurity is a greater threat to authors than piracy." How has your experiment gone with regard to giving your works away to generate interest / sales?
RL: While I believe that giving something away for free does make something seem less valuable at first blush, it's still the best way to get your work onto someone's eBook reader. As a relatively unknown self-published author, I have to work harder to get attention, and a freebie that I put real work and money into has become the best way.
I don't like talking figures, but questions about the success of offering your first book for free have been coming my way more and more often. Readers want to test drive a new author at little or no expense, which is understandable. Writers are skeptical about offering something they put talent, imagination and time into which is also understandable. An example is needed to validate the 'first one's free' or 'loss leader' model, I think. Here it is.
During the month of December, 2010 Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins sold 583 copies at $0.99 on Amazon.com. The follow up book - Spinward Fringe Broadcasts 1 and 2: Resurrection and Awakening sold 456 copies at $2.99. People seemed to do a little homework before buying Origins for ninety-nine cents and were rewarded with something that, in many cases, seemed to meet their expectations. This is proven because they most of them bought the next, regularly priced, volume in the series.
Between February 1 to February 7, 2011 Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins was downloaded 8,228 times for free at Amazon.com. The follow up book, Spinward Fringe Broadcasts 1 and 2: Resurrection and Awakening sold 597 copies at $2.99. While it's clear that many (possibly thousands) of readers downloaded Origins only because it was free, it's also clear that greater exposure resulted in higher interest in the follow up volume.
Just in case you missed it, I'm comparing the sales of one entire month with the sales in one week. Offering the first one free when your work is not vetted by the publishing establishment isn't only fair to the reader, but it's beneficial to the writer as well.
AC: What one writing habit has helped you progress as an author the fastest? What one habit has hindered you the most?
RL: The good habit I've embraced is actually something I thought would be awful to admit to for a long time. I allow my ego to inflate to epic proportions when I'm writing. I'm God at the keys pushing that blinking cursor along as fast as I can and I can do no wrong. When the laptop lid closes or I edit my work I stick a pin in it and come back down to earth. That sort of inflation is great for letting my imagination run wild, making interesting dialog choices and setting a moody scene. The ego deflation is essential because if I walked around with an ego that big all the time I'd be an insufferable prick.
The most hindering habit is getting sucked into the limitless time-sink of the Internet. Tabbing out of my word processor for a moment of fact-checking or doing quick research verification can sometimes turn into checking my Email, Twitter account, Facebook reviews or my Google report. I've even been known to get distracted by blogs from time to time (*cough* AuthorCulture *cough*).
AC: Can you talk about what's next in the pipeline for you?
RL: I'm working on finishing Spinward Fringe Broadcast 7: Framework. It's the most important book in the series since it began. While that's going on I'm setting up a small online store and piecing together a studio so I can do more on my own. Later this year I'll be working on another book set in the Spinward Fringe universe, a full-length horror novel based on the Dark Arts short serial and I'll be finishing a one-shot fantasy novel. There are other things going on, but it's too early to bring them up.
AC: Do you have any last words for our loyal readers?
RL: Thank you for having me, I've been reading AuthorCulture for a while and enjoy the site. It's an honor to appear. Oh, and if you enjoy a little Space Opera, take a moment to download my freebie from your vendor of choice.
You can find links to the freebie and all kinds of other stuff at www.randolphlalonde.com.
* El Mariachi style film making is one way of saying you're making a movie with as low a budget as you can while presenting the most professional looking results possible. The term comes from Robert Rodriguez, who made his first full-length feature, El Mariachi, for $7,000 and sold it to a Hollywood studio.
** I'm not kidding. If you want to publish a non-Spinward Fringe book, I have a few novels I can sell you in trade for a few magic beans.
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