AK Butler is the 2013 fiction Discovery Award winner from Indiereader.com. In the first two interviews for this series I focused on runaway successes – the indie who went mainstream, the indie who got the hybrid deal – for this interview I wanted to focus on a writer who has achieved great success in the form of awards but not in huge sales. This is important because despite the great success stories in both indie and trad publishing the average writer does not make a fortune and must keep a balance between the day job and the art.
The bio section on your website is sparse. Can you tell us who you are and how many zombies you have killed in your life?
I have only killed one zombie in my life. You’re welcome, too, by the way, never get a lot of thanks for killing Patient Zero and warding off an entire apocalypse. Everyone’s always so concerned about how your “questionable lab procedures” caused a “mutant strain of a deadly and eradicated virus” to “infect the nervous tissue of previously dead patients” and “cause a potential worldwide catastrophe.” I KILLED HIM, OKAY. IT’S DONE. GEEZ.
Let’s see…I’m 30, I have two kids and two dogs, I’m married, I live in Dallas. I have a degree in Psychology, I was in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M in B-Co and marched as a drummer in the Aggie Band for 4 years. I rock climb and bike and camp and shoot. My husband is an elementary bilingual teacher and my son starts preschool next year. My daughter is in Kindergarten. I love biology and chemistry and neurology and when I can’t afford school (right now) I study them on my own via online lectures. I do problem questions out of chemistry books for fun because I am a completely normal human thank you very much.
One of the reasons I am for these interviews approaching, among others, award winners is that I want to focus on the great quality of writing available in the indie.writing world. As an independent writer can you explain you writing and editorial approach that allows you to maintain quality.
In one word: obsession. Probably to a fault. I assumed the first draft would suck. So I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. I butchered it and put it back together, helped it limp along to the nearest town, then butchered again like a literary Frankenstein’s monster until It started to turn into something that didn’t look like something I could have written in the first place.
I am a perfectionist. I did the math to make sure the island was the correct distance from shore to not be seen, I extrapolated likely population densities from current predictive trends, I estimated likely vegetation and animal growth at that altitude and latitude based on current global temperature predictions, I calculated what time the sun would rise on a particular day in 150 years, and all these things made up maybe three or four sentences in the entire story. But they made the world come alive and be real. I obsessed over every word placement, sometimes spending hours on a single sentence. I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote every single paragraph over and over and over again, I put them in different orders, I deleted and tried again. I guess, in short, I edited. And I never gave up editing. I assumed from the beginning that would be the longest part of the process, and it was, by far. So many indie authors I talk to assume you need to edit, but think that means that you need someone to fix your grammar or double check all your spelling, or maybe that it means you need someone to point out minor plot holes you can fix in a few days and then you’ll be done. It took me three months to write the book; it took me nine to edit it.
Another thing that I think is important is the ability to take criticism. There are books out there that are just bad. Just because someone wrote something doesn’t make it good. In fact, if it’s the first draft of the first thing that person wrote, it’s probably terrible. And if someone is convinced their work is amazing no matter what anyone else says, then it’s never going to be fixed and it’s going to stay terrible. I had a woman once ask me what she should do to fix her book because no one was buying it. I looked at it and couldn’t make it past the third paragraph. I pointed out several grammar mistakes in the first sentence alone, not to mention the fact that it was gut-wrenchingly cliché. She yelled at me, called me names, told me no one else thought that and I just wasn’t the right audience. The truth is, with an attitude like that, your writing will stagnate. My editor gave me some feedback that was rough to listen to. He hated parts of the book that I absolutely loved, but I listened and implemented his strategies, then gave it a couple of days and went back and reread it. His version was so much better even if I couldn’t see it at first. A writer must be willing to admit that even the things they think are absolutely brilliant might possibly just suck.
Jason Derr is the author of The Boston 395
Follow him on twitter at @JasonClipOn