J.L. Doty has achieved every self-published fiction writer’s dream. He says, “After more than thirty years of writing SF&F with no commercial success, three years ago I decided to try self-publishing the four novels I’d finished. My stories went viral, and I have since sold close to 50,000 eBooks. Two years ago I quit my day job and started writing full time, my dream come true. I’m writing about 250,000 words a year (2-3 novels) and now have eight published novels. I recently finished a ninth under contract with Open Road Integrated Media, and I just sold a book to one of the big-5 publishers. Earlier this year I was admitted to SFWA based on my self-published sales.”
Doty was a scientist by occupation and has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. His specialty is laser physics, yet refuses to use lasers in his stories and doesn’t approve of other writers using lasers in their stories. Or more precisely, laser weapons. He explains why.
Here, Carl Slaughter chats with J.L. Doty about his writing and publishing strategies, his ability to write in multiple genres, his ensemble cast of characters, and his pending deal with a major publisher.
CARL SLAUGHTER: What did fans immediately see that editors didn’t see for decades?
J.L. DOTY: I hope I wrote a story that touched people in some way. The book that really took off and went viral was Child of the Sword, and it has some emotionally wrenching moments in it. Both the hero and heroine are not perfect and they make mistakes, which may make it easier for readers to identify with them. We all make mistakes.
CS: How did you master 4 genres: epic fantasy, paranormal, space opera, and military science fiction?
JLD: I’m still working on mastering them, and hope that someday I will do so. I enjoy reading these genres so much, I think that’s reflected in my writing. But as different as they may seem, they’re all very similar in that a good story is always about the people in it. The different genres simply provide different settings for exploring how we might react in unusual circumstances.
JLD: Epic Fantasy, Contemporary Urban Fantasy, and Hard Science Fiction are so different that when I finish a book in one genre, jumping into a different genre is a refreshing change of pace. And frequently, while writing one novel, I’ve done some background research and thinking on the next, and as I approach the end of one, I’m anxious to get going on the next.
CS: What kind of trajectory did the sales take? How long did it take for you to be financially able to quit your day job?
JLD: When I started self-publishing, I had four completed novels, and I published them one at a time, about one every three months. The first three trickled along without any great success. But the fourth (Child of the Sword) took off right out of the gate, sold close to 10,000 copies in the first three months it was available. Let me be honest: Quitting the day-job was a risky step, and I used to make a lot more money as a running dog lackey for the bourgeois capitalist establishment than I do as an egalitarian writer. But I’d rather make less doing this, than more doing that.
CS: What’s your pricing strategy?
JLD: I don’t think I have one. I think eBooks should be less expensive than a mass-market paperback, but a 100,000 word novel takes months of work, so I don’t believe in the 99¢ eBook.
CS: How does a self published author handle tasks like proofreading, cover art, and packaging without a publishers resources?
JLD: My wife is the first proofreader. After that I send it to an excellent content editor, which is quite expensive, but worth every penny. Next I pay a copy editor to fix my dotted t’s and crossed i’s. In terms of formatting for publication, I used to use an excellent work-for-hire publisher (Telemachus Press) whom I highly recommend. But a few years ago I wrote some software to convert my manuscripts to ePub, Mobi and POD files with the click of a button. So that’s how I handle it now.
CS: I count 4 series. How many books in each series, which are done, and which will continue and for how long?
- The Gods Within: 4-book, epic-fantasy tetralogy, now complete, though I’ve had requests for a sequel. If I can come up with a good idea for a story, I will consider it.
- The Treasons Cycle: So far, 2 stand-along hard-science fiction books. I wrote A Choice of Treasons first, then wrote the prequel (Of Treasons Born) next. I’m mulling over ideas for a sequel to the prequel, which would be the tween book, and a sequel to A Choice of Treasons, which is the first book I wrote but the last book in the series—even I’m confused now.
- The Thirteenth Man: a space-opera stand-alone, so not really a series. But I’m considering a sequel. Non-plot-spoiler hint: 30 years later, Charlie and Del’s three daughters are grown up, and it’s the story about the youngest, who is the rebellious one.
- The Dead Among Us: right now I’m about half way done with the 3rd book in this contemporary urban fantasy series. It’ll probably go 5 books, maybe 6.
CS: You’re in negotiation with a major corporate publisher. Which book and why is this a better arrangement than self publishing?
JLD: I have to defer to the publisher when it comes to announcing any hard facts, so I can’t really disclose that. As to why it’s better than self-publishing, I’m slowly following a natural path to a hybrid model of indie publishing. In a few years I hope to have a solid mix of traditionally and self-published works. I know other writers who’ve found a great deal of synergy in that model, where the writer’s own marketing efforts are augmented by those of a traditional publisher.
CS: THE GODS WITHIN series has such a large cast of characters, you provide readers with a dramatis personae. How do you keep track of all these characters and give them the scene count, development, interaction, and plot significance they deserve?
JLD: While writing, the characters become so real, and I get so immersed in their world, that I don’t have any problem keeping track of them. As to plotting, scene count and those other issues, I’ve written software that automatically spits out a scene list from the manuscript, with short scene descriptions. But that’s just a tool that helps keep track of things. Ultimately, all writers have to devote time to the very tedious and less enjoyable task of reviewing that scene list for proper plot development, then cutting, adding, moving and modifying to achieve the desired story.
CS: What kind of transformation does the main character in each series go through? Seems like Morgin, the main character in THE GODS WITHIN, goes through the greatest transformation. York, the main character in THE TREASONS CYCLE, less so. Paul in the dead among us and Charlie in THE THIRTEENTH MAN, not much.
JLD: Don’t forget that York started out as a man who was blindly following orders, and turned into one who was willing to commit treason and murder for the greater good. I’m not advocating treason and murder, but in that story I wanted to explore what it took to push a man that far, and in such a way that the reader sympathizes.
You’re right that Charlie didn’t change much, but Del was the hidden heroine in that story—she changed considerably, and took Charlie with her.
As to Paul, don’t forget Katherine: he and she will continue to change quite a bit as the series changes.
CS: Morgin and York both started their training as children and both were virtually forced into service because of their harsh circumstances. Is this a coincidence?
JLD: Yes, it is, but their circumstances are quite different. York started out as a kid who made some bad mistakes and was facing serious punishment that many might feel he deserved. Morgin really started out as a victim of Valso’s lust for power.
CS: All of your main characters are reluctant heroes. Was that deliberate?
JLD: Perhaps it was deliberate on a subconscious level. I think all real heroes are, in a sense, “reluctant.” If you look at real war heroes, they don’t set out to be heroes, but they react to a bad situation in a valiant way. I prefer heroes and heroines who aren’t larger than life and don’t have super-human strength, but are in many ways somewhat ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances.
CS: What’s wrong with using laser weapons in science fiction stories. Aren’t laser weapons real? Didn’t the pentagon recently shoot down a missile with a laser weapon/directed energy weapon?
JLD: In the broader sense they are used as weapons daily in the battlefield, but only for guidance and tracking, where a spotter shines an infrared laser spot on the target that the missile can track on. The little turret mounted on the “chin” of the predator drone has a dual purpose:
- It contains optics to provide an image to the fire control officer (not sure if that’s really his/her title).
- It contains an infrared laser that can be used to place a spot on the target.
The hellfire missile the predator fires has filters to remove all incoming visible light, so that the only thing it sees, even on the brightest, hottest day in the desert, is that hot little infrared spot. That removes all the background from the image field, so no sophisticated image processing is required, and gives it an enormous signal-to-noise ratio for tracking. That’s how our military can so accurately send a missile right down the door of a bunker.
However, as the means of delivering destructive energy to a target, lasers are not deployed at all. A couple of issues are:
- Fog or dust: if you can’t see through it, that means light can’t get through it.
- Reflectivity: the energy isn’t destructive unless absorbed by the target; simple steel reflects 70-90% of the infrared energy that hits it. Synthetic materials, like polyester, reflect most of the infrared energy that strikes them, so you can protect yourself from being burned by a laser by wearing all polyester.
- Diffraction: when a lens focuses a beam to a spot, it’s not infinitesimal, the spot is finite in diameter. The size of the spot is determined by the diameter of the lens, and the distance to the spot (target). This is the smallest spot that can be produced based on the laws of physics, and it’s called the diffraction limit. So if a certain size spot is needed on a target, that dictates the size of the lens. In the kind of space battle scenarios that occur in science fiction, with enemy targets at great distances, the lens that’s needed to focus a “tight” spot on the target is frequently larger than the battleship carrying it, > 1Km.
These are not issues with the laser itself; it’s just a light bulb. Science Fiction can shrink massive laser systems down to something you can hold in the palm of your hand. The problems I describe above are fundamental issues with light, and the only way to overcome them is to violate the laws of physics.
As to shooting down a missile, I don’t know the details of that, but I do know the Airborne Laser Laboratory shot down a sidewinder missile circa 1984, so it’s not really the first time. I think the real test of lasers as weapons is: after 40 years and billions in funding, no one has ever “deployed” a laser as a weapon system. Deployed means “wide use throughout multiple theaters of war.”
Keep in mind that, no matter how top-secret a weapons system is, when it’s deployed, everyone knows about it. We may not know the top-secret details, but we know what it is, what it does, and that it’s out there. A good example is the stealth fighter.
Occasionally, someone strongly disagrees with me on this, and they usually fall into one of the following categories:
- They’re getting their paycheck from government funding to develop laser weapons,
- They’re a science fiction writer who has incorrectly written a laser weapon into their novel, and they don’t want to rewrite it.
CS: What’s on the horizon?
JLD: Over and above what I mentioned in the question on the 4 series concerning sequels, prequels and the like, I’m considering:
- a military SF novel (maybe series) called The Blacksword Regiment, and
- a non-military hard SF series set in a similar universe to A Choice of Treasons with transition ships and the like.
CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?
- Write. The best thing one can do is write really good fiction. The second best thing one can do is write really bad fiction. The worst thing one can do is write no fiction at all. You have to write bad fiction before you can write good fiction. The first thing I wrote was a 250,000 word hard SF novel. I put it away for a month, then reread it, and it was so terrible no one has ever seen it. I eventually threw it away.
- Go to SF&F conventions. They’ll almost always have panels on writing, everything from the writing process, to how to build imaginary worlds and universes, to how to get published. You can learn a lot from experienced writers, and at some you can meet publishers and agents.
- Constantly hone your writing skills.
- Never give up.
Doing 1 & 2 above, helps do 3, and 4 takes guts and determination.