5 Questions With Harry J. Connolly
To help you better know the authors who will be writing stories for HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!! and Other Improbable Kickstarters, I'm going to be posting a series of short interviews with them as project updates.
Today, we have Harry J. Connolly, author of the Twenty Palaces series, and the epic fantasy Kickstarter project, The Great Way (funding thru Oct. 19!)
You're currently doing a Kickstarter for your epic fantasy series, The Great Way. Tell us about that.
I started this trilogy as a school project with my homeschooled son. I talked about it here on my blog. (The working title for the book at the time was A BLESSING OF MONSTERS, later changed to EPIC FANTASY WITH NO DULL PARTS.) But the gist is that I bought a manual written by a teacher who worked for LAUSD; it led kids through the lessons they needed to learn to write a novel, from grammar lessons to narrative techniques, and we did the exercises together. We both created heroes, sidekicks, mentors, drew maps, the whole deal.
Of course, he followed the worksheets and instructions pretty closely. Me being me, I had to mess around with them. The guy who appears to be the hero of my story gets sidelined pretty quickly, leaving things in the hands of other, less likely protagonists.
This was also supposed to be a standalone novel, but it kept growing as I wrote it. I'd planned to write about the collapse of an empire (so many fantasy novels are full of the Ruins of a Lost Empire that I thought it would be fun to Tell That Story) but I quickly began to explore and expand.
Plus, there was a lot of fighting.
So the books topped out at 350K, which is respectable for an epic fantasy, and leaves behind a great many ruins.
You originally published a series of books via a traditional publisher. What happened with those, and why have you now moved on to funding via Kickstarter?
My debut novel, CHILD OF FIRE, sold to Del Rey for a big pile of money--they really thought it would break out. It also made Publishers Weekly's Best 100 Books of 2009. Unfortunately, most of the reading public didn't connect with the story. They either didn't like the main characters, didn't understand their relationship, or they didn't care for the way questions about the setting were left unanswered. I thought that sense of mystery was fun, but apparently that's a minority opinion.
The last book in the series came out at the worst possible time, too. Borders had just collapsed (they'd ordered quite a lot of my first two books) and Hurricane Irene damaged a whole palette of books while they were still in the warehouse, which meant B&N didn't get copies on the shelves until two weeks after it was released.
In short: high expectations, misconnect with audience tastes, and a fat dollop of bad luck led to dwindling sales and a series cancellation.
Frankly, it's been tough to follow up from that. With luck, THE WAY INTO CHAOS and its sequels will turn things around.
Do you have any plans to market The Great Way to a traditional publisher after the Kickstarter concludes, or are you going to keep it entirely a self-published/crowdfunded venture?
There are two answers to this: First, since the Kickstarter has done so well and the sample chapters have gone online, I've been approached by publishers.
Second: book one of the trilogy went out to publishers last year and was turned down. Not grimdark enough, apparently.
As I mentioned above, I wrote this as part of a homeschool unit with my son, so I made a decision early on that it would be like the fantasy novels I read growing up: An adult book about adult characters (mostly) that could be read by precocious young people. No psychopathic anti-heroes. No rape. No R-rated language. No horrible gore. No extended scenes of torture.
It's not that I'm opposed to these things. I read each massive volume in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE when it comes out and anyone who's read the short fiction I've self-published knows I have a real soft spot for anti-heroes. But for this one project, these were the parameters: an adventure series I would not hesitate to hand to my son.
You know, a screenwriter acquaintance has said that kids' movies are defined mainly by what's not in them. They don't have to feature kids in the lead, they don't have to have a certain tone or subject matter. You can do pretty much whatever you want, as long as you leave out the things the audience believes are inappropriate for young people. So I wonder sometimes if the growing success of YA and MG fantasy has been slowly changing the perception of non-YA/MG fantasy novels into "adult" fantasy, with all the baggage the word "adult" carries. I would have expected publishers to be ready for a swing away from grimdark, but maybe they're already publishing those books in other sub-genres?
Then again, maybe they said "This is fun but not fashionable right now" to be polite. I guess I'll find out once the books are released.
You're already 335% funded with 10 days to go. To what do you attribute the great success you've had with this project thus far?
Mainstream publishing rewards people with large, diffuse, casually-interested readerships. Kickstarter rewards people with (comparatively) small but dedicated readerships.
But truthfully, I did not expect the response I've gotten. A $10,000 goal seemed incredibly risky, and before launch I squeezed my projected budget so hard it turned into a diamond.
When I made my goal in less than eight hours (and doubled it in less than 33), I realized I really did not understand my own reader base. I'd seriously underestimated it.
I attribute the success of the campaign to a few different things:
(1) The Twenty Palaces novels really were different from a lot of what's out there. How many authors are writing noirish action-tragedy? Not many, (wisely) because that style appeals only to a niche market, but the readers who liked my books aren't finding others like them elsewhere.
( 2) I hadn't released a new novel since CIRCLE OF ENEMIES in 2011, so there's a bit of delayed gratification going on, too. I did write an RPG tie-in novel called KING KHAN that has been released during the Kickstarter, but at the time the project launched there had been nothing.
(3) The evangelism of well-connected people. There are folks out there with big social networks (much larger than mine) who have helped spread the word, and all of them have been canonized in the Church Of Me.
(4) Before I launched the Kickstarter, I got a lot of great advice: what was dumb, what reward levels to change, what parts were boring or confusing. I think the most important advice came from my agent. The original video was a mess because I did the usual self-effacing writer-thing: "I wrote a book. You might like it, I guess." My agent told me that the book was fun and that needed to come across in the video. Essentially, she told me to sell the project. And it turned out okay.
I am a fat, funny-looking dude with more head tics than a George Clooney film festival, but an astonishing number of people have told me they thought the video was great.
What's next for you after The Great Way?
I have a fourth novel that I've promised my backers--it was the first stretch goal we unlocked--called A KEY, AN EGG, AN UNFORTUNATE REMARK, which is a pacifist urban fantasy that I've been talking about forever but can never seem to get exactly right. Once THE GREAT WAY is done I'm going to revise and release it. Then, short story collection.
After that, I don't know. There won't be any more sequels to THE GREAT WAY for reasons that will become clear when folks read the ending, so I'm not sure what will be next. Something different. Something new. Maybe even a psychopathic anti-hero.