From idea to publication on Kindle in 29 days

I just published a new horror/humor book called Fat Vampire. It’s about a man who gets turned into a vampire and finds himself in a society filled with “perfect vampires” and has to fight for his life (undead life?) through prejudices that label him unfit to be what he has become. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Etcetera.

That’s not the reason you should care about this post, though. The reason you should care — the reason you should be extremely excited if you’re any kind of a writer at all — is that the story behind Fat Vampire goes like this:

In four weeks, I took a brand-new,
bare-bones idea and turned it into a fully realized
title that is available for sale right now.

That kind of potential is so incredibly exciting for all writers. Today we can take our ideas and make them real in no time at all… but it didn’t used to be this way.

Let’s set the way-back machine for twelve years ago.

In the first part of 2000, I finished my first novel. As was the process before e-books, I then wrote letter after letter to literary agents, begging them to represent me. If they had been interested in me (they weren’t), I’d have, on signing, earned the privilege of waiting while my new agent tried to convince publishers to print my book. Then I’d go through a few rounds of edits, make some concessions I probably wouldn’t want to make, and then, maybe a year later, my book would be in stores and I’d start receiving a phat 7% of the purchase price as my royalty. This would then go on until Barnes & Noble decided I was a failure and stopped carrying my book, and thereafter it would only be available in obscure used book stores or out of my garage. The end.

(NOTE: The above only really had a chance after I wrote a ton of short stories and spent months or years begging obscure literary journals to publish those stories so that I could get some publication credits to impress the agents.)

But now, everything has changed. Today, writers are in charge. We say what ships. We say how it’s marketed. We control the speed. We control the access. This doesn’t mean that everything sells well, of course, but at least we can now fly or fail under our own power, rather than relying on a lucky break.

Today, we’re the ones who say what goes. Today, quality plus a solid and prolific work ethic plus patience nearly guarantees success on some level, after enough time. Today you can manufacture your own platform and your own fan base and your own profits.

Right now, just 29 days after the idea first surfaced, Fat Vampire is available on Amazon’s Kindle platform. Maybe people will like it and maybe they will hate it, but what matters is that it has a chance.

Head on over and check out Fat Vampire, and then realize that you can do the same thing.

Now before I get into the rest, a quick note: If you don’t care about publishing a book or the writing process, you can stop reading now.

But if you are interested, here’s a step-by-step process to getting your work published… in whatever time frame you decide is best for you.

STEP 1. Get an idea

Ideas are easy. They really are. If you don’t think you have any ideas, you just need more practice. Below is the story of my idea.

On September 4th, Dave Wright, Sean Platt, and I recorded episode 6 of our Better Off Undead podcast. It was titled “Horror Movies That Fucked Us Up Good,” and was, ostensibly, about movies that ruined things for us, like how Jaws ruined going to the beach.

However, if you’ve ever listened to Better Off Undead (and you should; the antics make me cry with laughter every single time), you might know that we’re never on topic. So in a not-at-all-rare diversion, we started talking about whether or not we’d choose to become vampires. Then this happened:

Dave: I would so do it.

Me: Can you imagine Dave as a vampire?

Now, you’d have to be familiar with our dynamic to truly get why this is funny, but let me elaborate a bit for any non-listeners: Dave is our resident curmudgeon, skeptic, and… by his own words… fat guy. Dave’s always making jokes about his weight.

Anyway, a bit later, this exchanged happened:

Me: I have a P.S. to this question, then. Let’s say you like this deal. Do you get in shape first?

Sean: Yes.

Dave (laughing): I’m going to be a fat vampire.

Me: You’d be like, “I could get into shape” and then immediately be like, “C’mooon, I’m fucking hungry! Come on, somebody turn me, fast!”

Sean: If I’m taking this deal, I need 90 days.

Dave: Are you assuming that you would be stuck in the same-shaped body? Like you couldn’t get in shape if you were a vampire?

Me: I think you’d heal to whatever you were.

That bit right there — the notion of “healing,” in a vampire sense, to whatever your body was like at the time of being turned — was the spark.

Dave then started saying he, as a “fat vampire,” would try to chase people and Sean said he wouldn’t catch them and would find himself starving to death, exhausted and twitching in the sun. We were soon laughing our asses off at Dave’s imagined predicament, wondering if the same thing held for tattoos and other physical attributes in place at the time of a vampire-related change. Would you be stuck with that bad tramp stamp on your ass forever?

Then I said: “I think there’s a story we need to do, about a fat vampire who can’t get any satisfaction.”

And boom goes the dynamite.

STEP 2. Turn that idea into a story with a plot

Contrary to what a lot of beginning writers think — and contrary to what I thought up until a few months ago despite successfully finishing a book — an idea is not a story. What I got during our podcast recording was just a concept, not a story.

I mean, think about it. I couldn’t just write about the existence of an overweight vampire. What would he do? He’d have to do something, right? I’d need an adventure to follow him along on. Every decent story has something that happens in it that moves the plot from A to Z, right? So simple, yet so easy to overlook.

Before I did anything, though, I set the frame in my mind. I thought the concept was hilarious, but I didn’t want it to be offensive. I’m an in-shape guy, and it could come across as hateful if I wasn’t careful. I knew I wanted my vampire (his name is Reginald) to be a hero. I wanted him to find something redeeming in himself that made up for his lack of physical prowess, and so I started to come up with a few sort of “ugly duckling becomes a swan” ideas.

I even called a friend of mine who is overweight (not Dave — he’s too damn cynical to be trusted) and asked her if the idea of “a book called ‘Fat Vampire'” would bother her. I explained the concept and some of the things that I though might happen. She told me that if I, as the narrator, wasn’t judgmental of Reginald and if his story was a good one where he came out on top, then the foibles along the way that I described (Reginald failing to outrun prey, for example) wouldn’t bother her. It wasn’t a guarantee, of course, but it was the best barometer I had.

What I ended up with, plotwise, was a twist wherein the vampire society is regulated and oppressive about procreation, making Reginald and anyone like him an outcast for being “imperfect.”

Once I realized that the plot would involve Reginald needing to face an ordeal — a trial, essentially — conducted by a totalitarian ruling group, I found that I could get the reader to root for Reginald rather than mocking him. His cause became a righteous one, touching on ideas of fighting judgment and oppression.

STEP 3. Write a first draft. Fast, if you can.

I won’t tell anyone how to write, but I’ll tell you my process in case it helps.

I screamed through the first draft of my manuscript in eleven days. That’s kind of crazy, especially considering I was still putting in around 2500 words a day on a separate fiction project about zombies.

But there were good reasons I was able to manage such good production.The main thing working in my favor was the fact that I’d chosen a shorter, novella-length format and therefore knew I had to keep things moving. The finished manuscript is around 38,000 words, which is about a third of the length of The Bialy Pimps. That didn’t leave much room for the meandering and soul-searching I usually put into my fiction, which turned out to be a good thing.

So, given the shorter length, when I thought about dawdling and taking the story out on a limb, I knew I had to force myself to stay on task. I was able to think in terms of “this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” I did that until I was done. The short length called for a brisk pace, and the brisk pace kept me focused.

I think that briskness of pace — both in the story and in the actual writing — is huge.

If I eliminate all distractions (I close my door when I write and wear stereophonic, around-the-ear headphones), I can write around 1750 words an hour. Your speed may vary, but I highly recommend that during the first draft, you move as fast as you can rather than thinking too much about what you’re doing. You have to outrun your doubts. You have to outrun your desire to get each passage perfect and refine and reread and tweak as you go.

Just tell the fucking story. Keep the ball moving.

Writing fast and writing often will help you stay excited about the story — and if you confine your story to a shorter length than you’re used to, you’ll learn to eliminate the bullshit that slows you down and just get the “what happens” written. If you’re excited, you’ll want to write more. Hugh Howey, whose self-published bestsellers in the Wool series earn him tens of thousands of dollars each month, told us that if you experience writer’s block, you need to write something different and find what excites you. It’s that drive to stay up working until 2am that fires great stories.

I’ve also started setting a timer when I begin. I set it to whatever time I have (2 hour blocks at most, for me). When it goes off, I stop dead in my tracks. I’ll finish the word I’m writing, but not the scene, the paragraph, or even the sentence. I resist the urge to give myself closure, because having unfinished business ensures I’ll be eager to sit back down next time and close the loop. The first sentence in each session is the hardest, so I do whatever I can to get the ball rolling.

(Side note: I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend you pick up Scrivener if you’re a writer of any kind. It is so much better than anything I’ve tried, including and especially Microsoft Word. If you’d like to hear why, check out our interview with Gwen Hernandez, the author of Scrivener For Dummies. I simply can’t imagine using anything but Scrivener today.)

(ANOTHER NOTE: Scrivener also has a PC version. You can get it here.)

STEP 4. Rewrite

Anyone who listens to the Self Publishing Podcast knows that Sean, Dave, and I regard Stephen King’s On Writing to be a writers’ bible of sorts, so it may be no surprise that I follow King’s process on rewriting, which happens to consist of two drafts and a polish.

First, I let the rough draft sit for a while and don’t touch it. The idea is to give yourself some mental distance and allow you to see the story a bit more objectively. King recommends six weeks for novels, but I wanted to be able to publish this one in a month… and besides, it was shorter than a novel. So I let it sit for a week. (In the future, I’ll let novellas sit for a while longer, but even a week seemed to work okay.)

After that period of letting the story rest, I read it all in one sitting. I noted obvious typos but tried not to change anything larger than misspellings and punctuation errors. Instead, I kept reading and made notes about sections that seemed amiss, inconsistencies I needed to check on or fix, and so on. Big-picture stuff.

After that first read, I rewrote the novella — a process that kind of blends with the less-frightening concept of “editing.”

What I do is this: after I fix the obvious stuff I note while reading, I read it the whole thing again, but this time right inside of Scrivener. As I do, I fix stuff as I go. I do this in a back-and-forth fashion. I start at the beginning of a chapter, read until I find something that doesn’t flow completely right, and then change it until it does. Then I’ll go back and start from the beginning and read it again to see if it works. If it does, I keep reading until something stops me again. I fix that new thing, and then I go back a few sentences. I inchworm through the manuscript like that, fixing and going back a little and reading and fixing, until I reach the end.

If there are big-scope questions at this point (I had two: I was inconsistent about the time of year (and hence the weather) and also about the timeframe during which the story unfolds), I make note of them for my final re-read.

Once that’s done, I read it straight through again without stopping. (I actually make a .mobi file (Kindle’s format) and put it on my iPad for this second read so that I can get the experience the reader will have.)

(Scrivener makes outputting Kindle and ePub files, as well as PDFs and other formats, extremely easy. This is NOT easy using other writing software — including and especially Microsoft Word, which I used to use and now want to punch in the balls whenever I use it. This is another huge reason I recommend Scrivener, which you can get here. And yes, that’s an affiliate link; I fucking love that program.)

On the second straight-through read, I make any remaining notes to fix during my polish — mostly minor stuff by now. I also note areas that don’t totally “flow.” This is a hard concept to describe, but I think you learn it with practice. I get a feel for when something is right versus when it’ll stop readers and/or bog them down, so I note those latter places as I find them.

During the final polish, I fix the poor-flow sections and make the nitpicky proofreading edits. Then I’ll re-read the larger sections I rewrote, fix any inconsistencies I noted, and eventually output a final .mobi file for upload to Amazon.

So by the time I output my final, I’ve typically read the entire thing through four times.

STEP 5. Send to an editor and/or beta readers (Optional but recommended, even though I’m a hypocrite)

Sean and Dave, on the Self Publishing Podcast, make the sign of the cross whenever I admit that I don’t have an editor review my stuff. This is a quirk unique to me — not because I’m too good for it, but because it’s just not part of my process, for better or for worse.

Most people really should have other, objective eyes on their work. A paid editor is usually the best bet.

I do normally have people read my stuff before it goes live, though. I know a few good folks who catch errors and inconsistencies (big and small) that I miss. I trust these people to give me their opinions. These opinions are not unbiased, but I don’t care. I write for people like them, and I don’t care what people too far outside of my sweet spot think. This is an “ideal reader” thing for me. It’s a “proudly alienate the people who aren’t right for you” thing.

So for instance, someone rated The Bialy Pimps poorly and said that the characters were shallow and hateful.

Yeah, they are. Next?

I guess what I’m saying is that there will always be people for whom your story will be a bad fit, and anyone who thinks that what my Pimps characters do is to be scorned instead of laughed at is in that group. So yes, I want biased opinions. I want to know what my ideal readers think, not what everyone might think.

STEP 6. Make a cover and write a description

The cover of Fat Vampire, which I think turned out really damn cool, was a collaboration between me and my friend Chachi. We went back and forth, each working it out and adding stuff.

Now, a caveat here: You’re either going to know enough about design to try to make your own cover or you’ll hire someone. I can’t explain Photoshop here. So, you know… just use your head.

But that said, the most important things to keep in mind about covers are:

  1. The cover is probably going to be the most important piece of marketing your book has. If the cover doesn’t grab people, you’re going to have a hard time.
  2. Covers should consist of symbols, and extraneous elements should be eliminated. In other words, you only have a few seconds to convey what your book is about and to tell readers why they should care. Potential buyers won’t read your description first, so your cover has to say all of that for you if you’re to have a chance.

In my case, I have a funny-but-also-horror story about an overweight vampire, so the elements I ended up with were:

For the “vampire” half of the equation:

1. Fangs
2. Blood

For the “fat” half:

3. Fried chicken

Those three symbols convey the book’s concept and tone, so we had to make those symbols jump out while muting everything else. We made the chicken browner and darker and gave it a high and crunchy-looking level of contrast. We made the fangs whiter and more obvious. We made the blood stupidly, cartoonishly red. (Chachi actually gave me realistic blood at the beginning, but I told him to give me redder, glossier blood, and to give me more of it.) Then we toned down everything else so that it faded into the background.

The last bit was to get the author and title in there without breaking the tone, so I mocked up the fast food receipt in the corner and am all proud of myself because I think it kicks ass.

Next, you’ve got to write a punchy description. Same drill as with the cover: hit the key elements and don’t wander.

Here’s my Amazon description for Fat Vampire:

From the author of “The Bialy Pimps” comes a story of fangs and fast food…

When overweight treadmill salesman Reginald Baskin finally meets a co-worker who doesn’t make fun of him, it’s just his own bad luck that tech guy Maurice turns out to be a thousand-year-old vampire.

And when Maurice turns Reginald to save his life, it’s just Reginald’s own further bad luck that he wakes up to discover he’s become the slowest, weakest, most out-of-shape vampire ever born, doomed to “heal” to his corpulent self for all of eternity.

As Reginald struggles with the downsides of being a fat vampire — too slow to catch people to feed on, mocked by those he tries to glamour, assaulted by his intended prey and left for undead — he discovers in himself rare powers that few vampires have… and just in time too, because the Vampire Council might just want his head for being an inferior representative of their race.

Fat Vampire is the story of an unlikely hero who, after having an imperfect eternity shoved into his grease-stained hands, must learn to turn the afterlife’s lemons into tasty lemon danishes.

The description is, in most cases, your second most important marketing tool. Your cover grabs potential readers, and after it does, the description gets them to give you a shot.

STEP 7. Publish

This part is the easiest if you know the process and the most intimidating if you’ve never done it before. (And if you want to know a shit-ton about this stuff, you should subscribe to our Self Publishing Podcast.)

Basically, you’ll go and get an account at Amazon’s KDP self-publishing dashboard and will click a button to publish a new title. That will take you to a screen where you can upload the .mobi file you output from Scrivener (or a Word file, if you enjoy discovering shitty formatting inconsistencies for months afterward) and your cover image. You’ll also choose up to two categories for your book, designate an author, pick some keywords, and paste in your description.

Then you’ll go on to the next page and set the price. For me, this is $2.99 for shorter works like Fat Vampire and $4.99 for full-length novels. Based on what we’re seeing, those seem to be near standards, though a lot of people push even longer works down to $2.99, which is the lowest price at which you’ll get a 70% commission on sales. (Below $2.99, you’ll only get 35%.)

The only real thing to decide beyond that is whether or not to enroll in Amazon’s KDP Select, which is a program that allows you to offer free promotions on your books in exchange for offering Amazon exclusivity. There’s a ton to this issue and you can get more info on it here and here, but the short version is that after much thought and research, I truly believe in KDP Select for people with multiple titles — especially if those titles are part of the same series. (This works very well because giving one book in a series away for free usually drives purchases of the non-free books in the series).

For people with just one book? Not so much.

Idea to publication in 29 FUCKING DAYS

What I described above is a lot of work, but the point is that it can be done. You don’t need to do it in a month, but I did it just prove to myself that there’s no magic. There’s hard work, and practice, and acuity, and patience. This is the Legendary formula in action, and if anyone is reading this from Everyday Legendary, I hope you get that, and that I see you apply it.

Work + persistence = results. That didn’t always used to be true in the world of writing — and especially fiction writing — but it is today, thanks to indie e-publishing.

I mean, think about it. Four weeks ago, the idea for Fat Vampire didn’t exist, and today the actual finished title is available for purchase.

Bring it on, writers. The power is now in our hands.

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