Besides being a great writer Sean is a great human. He is compassionate and always willing to share his successes and failures so that others can learn from them. I don’t know many artists that are as transparent as Sean Platt. If you want to know more about his journey in self publishing, Write. Publish. Repeat. is now available and is getting rave reviews.
I Google Hungout (past tense of Google Hangout?) with Sean on a cold day in January. We talked about writing, reading, blogging and what makes a reader want to punch you in the mouth.
How did you get started in the business?
I started out assuming I couldn’t write. I didn’t go to school to write. My wife nagged me into writing, because I talk too much. [laughing] So I did and I thought I was better than I was. I didn’t know how much I had to learn and I didn’t realize one of the things that always stopped me from starting was thinking, “I didn’t go to school. I don’t know where the commas go.” And that was the wrong thing to worry about. It was the wrong place to put my attention. What I should have been thinking about was, “How do I tell this story? What do the readers actually care about?” The first couple of years that I wrote, I wrote a lot. I had a blog and it blew up pretty fast. I figured I’d start a blog because it was teaching myself how to write. I figured there was no better way to learn how to write than to write for a live audience. They would tell me if I sucked or not and I didn’t really know. I never thought I was a good writer. In fact, I thought I wasn’t a good writer. What I thought I was good at was getting better at something and I could do things quickly. I believed you could build a blog and blow it up and then leverage the attention. I got plenty of attention but I didn’t know how to alchemize that into currency. And so, I had a very hard time. I wasn’t making any money. I took a lot of ghost writing jobs and I learned how to write well and fast. But when I was writing it was still about how everything sounded instead of what it did. I didn’t get to be the writer I am now until I started to write copy, sales letters and stuff--I’d be happy if I never have to write another sales letter again in my life. But I’m very grateful for the time that I wrote them because it taught me so much about how to hold and capture the reader’s attention and how to make sure that they read all the way to the bottom of the page. If someone clicks away from a sales letter, you don’t eat. There are certain rhythms that I learned and I’m really grateful that I did learn. Once I did that, writing just became easier. The Kindle revolution happened, this was 2011, and I’m just like, “Yeah, it’s time to play ball.” We floundered a couple of times. I was writing with David Wright, in fact I still write with David every day. If I wasn’t doing this interview I’d be doing what I’m supposed to be doing which is writing episode one of the last season of Z. We wrote something called The Veil of Darkness and I wrote something myself called Four Seasons and a book called Writing Online, all in 2011, before we really figured out a new way of doing things, which is a serialized fiction. Yesterday’s Gone came out on October 3rd, 2011. That title was a game changer for us. It gave us an audience and a platform and allowed us to do a lot of the things that we’re doing today. Since then, I’ve had the Guy Incognito pen name for children which just launched a couple months ago. We’re on Realm and Sands with Johnny B Truant. We’ve been work horses in the last ten months. We’ve put out Unicorn Western, The Beam, Robot Proletariat, Namaste, Cursed…
Just a couple of things. [laughing]
Yeah, a lot of stuff there. We’re a great team and we go very fast.
When we first started no one was doing it, at least not with any scale. I’d like to say we were the first but maybe there was somebody who did it before us. We’re certainly not the first people to do serialized fiction. Dickens did it a long time before we did. Steven King did it in the 90s with The Green Mile. It’s been done. What we did that was different was we used pop culture language from TV episodes and seasons and translated that into books. There was a rather loud cry at the time that we couldn’t do this because readers don’t want their books chopped into pieces. And that’s very true. Readers don’t want their books chopped into pieces but that’s not what we were doing. That was never our intent. We were really trying to craft a new experience. We were trying to give readers the thing that they got on TV whenever they watched their favorite shows, and translate that to Kindle or to an ereader. Doing that requires a different kind of thought, a different kind of architecture. You can’t just break a story into component parts because that’s not a story. People feel ripped off. The worst thing you can make a reader feel is ripped off. You can piss them off because your ending was too incendiary. You can make a character do something that makes the reader want to punch you in the mouth. There is so much you can do. But the wrong thing to do is make them feel like they didn’t get what they paid for or they somehow got a different experience that they weren’t expecting because that makes readers upset. It makes them mad. When we design our serials it’s from the ground up. We never treat them like a story broken apart. They have the same rhythm of a TV show. If you watch Breaking Bad, it’s not like it just starts in the middle of something and ends in the middle of something. There’s a whole narrative there and if you follow the flow they’re pretty predictable, not in what happens in the episode but in the structure of the narrative. That’s really important because you can have anything happen between the borders, but between here and here, there’s a certain flow it has to have. A good serial has a strong opening that surprises you in some way and establishes the tone of that episode. The rest of the fifty minutes is spent building character, making you care about things, and then the last couple of minutes punch you in the face really hard. That’s kind of what we try to do. We were totally making things up with the first season of Yesterday’s Gone and it’s evident as you read later seasons. We learned from one season to the next because in the first season we were really shooting from the hip, making it up as we went along. By the time we got to the second season we knew what we had and by the time we moved to a new series with White Space, we were building it like a television serial and thinking about it in production terms. What I mean by that is, for example, White Space is set on a small island. It’s a made-up island called Hamilton Island in Puget Sound, in Washington. That island is important because it’s the setting but it’s localized. Yesterday’s Gone isn’t especially filmable. It’s exciting but the set pieces are huge. You’ve got Times Square emptied and stacked with bodies. That’s a really hard thing to shoot. It makes it a really, really expensive show. White Space has a smaller cast of characters in a single location and it makes it easier. I hesitate here because I say things and people want to do what I’m saying because it worked for me. But you have to take it in the context of what works for you. I’m very visual. I love TV so I tend to think like a producer. Now that may not work for somebody else and something that works for them may not work for me. I like to think of my stuff as TV. I cast the characters in my head so I have a very solid frame of reference as I’m writing the stories.
What do you think about the reader experience? It’s becoming very popular to blast through a season of television on Netflix or Hulu where you can sit down immerse yourself in the whole season. Or you can parcel it out and watch it in real time, one week at a time. Do your readers show a preference in your serialized fiction?
What’s on your Kindle right now?
I really hate to admit this but it’s my own stuff. That’s all I read these days. It’s not because I think I’m that awesome. I don’t have time to read other stuff. My list of things that I want read is really long. It’s pretty substantial. Dave gets me a new Clive Barker book for Christmas every year and I’ve got nine of them now and I haven’t read any of them yet. With the volume that I write, I would be doing a disservice to my readers if I didn’t familiarize myself with the story before I started again. I’ll be starting Z after this call which means I had to read this much [holding up massive book] before starting again so that I could be deep into the story world. That’s 650 pages that I have to read as research before I can start something new. With every new project I’m basically just re-familiarizing myself with my stuff. At some point I will move past that. It’s definitely one of my New Year’s goals, to read more outside authors, because I don’t want to get incestuous. I’m bored with my own voice. [laughing] I need some other stimulus. But right now it’s just a necessary evil.
I know you and the guys on the podcast [The Self Publishing Podcast] outlined your collective goals for 2014. A big part of that was slowing down the writing machine a little bit and developing more of the promotions behind your existing cannon of work.
Absolutely. That’s a really, really big deal. It’s a really big part of what we’re doing. I’d gotten to the point where I hated blogging and said I’d never do it again--I’m really hyped on blogging right now and super excited about it. We’ve had two posts that have already gone live and a third one that’s going live this Thursday. It’s boss. It’s called, “What Controls You?” It’s about how we’re all addicted to our shit. [holding up phone] These things controls us…I love writing fiction and I think before we even started I was talking about how I’m very grateful for Write. Publish. Repeat. and how well it’s done, but I really want fiction to blow up in that same way because I get more creative writing. I write every day and writing is looking in the mirror. I don’t know how I really think about something until I’m forced to untangle that knot and that’s what I do for a living. I’m lucky to be doing that for a living. So taking that one step further and writing these big, epic blog posts that explore the themes of our books in greater detail is lot of fun.
I’ve always disagreed with the notion that writers of fiction shouldn’t blog. I think there’s a lot of value to having your voice come out in a relevant and contextual way if you write fiction. I think that’s an asset, not a liability.
I could never have done this by myself. [holding up another massive book] Unicorn Western is a quarter of a million words and yet it went pretty fast because I have a writing partner. Yesterday’s Gone has almost half a million words at the end of the fourth season and it wasn’t that hard to do because I have a partner. That makes all the difference in the world. Blogging is the same way. Johnny and I are handling the blogging and our books. It really is a case of one plus one equals six.
Self Publishing Podcast
Realm and Sands