Josh Jabcuga: You and I met in the inaugural session of Jack Ketchum’s “Talking Scars” writing intensive when it was offered at The Cult (www.ChuckPalahniuk.net) in 2010. Back then your medium of choice was film, helming indie productions like HUNTING SEASON and BURNING INSIDE. You’re someone who paid his dues in the world of independent filmmaking, having invested yourself—financially and emotionally—and earning high marks from publications such as Deadline and Fear Zone. So why did you decide to shift platforms and dive into the realm of prose fiction to tell your stories?
Nathan Wrann: You said it right in your question: the INVESTMENT. I made HUNTING SEASON in 2006, right on the cusp of the anyone-can-and-should-make-a-movie explosion. High technical quality filmmaking has become really, really affordable. Should be great, right? Wrong, the market is so flooded right now with films that it's almost impossible to make a mark or break out, or even find an audience.
Which brings me to my second film, BURNING INSIDE. For HUNTING SEASON we were able to move enough copies at Fangoria conventions and via our video-on-demand deal through Gravitas to make our $5,000 budget back. With BURNING INSIDE a far more specific niche movie (black and white, surreal, unique) we should have been able to find at least a couple thousand people looking for that type of movie. But discoverability of niche, bizarre indie films doesn't seem to exist anymore. I think if we had taken a classified ad out in the back pages of Fangoria back in 1985 for BURNING INSIDE we would have become a cult classic. Nowadays our distributor spent thousands on ads and we ended up with more positive reviews (20 or so) than actual copies sold in the first year (15 or so). I don't think people find independent genre films the way they used to. Now Comic-Con seems to dictate what people look for. So, that was two reasons, a flooded market and lack of discoverability.
I wasn't ready to stop there though. I still have the burning desire inside of me to tell stories but I don't have a real interest in blowing a lot of somebody’s money on a film budget for a movie that has a lotto ticket’s chance of recouping it. As I said, it was the investment. Writing short stories and novels costs virtually nothing. I already had a bunch of properties in the form of unproduced film scripts so I decided that now would be a good time to start adapting those into novels. I had written plenty of screenplays but not a single prose piece since college (2000-ish) so I needed something to get me in the groove. My wife has been telling me to write books for years and I've always rejected the idea out of some misguided fear that I could only write screenplays and not long-form prose. I needed something to encourage me, no, force me, to do it. Jack Ketchum's master class was the perfect kick in the ass for that.
Josh Jabcuga: Were you familiar with Ketchum's body of work prior to the course?
Nathan Wrann: My familiarity with Ketchum's work was strictly through the indie film adaptations of his books. When I was doing the Convention circuit with HUNTING SEASON in 2007 "The Lost" and "The Girl Next Door" films were both pretty visible, either through the promo material that was scattered about or people selling posters, DVDs etc. I also remember seeing "The Girl Next Door" on the shelf of my local video store (Tommy K's video, now defunct. RIP) next to the copies of HUNTING SEASON that the store was kind enough to carry. I watched "The Lost" and really dug it. Especially Marc Senter's performance. Then "Red" came out so I checked that out and loved it too. When I saw the course being offered I knew Ketchum's style would fit me because his stories have a high level of realism and take place in contemporary times. I don't have a real desire to write fantasy or historical pieces. Also, Ketchum's work adapted nicely into some pretty rough indie films. Since I was looking to adapt my films to novels, and maybe vice-versa, it seemed like a perfect fit.
I'm not trying to compare my work with Ketchum's but I think that with the grittiness of HUNTING SEASON and the subject matter of his films/books, they could live in the same universe. While taking the class I made sure to burn through his novel "The Lost", which was, as is usually the case, even better than the movie. And I finally worked up the nerve to read "The Girl Next Door". Whenever starting a new book or story I always read the first page because it reinforces the importance of opening lines by having one of the best of any book: “You think you know about pain?”
Josh Jabcuga: And it's no coincidence that that's a lesson addressed in Ketchum's class, the "Bookstore Browser Test"--the importance of opening lines in a story. But let's not spoil the fun for the new students in any future sessions.
You carried over your DIY mentality from indie filmmaking and applied it with precision focus to the literary world. Tell me what steps you took when you completed Ketchum's course and the thought-process behind it.
Nathan Wrann: Well the most important step and the one that that class led me on the right path to is to write a damn good book. No matter what path you take to publication that is the number one rule. Write a damn good book. But I still wasn't ready to go full out and write a novel. That's a pretty big undertaking. So I took my two favorite short stories from Ketchum's class, "The Kindness of Strangers" and "The Mill" and, using Ketchum's feedback as well as that of my peers in the class, I worked them over until I thought they were top notch and then I worked them a little more. I passed them around to some people whose opinions I value and I handed them over to an editor. Then I sent them off to market. I went to Duotrope.com and looked for every market available that they might fit and submitted them. Then the waiting game begins. And if you're submitting short stories to be published in anthologies or magazines be prepared to wait. But I didn't just sit around waiting; I got to work on my novel.
Josh Jabcuga: Your novel, DARK MATTER HEART, is a bit of a departure, though.
Nathan Wrann: Yes, the strange thing is that my novel is a departure from the material in the class and the material that I was interested in prior to the class. The novel is a teenage vampire story so with the paranormal aspects it gets away somewhat from the realism that is Ketchum's bread and butter. I like realism though, especially in my work so it's not a fantasy story, instead it asks the question: "what if vampires were real? In our real world?" The lessons learned in Ketchum's course still wholly applied to it. I can still take my own life's experience, my own “scars” and apply it to the situations the characters find themselves in. Being the new kid at school. Wanting to just be invisible. Making new friends. That's all stuff where I can look at myself and apply that realism to it. I can convey the way I’ve felt in those situations and it comes out on the page.
So what I did while waiting to hear about my short stories was to write my novel, "DARK MATTER HEART," which is actually an adaptation of a script I wrote in 2005. I couldn't just jump full bore into a new work where I had to learn to write a novel's worth of words, and teach myself novel length pacing, and plotting and character. I had to start with a story that I already knew was killer. So adapting a screenplay was my crutch for entry into this new world.
After the requisite amount of time went by with no word from the markets I had submitted the short stories to it was time to dive in fully. I'm not one to "ask permission" or beg someone to put my work out. I don't need to ask a publisher to "tap" me and tell me I'm good. I'll leave that up to the people that matter, the readers.
I'm pretty fiercely independent and live by the saying "If I'm gonna bet on someone, I'm gonna bet on myself" so self-publishing was always my number one choice. If a publisher comes along now and wants to talk about publishing me, we'll talk but I'm happy doing it all myself. The goal isn’t to be traditionally published; the goal is to put books in reader’s hands. So I did some research on-line. Stumbled across J.A. Konrath's blog which opened my eyes, but the real game-changer was Dean Wesley Smith's blog. He has step-by-step guides for publishing e-books and paper books and tons of great advice on how to "act like a publisher". It’s all about the marathon, not the sprint. It was exactly what I was looking for and seemed to be tailored to me. I had my two short stories ready to go. Followed Smith's blog and published them (under the pen name Nicholas Faraday) on Amazon, BN, Smashwords etc. It worked beautifully. I finished up my novel. Rewrote it once, changing it from first-person to third-person. Sent it off to an editor. Had some beta readers check it out and then I published that too, in May 2011. Only five months after taking Ketchum's class. When I publish the 3rd book in the "Dark Matter Heart" trilogy in June I will have published 3 solo novels, 1 co-written novel and 3 short stories within a year and a half after taking Ketchum's class. The books are selling and getting good reviews, so I’m pretty happy about it. His class didn't promote or teach me how to self-publish but it gave me invaluable lessons on writing and built my confidence to be able to do it like a boss.
Josh Jabcuga: So let's reiterate one thing: you're not advocating taking short cuts...people still need to do their homework and due diligence…
Nathan Wrann: Absolutely. Truth is, there are no short cuts. It's all a lot of damn hard work no matter what path you take.
Josh Jabcuga: You're just changing venues and cutting out the middleman, but providing content for those who want it. I think the stigma that's often associated with self-publishing is a result of too many people trying to "get rich quick" without paying their dues first.
Nathan Wrann: I think there are at least a few stigmas or prejudices against self-publishers and most of those judgments come from other writers, both published and unpublished and other people within the industry. There's the stigma that self-published books are just books that weren't "good enough" for the publishers to bother with. Or there's always the condemnation hovering out there, in hushed tones of course, that a self-published writer isn't reallypublished because some gatekeeper didn't approve their work. It didn't get the seal of approval from someone that cashes a paycheck from a corporate publisher.
With my work, I'm not really interested in spending a lot of time trying to convince a dozen or so special people that my book will sell. I'd rather offer it for sale to millions of people and let them decide whether it's worth their time. Readers don't seem too bothered by who publishes the work. As long as it's high quality, professionally written and edited and has a professional cover and blurb, they don’t care.
There are a lot of reasons to self-publish: your book isn’t “marketable” for a corporate publisher, your old rights have reverted back, you like to take things into your own hands. The least of these reasons is that your work isn't "good" enough for a publisher
No doubt there's a lot of crap out there that isn’t good enough for anybody to publish. And every now and then a reader will make a comment on a message board somewhere that they'll "never read a self-published book again." These kinds of comments usually are bookended by rants about the poor quality of writing and editing for whatever book the reader just read. So what that reader is really saying is that they'll never read a poorly edited, poorly written book again. And who would want to?
Josh Jabcuga: Independent filmmakers are “mavericks.” small-business people are “entrepreneurs.” Musicians get “street cred” when they go guerrilla and reject major labels. With the publishing playing field being leveled thanks to e-publishing, do you think we’ll see a paradigm shift where self-publishers are no longer looked down upon?
Nathan Wrann: That all depends on the quality of self-published works. If we're to look at the body of self-published work as a whole, including the mounds and mounds of garbage out there, truthfully, the quality is pretty uneven. There is some amazing stuff and there’s a lot of bad stuff (like Wikipedia repackaging) because it’s so easy to publish something now.
If you're a writer and you think you're going be able to pass off a poorly edited book and be successful, you've got another thing coming. Readers are pretty savvy. The market weeds out the junk. Readers just have to read reviews, and check out the available samples. The junk out there will always be out there, but it really doesn’t get in the way. Right now there's a ton of great, high quality, self-published books making their way into the top 100 lists at Amazon. Last month even “Dark Matter Heart” made it as high as number 63 in the Children's Horror list. The more that self-published books continue to break into the best-seller lists, thanks to the democratization of the market, the less that self-pubbers will have stigmas levied against them. But the only way that really happens is if the quality of self-published material continues to rise. It all starts with writing a good book.
Josh Jabcuga: And that's one thing that'll never change.
Nathan Wrann: Exactly!
Joshua Jabcuga (twitter.com/@Jabcuga) (www.JoshuaJabcuga.com) is a freelance writer based out of Buffalo, NY. He has contributed eight interviews to ChuckPalahniuk.net, including one with Jack Ketchum. He wrote the comic book miniseries Scarface: The Devil in Disguise, and has worked with IDW Publishing and Universal Studios on other projects such as a graphic novel tie-in to The Mummy, and the Eisner-nominated Doomed magazine. Most recently his work appeared in Cemetery Dancemagazine. This is his first piece for LitReactor.com.
Dark Matter Heart Book Trailer