An Interview with Science Fiction Author Doug Dandridge

This week, successful indie author Doug Dandridge agreed to do a quick interview about his writing process, research methods, and trends in the publishing industry.  Doug, who happens to be a former Infantryman, is probably best known for his Exodus: Empires at War series about a far-future interplanetary human empire re-encountering the ancient race that drove them from earth thousands of years ago.  They’re great reads, with plenty of exciting space combat, but the Empires at war books are only a part of his catalogue.  He also has a number of other series out as well as a very informative nuts-and-bolts guide to selling books on Amazon.  He is one of the most prolific and successful independent sci-fi authors out there and had plenty of good advice to offer.  Anyway, here’s the interview:

-For readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?

I have always loved science fiction and fantasy. As a child, I was reading Heinlein, Howard, Burroughs, Asimov, Moorcock, you name them. And I watched Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Twilight Zone, and any other fantastic television program, good or bad, that happened to be on. I also spent quite a long time in college, with several different majors, but it all kept coming back to the high school writing teacher who said I should try writing. I finally decided to give it a try in 1996, and wrote some truly horrible novels, as well as submitting what I still consider some good short stories. I contacted Hugo winner Charles Sheffield through an ex-girlfriend of his that I knew, and Holly Lisle online. Both read some of my work and told me to keep trying, that I would make it. Those acknowledgements kept me going through the many rejections I gathered in ensuing years. And of course I write the kind of stuff I enjoy reading, and have always been a student of military history, so military sci-fi and fantasy just seemed to be a natural fit for me.

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

I want them to read a good tale that entertains and makes them want more, while at the same time actually approaching some real science, tactics, whatever. I do the research, at least as much as a layman can. I have an advanced degree in Psychology, and minored in Biology, adding on some more biology courses for pre-nursing later on.   I also majored in Geology for a year, so I have a good basic understanding of science, enough to get the gist of things. And I think being able, as a layman, to transmit those concepts to other laymen is probably one of my strengths. But most importantly, I want my books to be entertaining, and I have learned a lot of techniques from some of my favorite fantasy writers, Jim Butcher and R. A. Salvatore for examples, that I have tried work into my action scenes.

-One of the things that I like about your action scenes is that you seem capable of walking the thin line between moving the plot forward and making sure that your reader still understands what is going on, which can get difficult when describing large-scale space battles. Have you found any tools to be particularly useful when working on scenes where you need to simultaneously relay technical information while still telling a good story?

One lady I know in Tallahassee who has read some of my fantasy (and she is also working on a steampunk novel), commented on how good my fight scenes are, and wanted to know if I plotted or choreographed them out. Nope, I just sit down and write them, and what you see on the page is normally what I wrote as a first draft with some minor corrections. Just something I do, and I really don’t know where I learned it.   Had to work on getting the technical details in without info dumping, but again, that just seemed natural.   Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of movies, and get a sense of how to put things in using action and dialogue to get the point across. Of course, movies can also teach how not to do that, or how to present a scene in its most confusing, leading by example on what not to do.

-What resources would you recommend for someone looking to write well-researched, plausible Science Fiction?

Despite what I said about movies, don’t use movies or TV as the template. Most screenwriters don’t seem to know a lot about the science they’re trying to portray. Basically, I would say read some of the masters of the craft, then research the idea you are interested in. There are so many resourced on the internet today that weren’t around when I started writing. Programs for calculating orbits, gravity, the yield of an antimatter warhead. There are also programs like Orbit Xplorer and Universe Sandbox that let you play with ideas, building your own solar systems. Look up videos of things on Youtube. Take some classes at a local college. I learned a lot about biology, which led to my own study of nanotechnology and the scales and time frames nanites work in, by taking the sequenced Anatomy and Physiology classes at our local community college. There are also resources on the net like ‘Ask A Scientist’, where you can post your question and get an answer in a week or so. I did that when I wanted to know something about the structure of the Galaxy, and I could find nothing relevant researching the net.

-How would you describe your path to publication?

I started out writing with a hope of a traditional contract. I sent my first novel off expecting to get a 100K check in the mail. I also got scammed by a bad agent and didn’t trust any agent for years. Then it was a decade of submitting to the publishers that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, getting better and better rejection letters, and moving on with something else. One reason I have so many books on Amazon in so many different areas, military sci-fi, near future, fantasy, steampunk, urban, is I kept trying to find the something that a publisher was looking for. The last two years of trying I went back to soliciting agents, and got the same ‘we think you’re a talented author and this is some good stuff, but not for our market.’ Then I put out my first two books on Amazon, and spent 8 months getting a small check. I did my first promotion in September of 2012 and things took off from there.

-As a major proponent of self-publishing, what do you see as the practice’s inherent advantages?

You get to do what you want, when you want to do it. Yes, there are some considerations, like what your fans are demanding, but if I want to do two or three Exodus books in a year, I can. And the readers seem to appreciate that. By the same token, I have some series that aren’t doing as well as Exodus, but still have several thousand fans each, and I can continue those. I feel like I have a contract with my readers to finish something. I may not do that many books a year in that series, but they do go forward. Unlike a publisher, who looks first at the bottom line and kills a series in mid-telling. I do well enough on the popular series that it doesn’t kill me to do a Deep Dark Well o Refuge book.

-Do you feel that these advantages counteract the oft-discussed risks associated with self-publishing?

I do. Now the risk of putting out a self-published book is that you aren’t going to sell many. I have some that have sold over twenty thousand copies, and one that has sold less than 150. If that last book was the only thing I had out there I wouldn’t be doing this full time. But I also don’t have to worry about having a certain sell through in the first month, or having three books flop and I’m out with that publisher. I can keep putting them out. But it isn’t easy to make it, even in self-publishing. I saw the other day that I was in the top three hundred money earners among self-published authors at Amazon. I know several sci-fi authors who are doing much better. But there are several million self-pubbed authors who are not doing as well. It’s a risk, but really how much of one? Most people who write would do it if they made nothing. So, for a minimal investment, you put your book out there. If it bombs, so what. You just work on the next one, which is what you would do anyway. If it’s a success, great, now work on the next one. Not really much of a risk.

-How would you describe your writing process?

First I come up with an idea, or several. Then I start working the idea with maps, drawings, background information, until I have a Universe to work in. After that I come up with a story and characters to fit in that Universe. I used to outline everything, now not so much, but I may start doing that more in the future, especially since Exodus is really getting complicated. I sit down and type, normally between two and five thousand words a day, working from start to finish. I put the draft away for a couple of weeks to a month, then pull it back out and go over it, putting in any sections that might be needed to flesh it out. I very rarely cut, but mostly add, and don’t do much in the way of changes, unless something looks really screwed up. After that I go through several stages of proofing, and it’s out. I realize I probably could do better, but I started this whole process when I was making nothing, and really couldn’t afford any outside help. That said, it seems to work out well as it is. There are some errors, but not a whole lot.

-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?

I am working on some spinoffs of Exodus, telling the story of the human Empire from some different perspectives, while I work to flesh out the main storyline. And I am working on a gunpowder fantasy (renaissance era) for submission to Baen books, with some other ideas in the making. And I would like to do some alternative history in the future, but just don’t have the time for it now.

-What are a few things that you know about writing and publishing now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

I wish I had learned about networking, going to cons and meeting people who might be able to help me out. I met Kevin J. Anderson at Dragon Con, and that meeting has produced great dividends, while some other more recent contacts look promising. And I wish I had tried self-publishing a couple of years earlier than I had. Mostly, though, there are no regrets. I had to learn, and all of what I went through got me to where I am today.

There you have it.  Thanks again to Doug for agreeing to do the interview.  As always, if you feel that there are helpful questions that I’m neglecting to ask or if you; have an idea for an author that you want to see interviewed, feel free to contact me.  Here are some links for further reading:

Author’s  Website

Author’s Amazon Page

More Author Interviews

-What are a few things that you know about writing and publishing now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

I wish I had learned about networking, going to cons and meeting people who might be able to help me out. I met Kevin J. Anderson at Dragon Con, and that meeting has produced great dividends, while some other more recent contacts look promising. And I wish I had tried self-publishing a couple of years earlier than I had. Mostly, though, there are no regrets. I had to learn, and all of what I went through got me to where I am today.

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