020: Craig Martelle – Mega Bestselling Author Starts Writing at Age 52

The Habit that Helped Him Write 30 Books in 2 Years

Download to your computer

Listen on Stitcher.

Craig Martelle is a science fiction author and he shares with us his ideas and insights into writing. A Marine corps retiree, he is currently living in Alaska with his wife and doing business consulting. In just about two years, Craig is now the author of 30 full-length novels, numerous short stories, anthologies, and co-written books. Craig has written 2.25 million words written over the last 844 days, averaging 2,677 words a day. Talk about hard work! Craig is also the man behind the 20 Books to 50K conferences.

[01:05] Moving to Alaska and Writing 30 Novels in Just Two Years!

After retiring from the marine corps, Craig went to Pennsylvania with his wife who went to get her PhD at a university After doing a short gig with the government, Craig dodged out and went to law school for three years, graduating with a summa cum laude. Then he went into business consulting, a lucrative career that allowed him to travel with clients. The first year after finishing her PhD degree, his wife was struggling with finding a job, until a job opportunity at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It was a short term, one-year gig which turned into a three-year gig and finally a tenure track position. Meanwhile, Craig does consulting.

Craig recalls working in the oil fields on the north slope of Alaska, just 500 miles off the North Pole. You can’t imagine how freezing that is! He eventually retired having invested enough while his wife was working full-time. He remembers sitting down doing nothing until he decided to write a book. Fast-forward to now (over two years), he now has 30 full length novels published, numerous short stories, anthologies, co-written books, and more!

[04:05] Assume Your First Novel Is Going to Suck!

Craig says you’re going to be in a much better mental position if you assume you’re first novel is going to suck. Even if you know you’re doing you’re very best, it’s okay. Craig compares this with the first time you’re putting on your sneakers where you’re not going to run a marathon. So the first time you’re going to write a novel, you’re not going to write a world class bestseller which only happens to one in a million. So don’t assume you’re one in a million and assume you’re the other 999,000. What will differentiate you to get to the top of that 1,000 is not giving up. Take the first book and the criticisms and one-star reviews that you take along with it.

Craig also underlines the importance of getting a writing coach to help you improve your prose. You could be a great storyteller, but you may not be a great word slinger. Get a good editor and do what you need to do to improve your prose. Then keep improving.

By his 30th book, he received rave reviews but he points out how this is a great ego boost, but you can’t rest on it. 30 books after and 2.25 million words over the last 844 days, he has averaged 2,677 words a day for every day. Every single day, he’s writing and trying to get better. 30 books in, he admits he still doesn’t have that which he considers as a perfect book. So he keeps trying. He likens this with playing golf. The same with writing, you have to keep practicing. You write and write and you get better.

[06:40] Writing His First Book and What It Takes to Be a Successful Author

Craig describes getting executive treatment for his first book which got picked up by a publisher. It got professional editing, new covers, new titles, etc. Again, he says that human beings are natural storytellers but writing it down is different.

So being able to take that natural storytelling ability humans have and put it down the written word and flex to see how it flows, then you’ll be able to craft a story that people want to pay for. And so this is what it takes to be a successful self-published author (or even traditionally published).

Craig also explains the importance of having a split personality. You put on that marketing hat and look at it from a third party perspective. Or study blurbs and look what’s catching and try to replicate that. Then come up with your own methodologies for hooking the readers. But you still have to get that book out there.

He also adds that there are so many things that come into play when writing a book. Writing a book is the hardest thing you’ll ever do just until you’ve written in. You then find out it’s only half the battle.

[09:50] Where to Generate Your Ideas From

Craig is an avid reader. He has been reading growing up and all through his military career and even his business consulting career. Being on the road a lot, he was just reading, about one book a week. He read sci-fi and saw the things he likes and this is where he gets his ideas.

He illustrates that the beauty of sci-fi is being able to take a current situation and painting int on that extraterrestrial landscape. Then he’d be adding werewolves or not, and people won’t recognize that he is actually talking about a specific issue, but it’s going to resonate somewhere deep inside.

Craig draws a lot of inspiration and ideas from his 21 years of experience in the marine corps. So those tenets of honor, courage, and commitment comes through in his writing. And this is in single one of his stories. Initially, he thought of getting away from that, but realized he really didn’t have to. He encourages people to write what you know and not do what you’re going to have to, because then that becomes work. Write what you like to read. Then work in your own angle to make it unique to you and so you’d be able to develop your writer’s voice. That becomes part of you and you expand on that so it becomes a better version of you.

[13:20] Organizing Your Writing and More Book Writing Ideas

Craig already has the story arc for about 6-8 books and he just fills in the lego pieces of that arc. He’s got things or issues he wants to hit. His process of writing his books is that he writes the first chapter and then the last chapter. Then he fills in everything in between. Then he’d edit the last chapter due to some changes he has done during the plot or the writing process.

So he has a bucket of stuff he wants to write this year and then he prioritizes them as he gets closer. Last year, he outline the books he had to do this year. But he realized he was putting too much pressure on himself. So now, he just has those overall arcs in his mind. Recycle, refresh, and get to work.

[15:00] What is a Story Arc?

Craig gives out an example of writing about the space opera and then he builds this plot and characters and the issues they encounter with some military action going on. So then he makes all those things work together. Think about the dilemmas they have, what kind of interaction, what are themes taken into the game, and then the game. Determine the wrap up and figure out why everybody is playing this game. Why is winning worth it? And finally, what is the cost to win. The resulting book is called Price of Freedom, his current one. What are you willing to pay for somebody’s else’s freedom?

[17:50] Commit to Write Every Day

Initially, he would shoot for a minimum of thousand good words a day. He’s flexible on holding himself accountable for the word count. But he admits that some days, it could feel harder to write than others. That being said, he’s a huge proponent of “you must write everyday” even if it’s just a hundred words. You find that it becomes your safe place and you go and tell the story. If you don’t write everyday, it’s easier to get away from that. So make that commitment to write everyday and you’ll find that 3,000 words isn’t that bad.

[20:25] Writing the Characters

Aside from being a lawyer, Craig calls himself a business diagnostic specialist. And along with that is his love of spreadsheets. He has all his characters on spreadsheets, among other more spreadsheets on writing a book – geography, characters, plot points, etc. So he puts all in there and then an extra room to add stuff. He creates an organizational chart of his characters, especially that he has got so many characters after 15 books in one series.

Craig would already have that idea of who his characters are but they do evolve. He adds you always want to keep your characters consistent that can grow over time but you can’t have monumental jerks in their behavior without a catalyst type event because generally, we don’t change who we are unless we’ve had a significant emotional event. If somebody has a near-death experience, it changes who they are and it changes them and their perspective and interaction with the world. This is the relatability of the character is that it helps cement your readership because they can relate. In short, your characters have to be a believable character. Craig prides on the relatability of his characters that people can relate to.

[23:20] How the 20Books Conferences Came About

When he published his first book, Craig had nowhere to go and no sales. Then he found Kboards but didn’t get the help he needed for him to improve. He couldn’t find an editor and his covers were just bad. Then Michael Anderle approached him and told him about the Facebook group 20 Books to 50K. The idea was to make $7.50 a day for a book for 20 books and you’re going to be making 50k.

Being around enough, Craig is aware that you don’t write one book and then it’s going to sell a million copies. That doesn’t happen. So he came over 20 books and 50K and Michael has helped him immensely to understand a bit more of the business. So they went on this mutual journey. And in the fall of 2016, Michael got stuck in his character which Craig helped writing the series for him. 15 books and 1.1 million words later, they have that character!

The group then grew into the creation of the conferences in the hope of helping other people from different careers by bringing them together in November 2016. They were able to gather speakers and the first one in Vegas went well. Some authors that met there were also collaboration and out of those collaborations, the books are already out there. They also held 20Books London and 20Books Vegas in 2018.

[28:12] Fixing What’s Not Working

Craig recalls re-writing an entire book because he had the flashback technique and it didn’t work. He also had some other plot points that he didn’t have to re-write but he tries not to go so far down the rabbit hole that he’d get lost.

So he had one where he had to scrap the entire book. But those flashbacks, he consolidated and then published them as individual short stories which he used as fillers in between when the books were publishing. So he published that as a separate bundle of short stories. So even those words that didn’t fit in the current text, he still got to market and sell them.

That being said, he tries not to go too far the plot where the character is so out of character and the plot is just bad and not working. He was happy to have a sound plot to begin with.

[30:10] Building a Relationship with a Publisher

Editing

Craig explains that many editors will do a sample 1,000 words for you and has a great testament to see how you’re writing is going and whether the person is trying to change your voice or just trying to make a better you. Craig calls himself so blessed to have a great editor and she has edited 1.8 million words for him since then and is now on salary with him.

And even if after he has had it edited at one place, he will take it to another editor to have it take a look because he’s trying to get better even after the words and a review that says well-written. He doesn’t believe that because he thinks he can write better. He can smooth the flow more and it takes extra eyes to see that. He also has a couple of developmental editors who are ready to read anything he puts out within a day or two. As well, he has beta readers who do it for him. So he’s able to get very quick feedback now and this makes it easier for him to publish a book a month. He adds that the timelines of traditional publishers are not anywhere near the flexibility that indie publishers have.

Publishing

When he wrote his first book, he knew he needed help but he couldn’t get it to where it needed to go. A publisher was looking to expand their zombie market and get out of it and move to a survivalist fiction. So they were looking for authors and he was one of them. He came to them with a story where the title is wrong, the cover is bad, it’s “unedited”,  but the story was great. Then they got back to him very quickly and approved of the deal. So he had one post apocalypse book that’s 100,000 words and they need about 50,000 words. They split it in half. And they asked him for a third one since they’re doing a trilogy. He then signed a contract for the fourth one because the third story didn’t end.

It was a vanity press so he didn’t pay them anything. They paid for the cover, editing, and the production. And they did great. Craig also asked them to promote his personal series and they jumped right on board. He considers having a great relationship with his editors, especially when a traditional publisher is willing to help out an indie in his books in relation to the books he had published with them.

[35:09] The Concept of Vanity Press

For Craig, vanity press is that if you have to pay somebody to publish your book, it’s a vanity press and it’s not good because you have removed their incentive to sell your book. Some of them do okay but he hasn’t heard any story that this has taken them to a whole new level. Some even spend $5K to a company to get their book published. It’s something you’re paying them when you could have just done it for $700.

On the other hand, a small press is incentivized to have quantity. They need a lot of authors because their sales are usually a bit lower. They take that and they build on that. His four book series has done very well but it’s not paying so huge. That said, he is happy with his indie track. But as a business mind, he sees the limitations he personally has and he’s willing to share some of the revenue for the right agreement, otherwise it would just become work and not be able to write because he enjoys selling stories. Knowing all this now, he’s able to negotiate from that position.

[37:50] The Process of Creating Audiobooks and More Creative Writing Tips!

Craig is paying for the audiobooks and one of the things he learned is to offer some value and people will come. He adds that people are willing to read a good story. So make sure that your first page is the very best example of your writing. That way, then they will keep reading. They won’t keep reading if it’s painful to get through like an info dump. Instead, put that info dump into an interaction, into a dialogue, into interactions and self-reflection. Otherwise you’re losing readers at that point.

By info dump, it’s that part where you lay that background where you want to craft your story though a background. But if you throw three names in one paragraph and on the first page, you’re wrong. People will start building a list of names and places. So be careful with how many new things you throw at a reader in that first page.

For the first book he wrote, he wrote it in first person, wanting to go through the whole book where people never know what the character’s name is. But he couldn’t do that because of the interactions with strangers. So he had four instances where he had the name written in the book. Now, this made the flow better because you’re not overwhelmed with these names. He generally uses just a single name, no last name. It’s easier for the readers to track since they’re not being overwhelmed with first and last names, titles, etc. You generally want to keep it easy so your readers can follow.

[42:55] Where He Writes His Books and Creating Great Covers

Being in the military, they have been using Microsoft Word, which he considers as a wonderful tool he can use in multiple devices. He has his books edited professionally now as well. So does all the writing in Word and tracks all his characters in Excel. And he makes his cover wall in PowerPoint. The first three covers he made using PowerPoint. Consequently, you have to have the best cover for your book. Also, the blurb has to be sales copy, not a synopsis.

Episode Resources:

Know more about Craig and the awesome things he’s doing on CraigMartelle.com

Check out Craig’s books

20Books Vegas on Nov 6-8, 2018

20Books London

Join Craig’s group 20 Books to 50K on KBoards

Listen on:

MORE EPISODES