“You can make a character do something that makes the reader want to punch you in the mouth.” A conversation with Sean Platt
Many writers know Sean Platt as a host on the Self Publishing Podcast along with Johnny Truant and David Wright. I first met Sean when I came on the podcast in early 2013 to discuss ebook formatting. Since then, I’ve read several of his titles including season one of Yesterday’s Gone. It is a stellar dystopian series and I’m desperately trying to catch up with them. Platt and Wright have published four seasons and I’ve finished the first. I was both thrilled and honored to collaborate with Sean on Lost Track, a short story in the world of The Beam. The Beam is serialized sci-fi that Sean and co-writer Johnny B. Truant call their best fiction.
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.
I will unofficially credit you with the serialized approach for ebooks. I love it. I think it’s engaging and the pace of the story is really in synch with what’s happening in popular media right now. I was wondering if you could explain what it means to write serialized fiction the way you do it.
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?
Most of our readers like to get the whole thing at once. The infrastructure is broken so the way we would sell serials is really clunky. There’s not a good solution. The only good solution is the one Amazon has with their actual serials program. But it’s invite-only and traditionally published so guys like us lose all our control, we lose all our ability to market the stuff. But the structure of the system itself is fantastic because you’re only buying one book and then it auto-updates. That’s fantastic because for a season of Yesterday’s Gone I don’t want a reader to have to juggle six files. That sucks. As a consumer, that’s unwieldy and it’s not cool. Now all of the sudden I’m asking the reader for six reviews? No. I need one title so I can get one set of reviews. Our reviews sucked under the other paradigm, badly. We don’t even release episodes anymore. The last time we did it was for Yesterday’s Gone Season 4. When season 5 comes out this spring it’ll just be Season Five. That’s the only way you can buy it. Because, season 4 has like 200 reviews but 100 on the season and the others spread out on stuff that’s going to be retired. That’s hard because we have social proof that will disappear after we retire the titles. You want all of reviews in one place, and perhaps more importantly, you want to validate your readers. If they took the time to leave you a review it’s kind of balls to take away that review later because you don’t need it anymore. But the truth is, it’s not that you don’t need it anymore, it’s that it becomes a hindrance at some point. For example, Dave and I have retired a lot of titles. We’ve had three seasons of Yesterday’s Gone individual episodes retired, two seasons of White Space, two seasons of Available Darkness, and a season of ForNevermore. That’s almost 50 individual titles that we’ve retired and a thousand reviews. The alternative is to have them totally cluttering our author pages so when a new reader finds us they just see these random episodes and they’ll never be able to find The Beam, because they’ve got to go through nine pages of ForNevermore episodes. That sucks. There’s not really a good solution. The fact that we only get 30% royalty on a 99 cent title–that is balls too. I don’t want to rip the reader off because like I said, the worst thing you can do is make them feel like they didn’t get a good deal. 99 cents is absolutely the right price for a single episode of one of our series. That’s what I want to charge. I want to charge 99 cents for an episode and $6 for the season. But I’m heavily penalized for a 99 cent episode. I either have to be penalized or my reader has to be penalized and both of those alternatives suck. We don’t release episodes anymore. However, we still write episodically because that doesn’t change. There’s no difference in the way we architect or execute our stories, just a difference in the way they’re published now.
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 totally agree. I think it’s a hard thing to pull off because there are a lot of people online saying very little and using a lot of words to do it. You don’t want to be that guy. You want to say something substantial, something that is easy for people to share and that’s not always an easy line to walk. In fact, sometimes it can be very, very difficult. But when you nail it it’s rewarding. I’m lucky because I don’t have to do it in a vacuum. If I was trying to write epic posts by myself I wouldn’t have as much fun. I would feel really frustrated.
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.