Rachel Aaron (who also has books under the name Rachel Bach) is the incredibly prolific author of 18 novels and one very popular non-fiction writing guide, 2k to 10k. A self-described “genre hopper,” she’s written epic fantasy (The Legend of Eli Monpress series), urban fantasy (The Heartstrikers and DFZ series), and LitRPG (Forever Fantasy Online, with her husband Travis Bach) under her real name, as well as sci-fi (The Paradox Trilogy) under her pen name Rachel Bach. She also (fun fact!) wrote an official Attack on Titan YA novel called Garrison Girl.
This week, Aaron dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked everything from genres she’d like to write in, to the online and tabletop games she’s currently playing, to forthcoming books. (A new Paradox story is currently underway, as is a fantasy Western set in Montana during the Great Sioux War and the final book in the DFZ trilogy.) We’ve compiled some of her best pieces of writing and publishing advice below, but there’s so much good stuff we couldn’t fit here that we’d recommend you check out the full AMA.
On branding as a “genre-hopping” author:
Speaking specifically from a business perspective, I’ve accepted that I will never be a one genre author, so I’ve focused on building a brand around my voice rather than any specific setting. My books are wildly different on the surface, but they all share commonalities in terms of character, voice, and theme. That consistency is my goal. I want readers to have faith that even if it’s a genre they don’t normally read, they’re going to love this book because I wrote it. Rachel Aaron books are fun. They’re compassionate and meaningful without taking themselves too seriously. That feeling is my brand, not a genre, and it’s worked pretty well so far.
Honestly, brand is something you develop from what’s already there. If you just pick a style/voice/genre type you think will sell and then try to force yourself into it, it’ll always ring false. But if you look at the stuff you’re already doing and then pick a common thread to be your guideline for future works, sticking to brand will always be natural and easy.
That ease is critical. Writing is hard enough without also having to play a character in your own work. As writers, we sell ourselves. Genre is the flavor, but our voice and ideas and morals are the brand. The closer and more consistently you stick to what you really care about, the more authentic your work will be, and the easier it will get to keep readers coming back from one series to the next. Giving people what they expect in new and exciting ways every time is you build the audience that will support you for the rest of your life!
On writing under two names:
For my Rachel Bach pen name, which I used for my Paradox SciFi novels, that was my publisher’s decision. They felt my SciFi stuff was too different from my Eli Monpress Fantasy series for fans to make the jump, so they decided to rebrand me. I thought at the time (and still think) this was the wrong decision, but it was the only way I could get the contract, so I went with it.
Honestly, it hasn’t been so bad, but there’s a LOT of overhead involved in having two names. People still get confused about those books no matter how many times I tell them Rachel Aaron and Rachel Bach are the same person. Also, my Rachel Bach sales don’t get a boost from new releases the way the rest of my backlist does, which sucks because I think the Paradox series is some of the best writing I’ve ever done.
On whether new authors should divide their time between marketing and writing:
This is easy: don’t. When you’re writing your first book, 1000% of your attention needs to be on making that book as good as it can possibly be. I’m serious, if you are independently publishing your first novel, you are your own greatest threat. The thing that will hurt you hardest isn’t low sales, it’s your ego and inexperience. You have to be brutally honest with yourself, seek out real opinions and listen to them even if they hurt. That’s the difference between an indie author looking to build a real career and a vanity author. You have to kick your ego to the curb and demand the absolute best of yourself, because that quality is what’s going to sell your book. All the marketing in the world won’t make a difference if the product you’re selling is bad, so don’t even worry about it. Just make that book good.
And when you’re done with book one, put it aside and write book 2. I know it sucks, I know you don’t want to wait, but TRUST ME. Your opinion on the quality of your work will be vastly different after you finish that second novel. Also, this way you won’t have to worry about second book syndrome, which is absolutely a real thing. But you won’t have to deal with it because you won’t have a book out there racking up reviews demanding the sequel while still not selling as well as you’d hoped (because they never do).
It will cost you some time, but I think you will sell much better and be far happier with your finished product if you just focus on writing for your first two books. Plus, this way you can release your second book right after the first, which is great for driving sales.
On what to do if you get “stuck” writing:
Honestly, I could write an entire book answering your question, but the long and short of it is that if you’re stuck, it’s likely because you don’t know what your characters want/need to do.
Novels are dramatic narrations of people solving their problems in interesting and dramatic ways. If you want to easily generate plot, the fastest way is to make sure your character is positioned at the nexus of as many lines of conflict as possible.
For example, if your MC is a hero trying to solve problems caused by gods ten thousand years ago, you’re already setting yourself up for trouble because all the really interesting stuff has already happened. You’ve basically made your MC the clean-up crew in his own book. BUT, if your MC is directly impacted by that ancient conflict–if, for example, he’s suddenly manifested cursed demon powers because the defeated evil god is trying to get out, which causes the good gods to try and hunt him down–you’ve changed his position from the back end of the crisis to the middle. Double bonus if the MC’s past is somehow connected to the good gods who are now trying to hunt him down. You know, make his loving dad a paladin or something. Really go for those gut shots! You get the idea.
Conflict is the engine that drives stories forward. If you’re stuck, a lot of times you can unstick yourself by simply identifying where the people and events of your world are coming into conflict, and then making sure your characters are right there at ground zero for the fireworks. You also want to make sure everyone in your books is fighting for something, preferably something bigger and more interesting than just staying alive. Fighting for your life is unsustainable, but fighting for a dream or to right a great wrong can go on for ten books.
It’s all been said before, but proper motivation and positioning characters at the nexus of as many conflicts as possible really does solve 99% of plot problems. Another good trick is to make sure something is always going wrong for your people. It’s boring when everything goes according to plan. Your don’t want all of your characters’ ideas to fail of course because then they look incompetent, but things should definitely go catastrophically awry on a regular basis because that’s when fun stuff happens, and fun stuff is what you want!
On switching from traditional to self publishing:
I decided to make the jump from trad to indie for a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious was money. I thought I was doing great until I went to a convention and sat at a table next to a guy who was selling half as many books as I was but out earning me by four times. It was a pretty harsh wake up call to say the least. I’d gotten my first book deal in 2008 before KDP was a thing. By the time this happened in 2012, I was still parroting the old party lines about how only people who couldn’t get book deals went indie. When I started actually doing the research, though, I realized this was not the case and that going independent was actually pretty awesome.
Shortly after this I got into a big fight with my publisher over covers. We sorted things out, but I was definitely itching to be in control of my own branding, so I decided to give this indie thing a try. It helped that I’d just finished NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST, a book that was a super weird genre blender, the exact type of novel my publisher had specifically asked me not to write because they were hard for bookstores to shelve. It seemed like a perfect story to start my indie career, so I put it up on Amazon…and it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
The rest is history. I miss having an editor I didn’t hire who wasn’t afraid to tell it to me straight, but otherwise I love everything about being indie. I love doing my own covers, I love having control over my IP, I love not having deadlines, I just LOVE IT.
That said, I’m also the type of author indie was made for. I love running my own business, being in control, and setting my own schedule. There are plenty of authors for whom this is not the case, and that’s fine. Indie is not for everyone, but it has helped every author currently working by giving us another option. It used to be that we had to take any deal we were given if we wanted to be published. Now we have another choice, and while success is never guaranteed, the bar for making a living as a mid-list author is much much easier now than it was when I started writing. I could never afford the lifestyle I enjoy now on the same sales if I was still trad. It simply wouldn’t be possible.
Honestly, I feel I had the best of both worlds. I got to start my career at a time when agents and editors were the gatekeepers, and while people badmouth that word a lot, gatekeeping forces you to up your game. My first book was horrible. It got rejected by everyone, so I trunked it and started over with the Spirit Thief, which also had some major problems until my agent’s assistant, the amazing Lindsay Ribar, forced me to fix them. Likewise, my editor at Orbit, Devi Pillai, never let me slide by on “good enough.” The work of these two women made me the author I am today, and I don’t think I would be where I am artistically or professionally without them. I don’t regret going indie for a second, but I am happy I started in trad because of all the professional help I got at the start. And before people say you can hire a good editor, there is a very real difference between someone you pay and someone who gets paid based on the quality of your work. One makes her money by making you happy, the other by making you be better. That’s a dynamic you can’t buy, and it’s not to be sniffed at.
Again, I’m happy I went indie, but I don’t believe it’s the only way. Just as there’s more to life than money, there’s more to being an author than sales. Remember that you’re in this for a career, not for one book. If you do get a shot to go trad with a good house, you will lose money, but I still think every author should really consider taking it. There’s a lot of talent and experience at the NY house that indie simply cannot provide, and getting access to that experience is worth some lost wages in my opinion.
That is, however, just my opinion. You’re the only one who knows what’s best for your writing and career. But I do feel that a lot of publishing talk on the internet overlooks the non-monetary benefits of trad publishing. There is definitely value there, and while I’m not sure that’s worth the rights grab and low wages, it is something to consider when you’re making your publishing choice. Having just typed that sentence, though, the real benefit of the indie boom is that we have a choice now. That is incredible and new and not to be underestimated. It truly is an amazing time to be a writer!