Q&A With MeiLin Miranda

MCMWednesday, March 4, 2009

Yesterday, Wil Wheaton wrote a post about self-publishing resources, and mentioned my "Fixing the Pig Book Model" article, but also attracted a very interesting group of commenters who added a lot to the conversation. One of those was MeiLin Miranda, whose site immediately grabbed me for its brilliant ideas and methodology for making a book. Or really anything.

So I wrote her an email and we did a little interview where I got the scoop on this very cool experiment...

[note: As I've said before, I suck at interviews]

Introduce yourself, maybe talk a bit about your background? Do you have any formal training as a writer?

MeiLin Miranda is my pen name. I've been a professional nonfiction writer my entire adult life (30+ years). That's my training. :) When I made my first attempt at fiction, I was 8. I thought it sucked. I tried again in middle school, and I still thought it sucked. In my early 20s I tried again, made an absolute spectacle of myself in a writing workshop, and gave up. All the while, I was having a good deal of success in nonfiction; I have always made my living with words, barring one brief and strange sojourn into finance. And so I assumed that's just where my talent lay. In the '90s I taught myself to program and became a web developer as well as a writer, entirely in self-defense.

In late 2007, I'm not sure exactly what happened, though I believe the clinical term is "hypomania." I wrote some fan fiction and it didn't suck. It wasn't God's Gift to Fan Fiction, but it didn't suck, and enough people agreed with me that I kept writing. By the time my fan fiction stint ended, I'd written a 38,000-word Doctor Who novella--"Valiant," which can be found at whofic.com under the name "MeiLin". (Fan fiction was great fun to write, but I'm done.) In any event, that garnered enough positive attention that I started writing original stuff. What one can read at MeiLinMiranda.com is that stuff.

What project are you currently working on? What's it about and how long until it's done?

I'm currently working on "An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom," a web serial. The installments are drafts but more on that later. IHOTGK (lovely acronym) in the broadest terms is about redemption--of a people, a family and a person. Right now I'm working on chapter 16 of book 3, "The Last Royal Mistress." Book 1 is "The Tale of Two Kingdoms," book 2 is "The Queen Who Ruled by Herself."

Here's the official blurb (which I'm still working on--I'm not used to writing blurbs and this one makes me wince):

This ongoing web serial brings intimacy to the epic of a royal family, in a style reminiscent of Jane Austen with the erotic intensity of Laurell K. Hamilton. Sweeping through a thousand years, “An Intimate History” follows the story of a royal family as it is told to the latest and possibly last heir to its throne. This is the history the history books leave out—royal loves and lusts that changed the course of events. Only one book in the royal library has the whole story: “An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom.” This is no ordinary book; its enchantment forces the listener to experience the stories as if he were there. The series follows Prince Temmin of Tremont and his mysterious tutor, Teacher, over the course of ten years, from young adulthood to Temmin’s coronation as king. Will Temmin be the one who revives the family magic and averts a prophesied disaster to the kingdom? Or will it be the end of the Tremontine empire?

I posted the first chapter in late February '08. I have no idea how long this is going to take, or how many books it will take up. (Each book comprises one of the stories Teacher tells Temmin and is more or less discrete.) I really like the web serial format; it allows me to tell more story than I can tell in a straight-up novel and has more in common with a soap opera or other episodic television than it does with traditional novels.

In a nutshell, what's the theory behind your business model?

Boy, it's been a developing one, and I don't even know if I can call it a theory beyond "what that 1000 True Fans guy said." I'm definitely on the Long Tail. My work has too much sex for a fantasy publisher, and not enough sex for an erotica publisher, and so there I am, on the tail of the comet all on my own. I either make my own way or write for my hard drive. I LIVE to be read, and that's not too much of an exaggeration. And so I have to find my own ways to get my stuff off my hard drive, in the form I intend it to be in, and into the hands and/or hard drives of readers. I'm on my own. All writers are on their own; the ones with publishers just haven't figured that out yet.

I have always approached every website I make as a business and as a community, so that's how I approached this one. I observed other people's methods, especially the Godmother of Web Serials Alexandra Erin and the more successful web comics artists, and thought about what was working for them and what wasn't. This is what I've found out so far that works for me:

  1. Dedicate yourself. This is what you're doing, even if you have a day job. You have to have a passion for your community of readers that approaches the passion you have for your writing, for in the end, they're one and the same. A storyteller with no one listening is a guy talking to himself, and while that may be entertaining, I don't want to be sitting here talking to myself. A great example of a HUGE writer who engages his audience constantly and generously is Neil Gaiman. I have always been an online community builder; it's one thing I know how to do really well. But I blame the extent of my involvement with this community on him. I blame everything on Mr Gaiman, actually; he's also indirectly responsible for my fiction outburst and directly responsible for my BPAL perfume addiction, about which more later.
  2. Keep everything under one roof. Don't put your blog in one spot, your work in another spot, and a forum in yet another spot. This is the fallacy of using free/cheap hosting. I have my own server (that has far more on it than the MeiLin site), and I'm also lucky enough to be a web developer, so this is easier for me than for some, but if you don't believe in your work enough to spend even $20 a month for hosting, seriously, just go home unless you are at this at a hobby level--which is fine. Just don't expect anything more than "hobby" to happen. The "one roof" policy also makes it easier to keep up. If you find going from blog-to-forum-to-series websites annoying, imagine how your readers feel. They don't have the investment in your work that you do. If you find your site(s) irritating, your readers very probably find it irritating to the point that they're not showing up any more.
  3. Let your readers see who you are. This is rich coming from a woman who writes under a pen name, no? But I promised a family member that if I were going to write explicit sex scenes, I'd keep my real name and my pen name separate. I've since settled on two Google page results apart, and am gradually "coming out" to readers and colleagues. All of my friends know what I'm doing, and none of them have decided I'm too scandalous to know. No play dates have been broken, no friendships severed. Heck, my pastor knows; she thinks it's hilarious. Anyone who reads the site and knows something about me could triangulate my "real" identity fairly easily. I'm not worried about that.But actual identity is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the real you. Let your readers see who you really are, not who you think you have to be to be a Serious Author (or Artist, or whatever). Stay in touch. For instance: my readers know about my struggle with bipolar II, a recent diagnosis that brought with it new medication that is essentially gutting my brain and rewiring it in spots. Why! Because it affects my update schedule primarily, it helps remove some of the stigma around bipolar and mental illness for seconds, and all kinds of entertaining things keep happening to me as a result for thirds. My readers know about my husband and my girls and their antics, though under pseudonyms (my husband posts on the site as well--he has a sex advice forum on the site called "Ask Sir" that we started when we realized that over half my readers were under age 25 and had a lot of questions with no place they felt safe to get the answers from). My readers know about my hapless, Gaiman-instigated passion for BPAL perfume; I post reviews in my blog as new scents come out. They know I'm an alcoholic with 22 years of sobriety. They know I was seriously ill a few years ago and actually died, and they know I'm still recovering from that. They know I'm gluten-intolerant and rather pissed off about it.I didn't set out to tell them all this stuff. I tell them these things as they come up, or if it's germane to what we're all talking about. But as a result, my readers feel that they know me. We have affection for one another. They send me links they think I'd like (and are often right), or sometimes actual things; one of them sent me a case of really delicious, rather expensive, gluten-free cheddar crackers I rarely buy for myself. (We have an inside joke on the site about Cheez-Its. It's a long story.)

    There is a point at which one can say too much, or too much of little substance. Watching for that point is difficult, and I'm not saying I never cross it. But I avoid expounding in favor of relating when I write blog posts and talk to folks in the comments.

    This is not original to me. I'm far from the first and only writer to engage her audience; Wil Wheaton is great at engaging his readers, for instance, and because of that and the stories he tells about himself, his work, his family and his relationship with iTunes, I feel a great deal of affection for a guy I don't even know, and a lot more likely to buy his books than I would be if he didn't engage us.

    I'm saying that for those of us who take the indie path it is critical. It will make or break you.

    Part of this "here is me" process, for me, is posting drafts. Essentially everything I post are drafts. Each installment is written in 48-72 hours and cannot possibly be considered finished or even polished by anyone's standards let alone mine. My readers comment, find typos, find continuity errors (for which I traditionally plead insanity--with the recent diagnosis this is more than plausible). I let them see my process--hell, they ARE my process. I have found that I can't do what I do without this interactive element. It's another reason why I gave up on traditional publishing; it's a process publishers fear and misunderstand. "But you're giving it away for free!" Whatever.

  4. Invest in your work. If you're a writer, hire an editor when it's time to compile what you've posted into a book. This also adds value and encourages book sales to people who already have read the story online. "But that takes money!" Sure does. I asked my readers to help me pay for my editor. I asked them to meet me halfway--I had $500, and would they come up with the other $500. They came up with $500 in less than 48 hours, and another $275 besides by the end of the week. Donations are still coming in (granted, they're in the form of book pre-sales, but they're the equivalent of the "NPR tote bag" sale; people are giving me way more than the pre-sale would require). If you're not a graphic artist, hire one to design a professional logo for you. I got my MLM logo in trade for website space, but I would have happily paid for it (I love it). I also pay an artist for character sketches; she'll also be doing the book covers. Don't be half-assed about things. If you were published by the industry, they'd be paying for the artwork and editing, but you'd also be getting pennies a book. (You wildly overestimate what published writers get per paperback, I'm fairly sure.)
  5. Give your readers a stake. My readers have a stake in what I'm doing. I involve them in my process, I make them feel a part of a community, I give them access to each other, which is almost as important as access to the story. They help me maintain the wiki, which acts as a story "bible." They feel as if they have a stake in what's going on. More on that below.

How does the points system work, and what are the benefits?

Audience participation. The points system was originally to get people to comment on things. I really need comments as a writer; they are very much a morale booster for me, even negative ones, and they get me thinking about the story in ways I might not otherwise have. So I started giving people a point a comment. When they racked up X number of points, they got to pick a character and ask a question, and I'd write a little bonus story for them that everyone could see.

That quickly became unworkable--or a lot faster than I expected it would, anyway. I'm still writing out from under a huge pile of earned stories. Now the points system is a bit more complicated but a lot more fun. At least the "kids" seem to be having a lot of fun with it. The points system is fully explained at http://www.meilinmiranda.com/points . The trick seemed to be of all things the badges/ranks. At various levels of points they earn a new rank and a new badge. Every time someone earns a new badge they all get very excited. We know it's silly, but we're enjoying ourselves too much to worry about it. :)

You have a "Weekend Chapter Fund"... what's that for?

When my brains aren't being remodeled, updates on the site go like this: New chapter on Tuesday, points story on Thursday. If we meet the Weekend Chapter Fund target, or any of the marketing targets, we get the next Tuesday's chapter early--on Saturday or Sunday, depending on how fast I can write. Otherwise we have to wait till Tuesday to read it. Most of us want to read the chapter on Saturday, because the author has a very bad habit of writing cliffhangers. So we contribute to the weekend chapter fund. :) Right now, I'm writing as my brain allows me to write, and that's not an exaggeration; adjustment to this new medication has given me bouts of out-and-out aphasia, and both spelling and word choice have been affected to various levels depending on the day. I'm told it'll all even out within a couple of months.

How does it work to have public marketing goals on your site? Do you think it helps or hurts your efforts? [which was a bad question, so I had to explained further as:] It's the question of transparency vs momentum. Or really, how transparency impacts momentum. Nobody likes to be the first one to do anything, so if you haven't broken the 10% mark for any of your goals, it might make people think twice about participating.

I set them pretty low at first: $10 a week and you get a chapter early! 25 member sign ups and you get an extra story! The targets became larger as people began to come through. Start modest.

Where do your supporters come from? Any advice on where to look for fans for others just starting out? :)

I have no idea where these people came from! :D Actually, I do. Most of them came via Project Wonderful advertising, specifically on Alexandra Erin's "Tales of MU." I find PW far and away the best buy for advertisers for this kind of a project. Right now, since most of the readers of sites I'd advertise on already know who I am, we're working hard on generating word of mouth into communities outside web serials/web comics. Readers get points for "referrals." If someone they refer to the site signs up and actually signs in and reads, they get 10 points. New badge! squeal! :)

There will be a meet-up of my fans at the upcoming Web Comics Weekend in Massachussets this month:http://www.webcomicsweekend.com/ I think somewhere between 15-20 readers will be getting together. First ever meet-up, if you don't count last month's two person meet-up of me and a reader who wanted an autographed copy of the first (discontinued) version of the book. :) Look for the people with buttons with big Ms on them and crazed looks in their eyes.

Thanks to MeiLin Miranda for taking the time to answer my silly questions!

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