Adventures in publishing with novelist Aaron Cooley

AaronCooley2I had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Cooley earlier this year in Los Angeles and I was instantly intrigued by his story of not only how he came to write his first novel, Shaken, Not Stirred*, but also how he went about publishing and promoting it. So much so that I’ve invited him here to talk about it with us today.

Aaron is a both a screenwriter and novelist and works in film development for Joel Schumacher Productions. His knowledge of the film industry has influenced his approach to his novel, as you’ll discover, and given him a leg up in creating a pretty bad-ass book trailer. He’s shared some real gems of wisdom all writers can benefit from, including tips on e-publishing, what to write, and how to reach your audience.

Enjoy!

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Aaron, thank you so much for being here with us. Would you start off by telling us what inspired you to write your book “Shaken, Not Stirred” and a little bit about what it’s about?

SNS-jacketWell, I didn’t intend to write a book at all. I’ve been working in Hollywood in film development and doing some screenwriting on the side for over ten years now. In 2007, while researching a movie I had been hired to rewrite, I came across a little blurb about a World War II-era Yugoslavian spy named Dusko Popov who Ian Fleming had met and upon whom he had probably based aspects of James Bond. (I now know there are dozens of people who have claimed to be his inspiration.) I thought this would make a fantastic buddy spy action film, so I started pitching it around town. What I found was that although no one had explored my particular Popov take on the story, there were already at least 3 or 4 “Young Ian Fleming” projects in development — one of which finally got made for television starring Dominic Cooper and comes out next year. So I put it on the shelf. Two years later, I still couldn’t get the idea out of my head and as I started to notice how popular and successful e-books had suddenly become — I think Wool had just sold to Ridley Scott — I decided to take a crack at it. I always dreamed of being a fantasy novelist when I was a kid and this was my chance to see if I could actually write a book start to finish.

I think the world of e-books is an exciting way for struggling screenwriters to get their work out there; screenwriting can feel like a very unrewarding career in which no one’s reading your stuff, and nothing’s getting made. Even many of the highest-paid names in the business feel this frustration. I’ve had three separate paid writing gigs that were read by probably about 20 people combined because those producers had money, but not the connections to do anything with the scripts. Whereas my book’s being read by thousands of people I’ve never met. That’s the real dream of a writer, isn’t it?

It seems like you had a well-thought-out strategy for how and when you launched the book. Can you give us some insight into how you executed the launch and how it went? Is there anything you’d do differently in hindsight?

We tried to do this big movie-type build-up to the launch that started weeks in advance. The main thing I would do differently is to get the book on sale as quickly as possible, much earlier in the process. Because Amazon only allows “big” publishers to do pre-sales, I will always wonder how many people saw my trailer or started following me on Twitter in May or June or July of 2012, discovered they couldn’t buy the book yet, then completely forgot about it. I do think the main thing we did well was tie my book into the opening weekend of SKYFALL — there were a lot more people searching online for Bond stuff in the weeks leading up to that, and a lot of online bloggers and journalists came out of the woodwork asking to interview me because they wanted to write something about 007 but didn’t have access to the Broccolis or Daniel Craig. I think that helped with the great sales results I had in the first couple weeks.

Would you speak to your choice to publish an e-book only, versus going for a printed version or a combination of the two? Would you consider offering a printed version through something like Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu.com or do you draw the line with an e-book, and if so, why?

It’s funny you ask — the paperback of Shaken, Not Stirred is finally going on sale starting Black Friday, mainly so my mom can use it as a stocking stuffer for Christmas. We started with an e-book-only release because when e-books exploded, it seemed like this thrilling, completely new medium — like when people first started posting things on YouTube — and that’s what I was initially drawn to and wanted to be a part of. But I started to wonder if I might have made a mistake at last year’s Thanksgiving. I’m from a huge family and celebrate Thanksgiving with 70+ people. Last year, it was 3 weeks after the e-book had been published, and all my older aunts and uncles and even cousins my age and younger were coming up to me and complaining that they couldn’t read my book because they didn’t have an e-reader. But when my 92-year-old Grandpa Harold cornered me about it, I knew I better do something about it. Since then, I’ve just been waiting for the right time. The next Bond movie is way too far away (2015!), so Christmas 2013 it is.

Tell us about your writing habit. When do you write and how do you stay motivated? Do you ever find yourself procrastinating or resisting writing, and if so, how do you get yourself back in action?

Aaron-writingI have a full-time job — but I actually think that’s a good thing for writers. I can only devote two hours a day to writing, but if that’s the only time you have, you really have to be focused in those two hours and it makes you more productive. I think if I had 8 hours I’d still only get 2 or 3 productive hours in each day. I actually set an alarm and turn off email and social media until that alarm goes off. The hardest time to motivate is when you don’t know what your next project is, and you have to spend that 2 hours brainstorming and going through old idea docs and banging your head against your walls. I’ve spent weeks outlining an idea and reading thousands of pages of research on it only to realize, “This isn’t the one.” When you’re supposed to be writing something, you know it. But make sure you pitch it to a couple people early on. To this day, my 3 or 4 best-received scripts (and the novel) are things that I pitched to people early on and kept getting, “Wow, that’s awesome, you’ve got to write that,” as a response.

Is there a particular strategy or method you use to approach a writing project, in terms of story development? Was it different with the book than with a screenplay?

I’m from the movie business, so I still always start with the three-act structure. Even my book has a classic three-act structure — but I think it’s perfect for it, since it’s supposed to read like a prototype Bond movie. A lot of screenwriting books go into even greater detail about this structure; my favorite is Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat*. There have been articles just this summer specifically ripping this book saying that movies are now too married to this structure. I have found my tastes drifting more and more to TV, so I can’t argue with that. But it’s good to have a map to get your story started early on in the process. I always try to put my story in Blake’s structure beat sheet very early on, just because it gives me ideas for scenes I really need to get my characters from A to B. But then I throw that beat sheet away and never look at it again. Screenwriting rules are meant to be broken.

And ultimately it’s all about the characters. I still use a worksheet of 30 character questions that my college screenwriting professor Marc Lapadula gave our class in 1997. It’s detailed questions you should ask of all your main characters, from their relationship with their parents to how many sexual partners they’ve had and who they were. Characters are always the most important thing, and I think they’re becoming more important again as people gravitate toward shows like BREAKING BAD. For the book, I filled out all 30 questions for my two male leads and Christine, the femme fatale. As I’m filling these out, almost every answer sends me right back to my story outline to add a scene or even just a line of dialogue based on what I now know about the characters’ backgrounds.

You made a very cool trailer for Shaken, Not Stirred. Can you tell us about how you created it? Is it something you made yourself? What do you think it takes to make a high quality book trailer that really works?

Look, I had some obvious advantages working in this business. We shot the trailer on the Fox lot. My cinematographer has been our 2nd Unit DP (Director of Photography) on some of my boss’s movies, and shot that submarine movie that came out earlier this year, PHANTOM. My editor gets paid a ton of money to direct and edit commercials, so he really knew how to make it the perfect pace and length. My composer apprentices under a living legend, Hans Zimmer. It was my idea, I wrote it and “directed” it, but these guys are pros who do this everyday and they made me look good. An author in Iowa unfortunately may not have the same resources and a weak trailer can potentially hurt you more than not having one at all. I think the main things that work about mine are that it’s short and that there’s no “acting” in it. I think unless you have real pros acting for a talented director, you’re really rolling the dice on how professional the acting will come off. The best book trailers I’ve seen are quick, to the point, and don’t have actors.

Do you have any tips about e-publishing you think writers should know about?

  • Don’t wait, do it yourself, and do it now. The chances of getting an agent or publisher when you’re first starting out are so slim these days — there are just too many writers out there. So prove you can do it, and they’ll come find you when the time is right.
  • Write something only you can write. If you write something because you’re sure it will sell, that probably means 25 other people out there are writing it simultaneously, and half of them are better connected than you. Write something that no one else is smart or crazy enough to write.
  • Find a friend who maybe is interested in marketing or publicity and partner with them — offer them a percentage of your profits to do everything they can to get your book out there. My book release was definitely a team effort.
  • Think about who your audience is, and really go after them. If you’ve written a dystopian YA novel, you’ve got to find a way on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and GoodReads to get your book in front of Hunger Games fans. I was able to do that with the Bond audience, but now I’m scared as hell about how I’d do it if I write a totally unrelated book!
  • Don’t worry about making money. If you publish exclusively on Amazon, they offer you a certain number of days during which you can sell your book for free. Do it! This will get your book in the hands of so many people who never would have bought it, even for 3 or 4 bucks. I will be doing this on future books. Amazon sold 20 times the copies Barnes & Noble sold of my book, literally 20 times. As a Portlander who grew up going to Powell’s, it pains me to say it, but Amazon rules the universe now. So I wouldn’t hesitate about just going exclusively Amazon on the next one.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I think my Blazers might have a playoff team this year.

:) Thanks, Aaron!

 

About Aaron Cooley:

AaronCooleyA former child actor, Aaron Cooley has been living on film sets since the age of three. Upon graduating from Yale, Aaron migrated to Los Angeles, where he has apprenticed under director Joel Schumacher, most recently serving as his head of development and Associate Producer. As a screenwriter, Aaron has developed projects for the companies behind PULP FICTION, TRANSFORMERS, ROCKY, SAW, and THE BREAK-UP, as well as helped create advertising for various MTV Awards Shows and public service campaigns. SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED is Aaron’s first novel.

You can find Aaron on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/fleming17f, where he tweets about all things Bond plus intriguing TV and screenwriting topics. Or “Like” his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shakennotstirredbook for updates on the upcoming paperback release and his future writing projects.

Find Shaken, Not Stirred on Amazon here*.
 
 

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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