Ep 85 Meet publishing sensation AG Riddle, author of ‘Departure’

podcast-artwork In Episode 85 of So you want to be a writer: Reprint of book one of Allison Tait’s The Mapmaker Chronicles, how freelance writers price their work, why you don’t need tragedy in your story, things you can do to save money on editing, #NaNoSix – inspirational six word writing tips, win a copy of Larissa Dubecki’s hilarious book Prick with a Fork. Also: 10 novels that were written in about a month, a self-published sensation, AG Riddle, whose books are being turned into Hollywood movies, the motivating writing app Write or Die, should you put footnotes in your articles, and more!

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Show Notes

Race to the End of the World by Allison Tait

The Simple Way to Price Your Freelance Writing Work

Conquering the Myths of the Writing Life

Getting Ready for an Edit: How to Help Your Editor and Save Money

Advice in Six Words: 17 Inspirational Six-Word Writing Tips

10 Novels Written in About a Month

Writer in Residence 

AG Riddle
Author AG Riddle in a light blue shirt standing in front of rough wooden boardsA.G. Riddle spent 10 years starting internet companies before retiring to pursue his true passion: writing fiction.

His debut novel, The Atlantis Gene, is the first book in a trilogy (The Origin Mystery) that has sold well over a million copies in the US, has been translated into 18 languages, and is in development at CBS Films to be a major motion picture.

His recently released fourth novel, Departure, follows the survivors of a flight that takes off in 2015 and crash-lands in a changed world. HarperCollins published the novel in hardcover and 20th Century Fox is developing it for a feature film.

Find AG Riddle on Twitter

Find HarperCollins Australia on Twitter

Web Pick

Write or Die

Working Writer's Tip

Should you write footnotes in your articles?

Answered in the podcast!

Pitch Your Novel
How to Attract Agents and Publishers


Prick with a Fork by Larissa Dubecki

Entries close 16th November 2015.

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript 


Thanks for joining us today, Jerry.



Oh, thanks for having me.



Very exciting. Now, you're an author, but first I understand you spent ten years studying internet companies before trying fiction. Before we start talking about your writing and your books, can you just give us a potted history of what you did before you became a writer?



Sure. I went to college in the fall of 1998. And, here in America, and around the world the internet was really exploding and it was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity. I started an internet company in college, and I did that for ten years. A childhood friend and I were sort of what's called serial entrepreneurs. We would start one company after another. Six of them really kind of bit the dust pretty quickly. They went nowhere and a few did OK. And we really had a wonderful time at it.


I think it was the right career for me, because I am a very creative person. And, I grew up… my dad owned a sign company, so I grew up in a small family owned business. And, it's really what I loved and I knew I wanted to run a company from a very early age.


I got to the end of that, after ten years, I mean the startup cycle is pretty brutal. I mean it's very stressful, it's long hours. I was at kind of a stopping point and I tried to really reflect and try to figure out what I wanted to do with the next ten to twenty years. And, that kind of led me to writing.



And so what made you reflect, at what kind of point did you reach that made you think, “I really need to think about my life now.”?



Well, I was really tired, you know? I was ready to take a break, but growing up in the household that I did, my parents instilled in all of us that, hard work and being proud of what you create is a virtue and a value and that remains one of my core values. I mean when I wake up every day I'm happiest when I'm working on something that I think matters. And, so I wasn't… I didn't want to, like, go off in the jungle for six months, it just wasn't really who I was. I was looking for a second career and… I mean the internet stuff. I think the other thing that I had come to is I've been relatively successful, but I was Mark Zuckerberg, or the Google guys. I hadn't really found what I was meant to do in life, or at least I felt like that.


So, I really wanted to take a pause in my life to say, “Well, what am I really good at? What are my limitations? What's the next opportunity for me?”


And with startups the thing that I really loved was the creative process. So early on when we had an idea for a company, we would sit in a room and say, “What if we do this?” Or, “Does this make sense?” And then the process of creating that product was magic for me. And that's what I really loved, and the things that always inevitably came after that, running the company, scaling up, hiring people, those were things that I was OK at, but I wasn't really that great. I mean there were so many people that were a lot better than me at it. So, I really tried to think about, “Well, those are things that I'm not great at, but I think I'm pretty good at the creative process.” And I love creative things and spending my time being creative.


My dad's sign company was like that. We did signs for, you know, big chains. I'm sure you have them over there, restaurant groups and gas stations. We also did a lot of boutique restaurants and things like that, that were much more artistic. I mean I just love that process. A customer would walk in with an idea and they would say, “This is my vision for my business, this is kind of what I want it to look like,” and you're sketching something on Monday and then by Friday in drafting and you have a computer rendering. And then two weeks later it's in the plant being welded together and painted, and then it's on a truck and you're 100 off the interstate putting this thing up.


That was magic for me. And, to some extent the internet startups were like that, you'd have an idea and then, you know, thousands of people were using this thing a month later. And, so that led me to writing, because I thought, “Well, there's something I do that is more purely creative.” My career had been very stressful, so reading was… had been something that was a source of joy and something that was very positive in my life. And, so I thought, “Oh, that could be something.”



Until that point had you done much writing?



I had not. I had not written anything more extensive than, say, an email. But, I had always loved reading.



Let's just fast-forward a bit to present day, you've now written your fourth book, Departure. For readers who haven't read it yet, can you tell us what it's about?



Sure. Departure is about a flight that takes off in the present day and crash lands mysteriously, and the survivors have to figure out where they are and what happened to them. And they quickly learn that the world they've crashed in is very different than the world they've left and that they've been brought to this place for a reason. And some of the people seem to have clues and some people seem to know what is going on. It's very much a survival story that's a mystery. It's a lot like the TV show Lost in that you've got this group of strangers that are all trying to figure each other out and I think there's some very interesting kind of colorful characters in the cast. I think it's a lot of fun, that's really what I meant to do.



How did you come up with this idea? What made you want to write this book?



Well, you know, my first… so I have written four books, my first three were a trilogy. And they were techno-thrillers that were very research and science-heavy. And I've been researching and I'm still working on a new trilogy, and I just had this idea. I was like — this could get into a few spoilers for your audience out there, you may want to fast-forward it, thirty seconds or a minute, but I had this idea for a plane that takes off in 2015 and crash lands in the future. And I just couldn't get it out of my head. I thought, “Why would a flight crash land in the future?” I thought, “Well, maybe the future needs these people for some reason.” And it got me really pondering… one of the central themes in the book is the technology that we're creating and how it's impacting our world, and are we on the precipice of something here now in 2015? And this sort of scenario and this idea that you can only save the future by going back and retrieving something from the past. So, that was kind of the seed for me. I just thought, “That's really interesting and could go in a lot of directions.”



You mentioned that you previously did write a trilogy, the first was the Atlantis Gene and then the Atlantis Plague and the Atlantis World, which have sold millions in the US alone. I believe they've also been translated into 18 languages. And the first book is in development at CBS Films to be made into a movie. That's pretty huge.


You hadn't written anything before, beyond an email, how did you get started with the Atlantis Gene? Paint me a picture of, you know, “I've never written anything before beyond an email, I might now start writing this best-selling trilogy.” You know? Paint me that picture.



Yeah, it's not a pretty picture, I'm just going to warn you. It was pretty agonizing, pretty brutal. I mean the beginning is sort like Departure with a plane crash. That's how I felt my writing, my early writing shaped up. You know, I had the advantage in that I was pretty financial secure and I could just focus on writing. I have a lot of respect for people who write after work and before work and on the weekend, while maintaining a life and a family and all of that. I found it incredibly hard to get started.


And I think, for me, when I was doing it, it took me two and a half years to write the Atlantis Gene, my first novel. And I was 32 or 33 when I started writing it, I think, yeah, and I think that when you're in 20s and when you're younger it's a lot easier to start over. I mean I had a successful career and was sort of used to going to work and succeeding at something, on some level every day, right?


And so for that two and a half year period you don't get a lot of feedback and you're just feeling around in the dark, or at least, you know, if you're not going to university or college to learn about it, and I was essentially self-taught. I bought a lot of books on writing, and I really analyzed, “What do I really like in novels that are my favorites?” And my process for that first novel was that I had my story and I would write and I was incredibly discouraged because I felt, “Well, this is the worst thing that has ever been written.” I hated my output, and so I would throw it out and I would give up for about six hours and then I would start back again because I was so determined.


I told my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, I said, “I think I'm going to write a novel.” And she just looked at me like I was crazy. She was like, “Well, you know, do whatever you want.” And I didn't show her anything for two years. She had to just be so worried. I think she was pretty relieved when I finally showed her what I had been working on.


Things obviously turned out pretty well, but, yeah, that's not how I would probably recommend others start their career, but that was… for me it was just sort of working alone for a very long time, learning about writing, and testing out what I had learned and just trying to get better.



You did this for 2.5 years, and it's your first book, what kept you going? Especially when you had not written before and you were writing, as you say, in isolation. Did you have support? Did you have a cheer squad? What kept you going for two and a half years to write an entire novel when you hadn't sort of even been in the industry before?



I think it was a certain mindset from my internet start-up days. I mean the process in that world is that you create the best product you can, you come out with your alpha or your beta version and you learn from it and it's an iterative process in which you… to a certain extent you get used to failure and you get used to taking feedback and trying to get better and iterating. And, that's really what I was doing, except I would say in my past life the… you got a lot more clues on how to get better, and with writing I was just like, “Well, I don't know, maybe that's good, maybe that's bad.” And early on I wasn't sure what I was doing in a lot of respects. I mean I'm still not, but…


I think it was just a combination of determination and having this mindset that, “I'm going to do this, I'm going to get better.” I mean I think had my work been so mediocre early I may have just kind of went with it, but I thought it was so bad and I desperately wanted to get better. And, so I think it comes back to a certain extent what's inside you.


I… I have a strong work ethic and I enjoy working and I enjoy creating things and that's really kind of what drove me on.



Tell us about your break, at what point did you think, “I'm going to send this to a publisher and an agent,” or whatever? The first book.



Right, the first book. I mean so for me when I finished the first book I let my wife read it, I let my mom read it, and I mean they thought it was the most wonderful thing ever. I thought, “This is not exactly an impartial audience here.”






I wanted to know what readers thought. I mean I was really looking for a second career, so I thought, “If this takes off I'm going to keep doing it, and if it doesn't I'll move on and maybe find something else.” And, for me, I had always read books in print, but for a few years I had been reading on my phone, the Kindle app, because they had a lot of Star Trek and science fiction novels I really enjoyed that were either out of print or obscure or hard to get your hands on. It was more convenient, you know, just after work.


Being from an internet start-up background, I mean releasing something online directly to consumers is something I can kind of get my head around. I knew absolutely nothing about the publisher, I didn't even know the words query letter. Or what that process was like. I mean that… that process of… after two and a half years, you know, sending this thing off and waiting to hear what a very small group of people thought, to me, didn't make a ton of sense. I mean in the internet world you create the best product you can, you put it out there, and you listen to the market and you figure it out. I mean that is what makes the difference between success and failure, and so that's really what I was determined to do.


My mom edited the book, I did the cover myself, and I uploaded it to Amazon in March of 2013. I mean the book almost instantly found an audience. I mean the first month it sold 6,000 copies, it sold 12,000 the second month, and then it went to 24,000… 28,000 and then it was selling more than 30,000 copies a month for… I mean after that. And then the second book came out in December and together they sold over 100,000 copies. So, it was just pretty wild.


So at that point agents started contacting me. And, I signed up and the movie studios were contacting me as well. So, I've been very reactive, I would say on the business side of things.


In the internet world product is everything, you know? And you have to get distribution and you have to get in front of the audience, but if you can make something that is really remarkable it's really the wind at your sails, and that's what I was really keen to do.



And so from Day 1 know it was going to be a trilogy? Did you already plan out the second two books?



I knew it was going to be a series, I didn't really have enough experience to know how many books it would be. I mean a trilogy was ideal for me. But, I had written the first book and I was working on the second one when the first came out.



With the huge success… you got very good traction very early on for the first book and then the second book, was it just the market discovering it and word of mouth? Did you do any promotion for it at all?


No, I mean the only thing we did… so, my wife sent it to her Facebook friends, and this is like 100 people, and she hounded these people to read the novel. She told me, she said, “I'm going to lose friends over this. These people are busy and not everybody is into sci-fi thrillers…” It was like, “Oh, man…” And AG Riddle is a penname, I wrote under a penname for my own sanity. But, also because I had successful business career and in some ways wanted to start over and wanted to separate the two.


I hadn't told any of my friends what I was doing. I didn't launch with a big splash. I priced the book well, I initially priced it at $2.99 and then I did some promotions by reducing it to .99 cents. I can't really point to anything that was a blockbuster, “This really helped me break out…”



Well, that's outstanding that it's going to be turned into a movie.


With Departure, which is published through Harper Collins, I understand that 20th Century Fox is developing this novel into a feature film. Do you write with that sort of cinematic end point in mind, kind of thinking, “OK, if this was a movie this is how it would play out,” do you know what I mean?




I think it's a bit the way my mind works. I mean I think kind of cinematically and I love novels that have this cinematic quality in which put the reader there and they feel like they're experiencing it, it's immersive. And I like a novel with a fast pace. I think you can't sacrifice character, but I think if you work hard enough at it you can get a good balance of both. That's something that I'm still working on, but it's something that's important to me and I don't know. I don't know if that has really helped me with the movie stuff, but I've certainly been very lucky in that respect, everything I've written is in development.



That's great. With Departure why did you make the decision to go with a traditional publisher as opposed to, for example, what you did with The Atlantis Gene?



Well, actually I self-published Departure initially.


I put it on Amazon, the novel did very well early. In the first four months I think it sold 250,000 copies. And at that point my… so, I have two agents, I have an agent in Asia, Gray Tan, and Danny Baror represents me in Europe. Danny had read it and thought the novel was very cinematic and thought it was very good and wanted to know if I would let his Hollywood counterpart read it. I thought, “That's fine.” I didn’t think anything of it. But, a week later we got an offer, a preempt from 20th Century Fox, it was a really good offer, so we sold them the movie rights. And before they announced it they told Harper Collins, because they're the same company, I guess, NewsCorp.


And then Harper Collins made the offer on publishing it into bookstores.





When you are writing, because you've written four books now, when you're actually in the writing process can you tell us what your typical day is like? Like whether you have a routine that you need to stick to, some authors are real sticklers for routine, others write in snatched time. What's your process?



My routine kind of varies with where I am in the writing process in the novel. I'm an outliner, because my novels are fairly intricate. I have to do a lot of research upfront, and then I write an outline and then I go through a phase where I'm doing the first draft, or editing or whatever.


But, generally first thing in the morning is when I'm the most productive. I work… you know? So, for me, there's only so many… in terms of I feel like mental quality time, so many hours in the day. As long as I'm still going strong and I feel like the output is really good, I'll write. And I usually get, I don't know, five hours of that and then after that I don't feel like it is as strong and so I'll just stop writing and then return emails or do the myriad of other things that apparently you have to do as a writer.


But, yeah, sometimes I'll work at night, if I get a second wind.





And so as you say your novels are quite intricate and there's a lot of detail, at a variety of levels. What kind of research did you have to do for Departure? Is it the kind where you could really just make it all up, really, because it was the world that you were creating? Or did you have to do research where you had to go to the library or research certain industries or aspects of what you were writing about?



So Departure is an interesting novel in that I wanted the plane crash to be very realistic, so I did a lot of research on the size of planes and what happens in a crash, and what are all of these technical terms, and what's in the belly of the plane and how does all of that work? And, I mean detail can work against you, if there's too much in there, but I had to do a lot of research on planes. And then this is a novel that's about time travel. Time travel novels, I think, are a genre that I absolutely love. But, there are a lot of readers that are unable to suspend disbelief, because they're like, “Time travel doesn't exist.” Well, see…


I wanted that science to be real enough for people to kind of get on board and go along with it, when that revelation happens. But the most research for Departure was really about locations. There's some spoilers coming here, so…



Don't spoil it. Don't spoil it.



OK, I won't spoil it. I will only say that my wife and I spent four months traveling around the world and we did visit some of the locations.





What's next for you? What are you working on now?



I'm working on a new trilogy. It will be very much a sci-fi thriller that's set in the present day Earth, that I'm very excited about. I still have a lot of work to do, but we'll see.



You said that writing was hard in your first book, because you hadn't done it before and that it wasn't pretty, and you said that you wanted to just keep on iterating, like you did with your internet companies, improving, what did you do to help you improve?



What I would do is I would write, and then I would try to sit back and analyze what are the strengths and weaknesses of what I had written, “Is the dialogue strong?” “Are the characters good?” “Is the pace right?” And then I would just try to find books that were… early in my kind of education I read generalized books, whether it was plotting or writing in general. Stephen King has a book that's kind of a memoir. So, I read a lot of general stuff like that. Then as I got more into writing and more into figuring out what my specific weaknesses were I started reading more specific books. But, it was a lot about reading books, for me.


Books about writing?








Finally, what's your advice to aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day?


The most important thing I think is to figure out what you want from writing. I think it's very much like anything else in life. You know, you have to define success if you're ever going to find it. You know, whether you're in a romantic relationship or in a job, or starting out in a career as a writer, you've got to figure out, you know, what's important to you and what you really want out of writing. Is it winning awards? It is paying your mortgage? Is it writing the story that you really want to write? Is it seeing your name on the best-seller list? Because the things that are of value to you and that you aspire to should drive all of your tactics and decisions.


I think knowing what you want helps you in so many ways, and keeps you sane. I mean this is a very bizarre career, in which sometimes feels like there's no justice and things don't make sense, and sometimes they really don't. But, if you know what you want and you feel like you're doing everything you can every day to get there, well, I think you can be proud of what you're doing.



Great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today.



Thanks for having me.


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