A Conversation With Fantasy Author Trevor H. Cooley
Have you ever tried to self publish on Amazon? It feels like trying to sell a drop of water in a vast ocean of drowning fish. When I discovered fantasy author Trevor H. Cooley, I was instantly fascinated. Trevor is the author of the Bowl of Souls and Noose Jumpers series. He has put out volumes and volumes of work and has self published them all on Amazon.com, selling over 200,000 copies. Anyone who can make a living off of their creativity, even after all the mainstream publishers have sent rejection letters telling them not to quit their day job, has my utmost respect. That takes not only balls, but insane work ethic and confidence in your work. I was eager to chat with Trevor about his journey. Even if you aren't familiar with Cooley's epic tales, this chat should be interesting to anyone trying to make it in the publishing world.
If you would like to familiarize yourself with Cooley's work, he's kindly giving out free Kindle and Audible books to my readers this week (see the end of this article).
This is a co-interview between two creators, rather than a one-sided Q&A, it's a recorded back and forth conversation.
Ethan: Trevor, thanks for taking time to talk to me about making books. When I discovered your work, I was immediately impressed to see you selling your work without a publisher and really pulling it off. Are you making a living off of your Amazon income at this point, or are you doing other work on the side?
Trevor: Thanks, Ethan. Yes, I was able to quit my day job back in the summer of 2013 just before my fifth book was released. So far, I have been able to make a living at it. It’s not always easy. I have to keep my eye out for new ways to get my work noticed or the book sales fade. Also, I’m kind of a slave to Amazon’s whims. If they don’t tell people I exist through emails and recommendations, no one knows my books are available,
I have been a huge fan of yours ever since discovering Axe Cop several years ago. I have noticed that your work has evolved over the years. What fuels your desire to expand from artwork into writing?
After receiving another rejection letter from publishers, Trevor went out and stared at the forest in deep contemplation. "Look at all these trees," he thought. "I think I'll write enough books to justify pulping this entire forest and sell the books myself."
Ethan: Not a lot of my readers know I’ve ventured into writing books, but it’s true. What got me interested in going down that path was reading more. A lot more. I always liked books, but for some reason I always went to comics for fiction, I guess because I like pretty pictures. But when I became a father, I became the designated bedtime story reader and soon I was cracking open all these books I had always meant to read. Wizard of Oz, the Hobbit, Roald Dahl’s books, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I fell in love with the written story and I really wanted to create something that did what these stories did for my kids and me together when we read the out loud.
I still love drawing but I really like the idea of getting to dive into the intimacy of the novel. I hope to pull it off.
I have been playing with a book series idea for a while now, so I will have some questions for you on writing a series, world building, all that stuff. But for now I want to stay on the topic of selling your books. What are a few of the main factors that got your books noticed? It’s not easy to get people’s attention out there. It seems like it takes a lot of money or a lot of luck. Did you do anything to market your books?
My book, tentatively titled "Ollie Possum" is not published yet, though some of my Patreon supporters have been given early copies. It's 11 drafts in and still under construction. Stay tuned.
Trevor: The road to getting my books noticed was actually a long one. The ideas and characters of the Bowl of Souls series had been knocking around in my skull since I was a teenager. I kept a notebook full of ideas and sketches for years. Finally, at my wife’s urging. I finally sat down to write my first book.
The writing of that book took just over a year. I wrote between calls at work and at home until I went to bed. When I was finished, I did several editing drafts and when I thought it was good enough, I started submitting to publishers. I went through ten years of edits and submissions to agents and publishers. I received 80 rejection letters before I finally put the book on Kindle.
Eye of Moonrat is the first volume one in a gajillion volume series. Find out how to get it free at the end of this article.
Trevor (continued): The main marketing for my book was done on Facebook. I sold the book for a dollar, knowing I would only make 35 cents a book, but figuring it was the only way to get people to give an unknown like me a chance. Then I told my friends and family about it and asked them to tell their friends.
In the beginning I knew each sale was coming before I saw the number tick on Amazon. I asked the people who read it to leave a review and eventually they started to stack up. Still, sales were slow until I released my second book in the series. Finally, I saw the sales increase and reviews from strangers started to appear. I discovered that if you can generate enough sales on your own, Amazon will start recommending it to other readers and that is when things start to move.
I think it’s great that you have developed a love of reading. Roald Dahl was one of my influences growing up. Were there other influences besides comics that helped you develop your particular sense of humor?
Ethan: I think my sense of humor came in large part from Calvin & Hobbes and the Far Side newspaper comics. I read the anthologies of both of those religiously as a kid. Animated TV had a big impact as well. Ren & Stimpy, in particular, had a big impact on me because it was so different from everything else when it came out.
Like I said, I have been working on a series of my own for a while. It has a bit of a Chronicles of Narnia type of feel to it in the sense that it is about a kid discovering another world nobody else knew about. I am finding the planning and plotting of an entire world with other civilizations incredibly daunting though. For one thing, this question may seem very “writery” but how much of your character’s internal journey determines the physical quest you will send them on? How much of the creatures and characters are symbols of other things? Do you think much about subtext or do you just think “what would be awesome?”. I think the heart of my question is, with such a vast world to work with, how dd you decide as a writer which story to tell within it?
Trevor: The creation of a world can be a very daunting task. You have to set the rules and be consistent because readers will call you out on it if you aren’t. The key, I think, is to start with a small part of the world and a few characters that you yourself find interesting. Focus on that, make sure everything is sound, and then the rest of the world will open up for you.
The world of the Bowl of Souls started out small, mainly in the country of Dremaldria and with a battle academy that my main character grew up around. It expanded from there, more of the country being revealed to me as the characters interacted with it. As for your question about subtext and symbolism within the story, I find that I first start with “what would be cool” and it grows from there.
For instance, I had the idea long ago for a character that was an ogre that was different from the rest of his tribe. I thought it would be cool to have an ogre whose name is Fist that is huge and strong, but a good guy. And his best friend is a squirrel that he calls “Squirrel”, who can’t talk, but they come to understand each other. This kernel of an idea grew to be one of the most complex characters in my books. His evolution has become full of symbolism, and for a couple of the books, he is the main character. Fist is probably the fan favorite of all the characters in my books. Squirrel is likely a close second.
I kind of feel Bearmageddon is that way. At least that’s how it seemed to me as a reader. It was like you had the cool idea of a zombie-type apocalypse, but with bears and the characters and world expanded from there. Is that how it went? Did the idea start as a series of cool hybrid bear drawings? How did the characters develop for you?
For reference, this is a squirrel.
Ethan: Yeah Bearmageddon is totally that way. I started with “what would be awesome” and went from there. I actually started with the title. I so rarely feel good about any of my titles, but Bearmageddon, to me, is a title that says it all. When I found no one had really used it, I went for it. And it’s true, I didn’t realize in the beginning that I was telling a story about manliness and growing up. I just thought it would be cool to draw hordes of bears attacking civilization, mutant bears and finally use my Dickinson Killdeer character in something. Originally, Dickinson was intended to be completely there for comic relief, but he ended up becoming one of the most serious characters in the series.
So I guess my next question is how do you form a character? You talked about “Fist”. What are some main elements you need to know about your character before you write them? This is another issue I run into. I make my characters clean slates and then I have no idea why they are making the choices they are making. Any advice on creating characters internally?
Trevor: For me, a character starts as an idea. Sometimes a name comes along with it, but often the name comes later. The concept is the important thing. What makes this character unique? Once you get that kernel, you can bring in background. Then you learn how the character is going to react to situations and how they are going to sound. What is their sense of humor going to be like.
One of my main characters used to be a raptoid, basically a type of dragon that is similar to a velociraptor. He was the Deathclaw of his pack. The leader. Then one day a wizard captured him and changed him, making his body more humanoid and giving him a brain that could understand deeper concepts like a human’s. Once I knew those things about him, it determined how he would react to situations I put him in. How does he change as he learns new concepts? As a creature who was once governed by instinct, how does he react when facing moral dilemmas?
In my latest book, we learn more about an elf character by the name Lyramoor. He was stolen from his people at the age of five by dwarven smugglers who raised him while selling his blood to wizards. This affected many things about the character and made writing him easier for me. He doesn’t speak like an elf. He speaks like a dwarf. He is distrustful of everyone and has spent his time since being freed making sure that he never gets captured again.
Trevor's latest book, Priestess of War.
You mentioned the character Dickinson Killdeer. He is my favorite in the Bearmageddon comic. I have enjoyed the way he has evolved throughout the series. I keep worrying he’s going to die and leave everyone in a lurch. How did you come up with the idea of him? Is he still evolving for you? Are there parts of his past that you are still undecided on or do you think you have him figured out?