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?
For reference, this is Dickinson Killdeer.
Ethan: Dickinson was the only character that has been in every iteration of this story. In fact, originally he was the main character. In the very first concept for the story, bears attack and mankind cannot defeat them until the military discovers the wildman, Dickinson Killdeer, and calls him in to lead the war on bears. When I decided to make the story more of a disaster, I played with a lot of different character types caught in the world of Bearmageddon, but the one I settled on was the one closest to home for me… a twenty-something trying to figure out what to do with himself, which is exactly what I was when I started the story (pre Axe Cop).
Dickinson Killdeer started as a name, too. It wasn’t actually my creation. I was on tour with my band back in the early 2000’s and we came across a road sign with the towns Dickinson and Killdeer right next to each other. I believe it was in North Dakota. One of the guys in the band made a joke that DIckinson Killdeer sounded like some kind of woodsman like Davey Crockett. It became a running joke for us and I had this idea to do a Mark Trail spoof comic strip with Dickinson Killdeer being like a special ops of the forest kind of character who teaches you how to fight animals.
He changed as I realized that my younger characters were the fools of the story and he was the one who had things in order, mostly. He is the character in a horror story often referred to as the “Half Man” because he possesses knowledge about the monster to defeat it, but never did it himself. More on that will come as the story develops.
I’m glad you like that character, I always felt like maybe I could have left him out, but he just works and I liked him too much to kick him out of the story.
What is your process like before you write? Do you brainstorm? Outline? How tight is your outline? How often do you find yourself going back and rewriting large chunks of your story? I have found that in many of the stories I have attempted to write, I hit a point in my outline and realize it would be better if I went back, took the story in another direction, and rewrote that portion. But this can become a vicious cycle. I’m curious if you’ve developed your own method of outlining plot over time, and do you try to follow traditional plot structure?
Trevor: Most writers have their own variation on the way they outline. For instance, Terry Brooks outlines every chapter in great detail before he starts writing and he rarely strays from that outline. I’m very different from that.
I have a file on my computer called a skeleton outline where I basically set out the major plot events and put them in order of occurrence. I always know the major beats and how it will end before I begin. I recommend always having a solid idea for the ending. Otherwise there will always be a point where you realize you have written yourself into a corner.
The skeleton outline is really loose and evolves as I start writing the book. I will start writing the prologue or first chapter and as I do so, scraps of dialogue or sometimes whole sequences for later in the book will come to me. As they do, I write them in that skeleton outline at around the place I think they will go.
Trevor's new series, Noose Jumpers.
Trevor (continued): This outline grows as I write and ends up resembling something very different from a normal outline as it fills up with conversation snippets and action sequences. Whenever I start a new chapter, I refer back to this outline and copy and paste everything that I think will fit into the current chapter. By the time I get to the final chapters, a large part of them has already been written.
As for rewriting sequences or sections of the book, I rarely have to do that. The only time that has happened is with my first book. It started out at around 800 pages and the only comment I got back from publishers in the beginning was that it was too long. As a long time fantasy reader, I found that silly because so many of my favorite writers wrote massive epics. After a few years of rejections, I split the book and it became books one and two. I rewrote most of the first book over time and added a few characters that ended up being hugely important later on.
How does that work with comics? I know that Axe Cop was kind of a unique thing with the way that you and Malachai wrote it. How are things different with a project like Bearmaggedon? Do you have the script fully written before you start writing? How does that change as you go? Was this any different with the Dark Horse Axe Cop projects? Did you have to provide them a complete outline before they okayed it? Did they ask you to make changes?
Ethan: Both of my webcomics come about by very different writing methods, and neither the same way I write a book. With Axe Cop, the bulk of the writing is done in the frantic, rapid-fire environment bouncing ideas and questions off of Malachai. That process has changed over time from playing to simply throwing ideas at each other much like it happens in a tv writing room. I then turn that into an outline and fill in any blanks either by using spare ideas from the chopping block, or by asking Malachai to connect the plot points and see what happens. With the Dark Horse comics I gave them pretty basic summations of what would happen in each issue. They almost never requested changes. If they did it was small edits or something to help readability.
With Bearmageddon, I wrote a few different versions. I always planned on it being a graphic novel so I wrote a script in final draft. The script I wrote is very rough but I have the story so deeply ingrained in my head I am not afraid to veer off of it. It's changed a lot. For volume 2 I have started writing a script a few scenes at a time. Then I draw 3-4 pages which often changes things a bit. I am not strict about dialogue. I visually tell the story knowing in this panel they are saying something like this and in that panel they are saying something like that. Then, when I do dialogue balloons, it's sort of like another draft. I never use the dialogue as it was in the script. Once the whole book is done, it goes through another edit. Often the pages feel wordy when read all in one sitting, so I'll do a bunch of trimming.
I know where Bearmageddon is headed, and I know how I'll get there, but my characters have added their own wills to the process so that I'm finding myself surprised along the way.
Well, I want to thank you for your time, it's been very interesting. I’ll definitely be referring back to this chat for reference as I work on my coming books.
Trevor: Thanks, Ethan. It’s been great talking with you.
Interested in Trevor's work? His first book, Eye of the Moonrat is available for free on Amazon Kindle until Friday the 13th. Want to listen to it? Trevor is offering 50 free Audible download codes to my readers. Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and say you read this article.
Eye of the Moorat (Bowl of Souls book 1)
What if you were terrible at the one thing in the world you wanted to do most? Justan was raised on the outskirts of the premier Battle Academy in the known lands. His only goal in life has been to enter the academy and become a powerful warrior like his father. Unfortunately, he has failed the entrance exams multiple times. He is given one last chance, but there is a condition. He must undergo a year’s tutelage under a fierce warrior woman from a far off land. Meanwhile, an evil wizard of immense power is transforming wild creatures into an army of monsters. Ogres and dragons, warriors and wizards are destined to clash, their fates guided by The Bowl of Souls."
Stalk Trevor on the internet:
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Trevor-H.-Cooley/e/B0083U46CM
And while we're giving stuff away, if you have come here as a fan of Trevor's and would like to read Bearmageddon, I am offering 30 free downloads of the full resolution, complete first volume of Bearmageddon in my store. Use the coupon code SQUIRRELFIST to get your free PDF.