The Alaskan Captain Kirk of Science Fiction, Interview with Author Craig Martelle
Interview by Lois Simenson
How many authors can say they’ve written thirty books in three years? Craig Martelle can, and he’s chosen Fairbanks, Alaska as the place to do it. His newsletter bio begins with, “Who is this Craig Martelle guy?” He refers to himself as a blue-collar author, but he’s more like the Captain Kirk of writing science fiction.
Craig writes science fiction in several sub-genres and has over 30 books published, with more on the way. To date, he’s published 2.8 million words between 2016 to the present. Most writers aspire to write that many, let alone publish them. Craig is a writing dynamo, sharing online real estate with 50 of Amazon’s best-selling sci-fi authors. His books have placed him within the top 1,000 authors on Amazon. He reads reviews from his books as a way to improve and strategize. He’s all about giving readers what they want. And he delivers, because his fan base seems to grow by the minute.
A diverse background propelled Craig into action-packed story-telling. He retired from the Marine Corps as an officer, then obtained a law degree. He worked at a consulting company as a business diagnostics specialist and leadership coach, ultimately retiring from that career after working three years on Alaska’s North Slope. Tired of spending time away from home, Craig decided to write full time and hasn’t looked back. He’s written short stories, novellas, and novels. Writing is his passion and he loves writing post-apocalyptic science fiction—space opera, military sci-fi and genetic engineering. His enthusiasm is evident in his online podcasts and interviews and his books have an enormous following.
Craig took a break from his busy schedule to talk about his prolific Alaskan writing life. One can’t help but be inspired by his passion and excitement when it comes to all things writing. He’s had a book in him every step of the way in everything he’s done.
1. Where are you from originally and what brought you to Alaska?
I’m originally from Dubuque Iowa, then joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. My wife is from Pittsburgh, so after we married, she finished her PhD and accepted a position at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). I consulted and was gone from home much of the time. I did some consulting on the North Slope, then decided I wanted to write full time. I’d rather work where it’s warm in my cozy home office, than deal with minus 74 temps. I love running my full-time business from home and enjoy working for myself.
2. How has Alaska influenced your writing?
Alaska prompted me into the actual business of writing. I wanted to write a survival book and what better place to do this, right? I had set out to learn about all aspects of arctic and subarctic survival and the personal planning that goes with it. I taught myself the writing craft and learned how to follow plot and characters. I wrote the first book for myself, not intending to publish it. But eventually it was traditionally published, and I had a blast writing three more books in my End Times Alaska series. I learned so much with the first book. Living in Alaska and experiencing all that goes with it has reinforced how I write a good story. And of course, Alaska is a character in those books. However, after that I had better success with self-publishing.
3. Why do you refer to yourself as a blue-collar author?
I mean by sitting down and doing the hard work. I don’t shoot for lofty language and million-dollar words, like I wrote in law school. I worked hard to learn writing, publishing and marketing. I’ve invested lots of hours. I’m not one of those guys who scores a major hit with a bestseller right out the box, although a couple dozen of my books have been flagged as bestsellers on Amazon. My first year was a learning curve and after that I built my collaboration team. I like to write high concept books with a balance of action and character interaction. Now I share what I’ve learned with other writers. I wrote and published Become a Successful Indie Author, to demystify the tangled web of self-publishing. I also speak at the 20-Books conferences.
4. How has self-publishing worked out for you?
When I was a teen, I wrote a sci-fi story and queried the big publishing houses. I received one rejection and never heard back from the rest. I quickly learned how difficult it was to get past the gatekeepers. I did the math and figured out I could make more money self-publishing. I like the faster turnaround and artistic control I have with self-publishing. I’ve worked hard to learn aspects of book promotion and marketing that goes with it and have enjoyed success with better sales. My insider team makes sure that my craft is sound, that the stories are well plotted and well written. Selling good books is so much easier than trying to push a chain uphill.
4. One of your online interviews refers to you as the godfather of the 20 Books Conferences. How did you get that moniker?
I used to be a historical war gamer and was involved putting on those conferences. Then I joined a Facebook group for like-minded writers. The group grew so large, I thought let’s meet in person. We ran a poll. I planned for 150 attendees, but when that first three-day 20-Books Conference in Las Vegas started, we had 420 paid attendees, all focused on what it takes to make money as an independent author. We picked Vegas because of its great accessibility and affordability. Our 2018 Vegas conference had 720 attendees. The conferences pack incredible energy and we have dynamic speakers. We’ve had conferences in four different countries now.
When I host a conference, I tell people that I hit the $50k mark with my 19th book, without a single breakout title. I write to market, but I write what I like. These conferences have grown into international events, with over 700 people attending. I’m hosting the next 20-Books Vegas conference in November 2019. I recently returned from 20-Books Bali in Indonesia and 20- Books Adelaide, in Australia. My time is split between writing, organizing, and hosting the conferences. The 2019 February issue of Writers Magazine listed 20-Books Vegas as one of the top-rated conferences in the U.S. We’ve only had two of them, but the word is out. We hit a home run with them. The critical element of these conferences? I run them not-for-profit. I earn money by selling fiction. I don’t need to make money from fellow authors. It’s my way of giving back.
5. Which authors have influenced what you write?
There’s too many to list, but I’d have to say I’m a huge Anne McCaffrey fan. She wrote multi-dimensional, in-depth characters and her narrative flows with minimal description and backstory. She became the first woman to win a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for science fiction. I also have to say I admired J.R.R Tolkien’s world-building in his Lord of the Rings series, but I don’t write that way. Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton have influenced me in the way they’d transform current events into sci-fi stories. And Dorothy Catherine Fontana, script writer and story editor for the original Star Trek TV series was a big influence.
6. You mentioned building a collaboration team. How did you go about this?
Once you start helping people, they in turn help you. In the writing community, it’s a give and take. To get a book out to the world requires a collaborative effort, working with editors, cover designers, and the support of other authors. As I’ve progressed through the writing and publishing world, I’ve attended writer’s conferences and author events, meeting people and forming relationships. Now I have editors, cover designers, and beta readers I work with on a regular basis. I lay out the books I’m planning to write in the next several months, so they can work it into their schedules. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a terrific group of people to work with and can’t say enough about how lucky I am to have found them.
7. You’ve co-authored books with Michael Anderle, Justin Sloan, and Scott Moon. How do you find other writers to partner with on a book?
Meeting writers at events like the 20 Books Conferences, and on social media, and finding like-minded writers who like to write what I do. I met Michael after he formed the 20Booksto50k® group. We have a great deal of shared interest and most importantly, a shared work ethic and business acumen. He needed someone to fill a gap, so asked me to write a four-book series in his universe. Now we have some 26 books that we’ve co-authored. Michael and I co-wrote The Bad Company series which is a lot of fun and has lots of components in it. Justin joined us on one of those books to segue into a series of his own. Then Scott Moon and I wrote the Darklanding series, the wild, wild west of known space. I write in multiple sub-genres, with compelling, in-depth characters that deal with real-world issues and universal themes. A good story with relatable characters and universal themes stands the test of time. Look at the multi-generational success of Star Trek. It’s good to find people who enjoy this approach to the science fiction genre as much as I do.
8. You have 16 series so far, ranging from post-apocalyptic paranormal adventures to space westerns and military space operas. How do you decide what to write next?
At this point it’s a business decision. I track sales numbers for each series to see which are resonating with readers. Some series do better than others. I track reader engagement, they’re the final arbiter of whether I continue a series. I use positive reviews to promote my books and the rest to figure out what it is that readers liked and disliked, so I can conceptualize the next books and series. I end a series when I either no longer care about the characters, or it’s time to place well-loved characters in a different setting, like space. I’m a believer in writing what I enjoy and that readers are willing to pay for.
9. With all you’ve achieved as a successful author, what would you say to those dreaming of writing novels?
Write that first book. Then finish it, because that’s half the battle. Get the words down and tell a good story. Be willing to put the time in to improve your craft. Don’t worry about the marketing or anything else until you have a book. It’s easy to become quagmired and discouraged with all the other aspects of being a self-published author. Don’t give up on it. View it as a learning experience.
Get out there and meet other writers. I believe the most important thing I can do as an author is to give back, whether through social lessons in my prose or helping others reach the next level in their journey as professional authors. I’ve met some incredible writers like award-winning sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson, who has over 50 bestsellers in the Dune saga, Star Trek, and Star Wars universes. Other sci-fi authors know who I am and that is amazing and humbling. It comes from working hard at the right things. Tell a good story and you can make the rest fall into place. All in all, this continues to be one fantastic ride!
Interview and text by Alaska author Lois Simenson
Lois Simenson’s stories have appeared in the Cirque and Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journals, The Anchorage Press, Alaska Magazine, Alaska Women Speak, Erma Bombeck Humor Writers.org, The Hill U.S. Congress Blog, and The Washington DC Metro Bugle. Her true story, Embers of Memories, about wildland firefighting in Alaska, won a 2016 Alaska Press Club award in the Best Alaskan History category. This story inspired her current novel, Alaskan Spark, which is forthcoming in 2019. Links to her stories are available at loispaigesimenson.com.