We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with author Stacey Upton, creator of the popular fantasy series, The Tales of Darkwood, to explain her process as well as her current and future projects.
From e-Book to Print: A Learning Curve
As someone who gets her work out through self-publishing, we asked her about how she operates KDP, if she has someone else doing the tech aspects of this for her, and her usual process from manuscript to upload. “I learned KDP on my first book, which was a non-fiction account about our year of recovery after our condo was destroyed by fire,” she explained. “Our rescue dog alerted us, or we would’ve been destroyed as well.”
“I wrote everything in Word,” she continued. “Once I had the book written and edited, I used Kindle Create to format it. Formatting an e-book in KDP is pretty straightforward. The print version was another story. I don’t understand technical things very easily, so I downloaded the instructions, printed them out, and moved very slowly through them. It’s a great FREE way to format your book, but I will say there was a big learning curve that included both frustration and tears for the print version. BUT I DID IT, and so can anyone else.”
And how did her process evolve after her first publication? “Since then, I purchased a formatting program called Atticus that works really well if you’ve correctly formatted your Word document first. Again, I watch the tutorials every time I use it, but it works really well, and I don’t need to understand gutters, etc. I recommend it if you have a little money to spend. I got the lifetime membership to it, as I write 6-8 books a year. It formats in both epub and pdf, so you are covered for your kindle and for paperbacks. It can do fancy things for your interiors, too. I use some of that aspect, but not a lot of it.”
How Stacey Learned About the Right Cover Art
When asked about cover art and design for her books, she dove right in with a crash-course for first timers: “In terms of covers…. I know my limitations! I certainly appreciate art, but am not myself an artist. I commissioned my first cover from Fivver, and got pretty good results. I was on a shoestring budget for that book, and had decided I needed a good editor more than anything else. I knew a gal who’d done work in memoir (definitely pick an editor in YOUR GENRE), and she was willing to let me do payments over several months. I learned a lot from working with her, and it was the right investment to make.”
“For my “Tales of Darkwood” series, I delved into premade covers, and after a few days of hunting, found one I really liked. I got lucky with the artist I chose. She is responsive, and doesn’t take months to render a cover, and can easily fix the parameters if KDP says the uploaded cover doesn’t fit the page count. They are picky about that.
“Premades are much cheaper than custom covers,” she continued. “Mine was $45 for the ebook, and an extra $125 for the paperback wrap for the first Darkwood book. Since then, I’ve gone to custom covers with her, which run between $300-$500 per cover, which includes both the ebook and the print version. So much rides on your cover, especially in KU, it is worth it to me to pay top dollar.”
Editors vs. Self-Editing
And when asked about outside editors sculpting her work, she explained that she handles most of those duties herself. “I save up in between books, and no longer pay for an official editor for my work. I do have a proofreader and a solid Beta reading team which consists of a mix of teachers and avid readers. Between them, and my lifetime subscription to ProWritingAid, and Word’s Editor, I catch about 98% of the typos. I use the read-aloud function in Word to help me catch most of the rest. At the end of the day, there are ALWAYS going to be typos or mis-used words. I catch them in every book I read, traditionally or indie published. At some point, you need to let your darlings fly.”
KDP vs. Brick-And-Mortar
Often on the mind of any author is their take of if they will be offering their creations in traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers and shops. “I don’t yet. Going ‘wide’ and getting my books printed by D2D (draft to digital) or Ingram will be the next steps, once my entire series is complete. With D2D, they will deliver your book to various print entities, or you can contract with each entity yourself, and keep a bit more of the profit. For now, I am straight KDP, content to learn one thing at a time. It’s the vision in my head, however. I see an entire shelf of my books in the library and in Barnes and Noble. Not in the discounted section, thank you.”
We followed up by asking her what books she had written and published prior to using KDP? “No books, I had articles and short stories published over the years, as well as plays and screenplays. For me, Amazon was the way to go from the gate, once I decided I was going to go Indie.” And on the topic of what eventually led her to KDP, she informed us that she “did a LOT of research, and concluded that Amazon holds a huge share of the market. It made sense to me to plop into that pond, even if I was a tiny fish in it. Perhaps a plankton.”
In terms of her overall opinion of KDP as it pertains to her work, “I like it. It works for me, in that it is pretty simple to navigate, and manage my marketing,” she said. “I am not a pro marketer at all, but they offer good tutorials within KDP. I have used their ‘kindle countdown deal’ once so far, and saw a HUGE jump in my KU reads, and in buy-through to the next book. I plan to use it again in just a few days when I release my book four, by putting my book 2 on sale for .99 with the countdown deal for five days. I also like that it has KU, so people on a budget (whom I totally relate to) can read, read, read.”
“My writing plan has me putting out 3 novellas packaged into one book, and 2 full length novels in my Darkwood series by June of next year. The 2nd half of the year I’ll be participating in 3 SF/F anthologies I’ve been offered, and at least 3 Paranormal Romance/ 2nd Chance Romance books under my pen name of Stacey Christine. So six books, and then the 3 anthologies coming out in 2023.”
The Fire Before the Darkwoods, or, How Stacey Got Her Start(rek)
Whenever we talk to a new or growing artist, we also want to know how they started on this journey. “I’ve always been a reader. As a geeky, glasses wearing, fat kid with no friends—books were my go-to, and solace. My greatest wish as a child was to become a librarian. I got into acting instead, and over the years, found I wrote better material than a lot of what was being offered, especially when I moved to LA and did comedy. I wrote a noisy little one-act play that got industry attention, and got hired to write movies because at the ripe age of 30, I was ‘old’ and ‘female’, so I checked a couple of ‘equal opportunity’ boxes at the studios. That led to a couple of my movies being made, and ghostwriting a lot more. I also supplemented the lean times as a Reader, and read for a lot of big agencies and movie stars.”
“Then I got chosen for an internship on Star Trek: Voyager, where I learned a whole new way of structuring stories that I use to this day, as well as writing for established characters, which helps if you want to be a series writer for books. It was a fantastic gig, plus I had been a Star Trek fan since I was five years old. It was truly a dream job that I got to extend for a time working as a writer’s assistant for both ST:V and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
“Then, life brought on kids and bankruptcy, so I had to go to work in a different career for a long time. I kept writing little things here and there, a couple more plays, reading for Hollywood producers, a few more ghostwriting gigs. But never actual books… because they scared me, they were sacred.”
“Then the fire happened, and it changed my outlook. I felt like I had been neglecting a gift for telling my own actual book stories for too long. So, I wrote the first book, On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything, and it did pretty well. I started researching what it took to be a full-time, successful writer via social media and articles. I took a couple of short writing workshops that had interesting story prompts, one of which was the nugget that became the Darkwood series. Finally, I took a class in writing YA (young adult), because I always feel legitimized by a class, and with that behind me, I started writing the Darkwood books, started a publishing brand for my own books, and am truly hopeful it will be my third career.
Advice To New and Aspiring Writers
When asked what advice she would give to young writers who may still believe that they need to go through the old gatekeeping system in order to get published, she instantly related. “I thought that was what I was going to do as well! Publishing has changed a lot, even in just the past five years. It’s actually not hard to get an agent, but getting into one of the ‘Big Five,’ publishing houses as one of their authors (which looks to be turning into the ‘Big Four,’) is long odds. There are vanity presses, and small presses, to be sure. But I learned that even if you do get picked up by one, your advance is likely to be small, and they still expect you to do a lot of the marketing yourself. And that it takes about two years for a book to work its way through their system, even one that doesn’t have a lot of changes dictated by the publisher. Changes that might not be your vision.
“For me, the marketing was the one thing that I (still!) have shortcomings in, and wanted. You won’t get marketed as a new writer by a publisher, they expect you to do that on your own. Plus, I wanted to keep more of my royalties and I like the control being my own publisher gives me. I decide on the cover, the font, the story, what character I want to write about, what fairy tale I am going to twist. For a few genres, trad publishing may still be the way to go. I just know as a fantasy writer, there’s a lot more opportunity for me as an indie, more money too.”
Stacey’s Universe: Inside The Tales of Darkwood
And what of her stories contained within these books? We wanted to know much, much more. “ Tales of Darkwood is a five-book, dark fantasy/found family/twisted fairytale series that will be complete by the end of this year. I started with an idea from Neil Gaiman, who taught me how to ask, ‘what if.’ My ‘what if’ was: what if the stepmother in Hansel and Gretel wasn’t the evil one? What if the kids were? After all, they do push a woman into an oven… and it just built from there. That book is The Twins of Darkwood, which can be read as a stand-alone. It is SUPER dark, but then again, it’s Grimms Fairy Tales and medieval times. It wasn’t a jolly, light time-period.”
“Then I wrote a 30k novella as a give-away book to introduce people to the series, Witch of Darkwood. The main character in that ties into Twins. The story I told in that led to a prequel book about the real mother of the Twins, Bella, a feisty girl who is willing to poison herself to save her family even if they do drive her crazy. That book, The Traveller’s Tale eventually became my first book in series, as the characters I created there (in a twist of Sleeping Beauty) had plenty to say, and continue to do so! I have a fantastic over-arching curse that will be overcome by book 5, twisting together the storylines in the first four books to a very satisfying conclusion. They are all great reads, page turners that my readers say they cannot put down.”
The Muses of Darkwood: Stacey’s Inspirations
On the topic of who or what her main influences are, her response is a broad who’s who of the sci-fi and fantasy genre. “I read about three books a week currently, in a mix of fantasy, thriller, mystery, horror, and the occasional non-fiction book. When I was young it was more like seven to ten books a week. I’ve always tended towards fantasy, anything to remove me from reality. I fell in love with Jules Verne, and of course The Lord of the Rings. I think I read that series about ten times. I also resonate with Greek myths and of course, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Favorite authors include Susan Cooper, Naomi Novik, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, Nora Roberts (sue me), Sara Douglass, Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss (I’m still holding out hope for his book 3), Leigh Bardugo, V.E. Schwab, and Jay Kristoff.”
From Fan to Growing a Fanbase: How to Market When You Hate Marketing
“I (have a) growing a fan base via a monthly newsletter, made up of folks who’ve read my books, or who wanted to get my free book,” she stated when asked about her fan base and keeping in touch with them both directly and through marketing. “I do that via Bookfunnel and MailerLite. I have about 800 subs right now, which I hope to grow to 1,000 by the end of the year via author swaps and a bit of advertising via Amazon. I also interact on IG, and have a dedicated Darkwood Reader Group on FB, as well as author pages in Goodreads, Amazon, and on FB. I like hearing from readers, and they’ve helped me name a few characters in the books. I just put a fun contest into my latest book, Starcrossed of Darkwood, and linked to my author email so that folks can connect that way if they’d like.
“Marketing is still my weak point. I am taking a class (of course, ha) in FB marketing, as well as Amazon Ads. I have participated and gotten great results from getting my books placed in newsletters such as Fussy Librarian, Book Doggy, and Book Gorilla when I put a book on sale. (Psst, Twins of Darkwood will be on sale for .99 from August 29th-Sept 2nd.)”
Beyond the Darkwoods
And what of her other creative endeavors, including a play she just had produced? “Yes, I still have a hand in playwriting. I have two full-length plays that are being produced in theatres around the country. I love community theatre, and was able to craft a couple of lovely plays that are one-set, easy to produce. One is Death by Design, a funny murder-mystery, a take-off on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The other is Like Kissing Moonlight; if you see that play, you’ll see my heart. It is a heartwarming, funny mash up of a couple of Chekov plays set in modern-day Appalachia featuring a decision point in an extended family. Both plays feature ghosts in them. I like ghosts.”
Future plans for our featured author? “I plan on having forty to sixty books written in the next ten years, and to participate in at least two anthologies a year. I will continue to write fantasy, both dark and high, as Stacey Upton Bracey. My pen name, Stacey Christine, will carry the romance side of things, both paranormal and 2nd Chance Romance, Small Town Romance. I do plan to go wide eventually—you know that libraries hold a special place in my heart, that they saved me as a lonely child. I visualize seeing a full shelf of my books in a library on a daily basis when I go for my mental-health walks. Of course, with my film and television background, I also expect to see adaptations of my work in that medium as well. I’ve already re-written my play Like Kissing Moonlight into screenplay format!”