Chrishaun Keller-Hanna on World-Building, Monsters, and Merch
Chrishaun Keller-Hanna wants you to know you are a success as a writer. “We are artists that use words as our medium,” she says. “We become writers the moment we say we are, and we must be the ones that determine when we have succeeded.”
For Chrishaun, that moment was the first time she hit “Publish” on her writing. Now, as an award-winning journalist, teacher, and fiction author, she has published over thirty titles, but if you get the chance to talk with her, the books might be the last thing you learn about. Aside from her author business, she’s also an editor at Constant Hustle Comics, a consultant for companies and authors interested in Kickstarter, a table-top game designer, a maker of dice, and a regular contributor to Indie Author Magazine. This year’s venture will include setting up a blog on Substack and building a Discord server for fans of her work.
Although she started writing at twenty-one, Chrishaun dates her fiction writing career from 2016, when she was forty-three. She’d written short stories, commercial scripts, and gaming modules, and was a mid-list author as a collaborative ghostwriter, but she took some time off from writing fiction to focus on her kids and her tech career. While working as a technical writer and university tutor during that break, Chrishaun earned a PhD and became interested in self-publishing. Her research told her that “the infrastructure was there for me to write what I wanted to write and get paid for it,” she says. “So I decided to claw through my fear and do it. I just reached the moment where I had no excuses not to. So I made the choice to write and publish a book.”
It’s a choice she has continued making with each book and new project. “The fear feels like the first time, every time,” she admits. “The difference now is that I’m asking myself what else I can create.”
“To me, the creative life is something you have to build. You have to start to build the skills that you need and build the processes you need in order to make it successful according to what your definition of successful is,” Chrishaun says.
For years, Chrishaun wanted to be a full-time writer, but when she finally became one, she hated it. Her unexpected dissatisfaction with achieving the lifelong goal of many authors forced her to reevaluate her priorities. She found that her joy came more from creating new worlds than from novelizing their stories. The realization was one of many indications that her writing career would not follow a traditional path, even for an indie author. Although she is friends with some six-figure authors and was the keynote speaker at the 2018 20Books Vegas conference, her goals are different.
Chrishaun ascribes some of the variance to her own neurodiversity. She follows a cycling keto lifestyle as part of her protocol for autism, and is a self-described “stone cold introvert.” But ultimately, she says that authors need to self-assess and clearly understand their own skills: “what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and what you’ll want to continue doing and what you hate doing,” she says. “Concentrate your creative focus on the things you love.”
In Chrishaun’s case, that means working with co-authors and exploring associated side projects like gaming and maker crafts. She created the “Shaman States of America” fictional universe in 2017. The collection now includes eighteen full novels and eleven short stories written with six co-authors. “I wanted a sandbox in which I could explore different genres, different voices, different experiences,” Chrishaun says. “That’s how much money I want to have: enough to fund the next dream.”
To get there, she started with a universe built around the concept that 2 percent of the world’s population could see monsters. In North America, this caused a political fracturing into several Shaman States ruled by powerful hunters. The main characters of each series have dedicated their lives to protecting NPCs in their local regions. In video games, the acronym typically refers to Non-Player Characters, but in the world Chrishaun has created, she’s repurposed it to refer to “Non-Powered Citizens.”
With the world’s magic-system and rules largely inspired by tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), Chrishaun’s co-authors, who live in the regions they write about, create hunting teams and tell the stories of their adventures. “Having an entire country of monster hunters lends itself to a lot of stories to tell across genres,” she says.
This kind of collaboration helps Chrishaun align her creative work with the way she prefers to work and live. Now she builds her writing process into a modular project model. “Every project has a component that I can also sell, at least two pieces of merch, and a component or process that is offered for free to other creatives.” This model gives each project a beginning and end, and it allows her to explore other creative ventures when she doesn’t feel like writing, without feeling like she’s wasting time or procrastinating.
“One of my greatest keys to success is listening to my body and mind and caring for both,” she says. “That meant taking time off, switching to comics and then game design, making dice, and figuring out Kickstarter.”
Making the choice to prioritize her interests over potential income hasn’t always been easy. She says, “Money is not always a motivator. When we talk about wanting to pursue creative endeavors, there are a lot of folks who come from [a point of view] that you have to make money to be valuable to society. You don’t need them in your head too.”
It’s hard to keep those negative voices out. Chrishaun admits, “it’s disappointing sometimes that I’m very niche and very small.” But, she says, “Keeping it niche and small keeps it interesting to me. It allows me to do a lot of things.”
She says it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and competition of publishing, but it can help to bring yourself back to why you got into this business. “My purpose within the indie pub community is to spend copious amounts of time, resources, and money investigating and sharing how introverted and neurodivergent artists are making real money without killing themselves.”
In pursuit of that purpose, Chrishaun is always exploring, following her gut, and pushing through. She says that she collects skills like Pokémon and sometimes surprises herself with what she finds.
In 2018, for example, as the popularity of the Shaman States world grew with readers, Chrishaun discovered her books on pirate sites. Although she says she understands why people use these sites, she was justifiably frustrated. In response, however, she found a way to turn it into another point of growth for her business. “You can still give them ways that they would want to support you,” she says. The answer she found was to merchandise.
Chrishaun had already been thinking about what her characters might do when they were not hunting, but by the time she started to merchandise her work in 2019, building out where these people might hang out and what they might do for fun led to even more ideas.
“A lot of people think of their book as one point in time, but there are millions of people existing in the same space as these characters, and they’re doing a million different things. Why not explore what they’re doing?” she asks.
She started by researching manufacturers for enamel pins. Now she sells pins and stickers through her online store, Caramel Sugarevil, sometimes including a link via QR code to a short story from her universe.
Chrishaun set up her first Kickstarter in 2019 as part of a class she was taking. Using the campaign to learn Kickstarter, she took the opportunity to explore a new genre, Cozy Mystery, within her Shaman States universe and to test out new products, like soap and wax melts, that aligned with the story. Her next Kickstarters included custom flash drives loaded with her e-books and short stories, as well as postcards, bookplates, and digital wallpapers.
She’s taken inspiration from the indie game-making community and some of her other hobbies, she says. “When I find something that works for me, I’ll bring it over to the indie book space.”
Two years ago, she got a 3D printer as a birthday gift. After some experimenting, making figures for the game version of her expanding universe, she realized she could use it to make the masters for dice molds. Over the course of the year, she put together skills she’d used for other projects and taught herself how to make dice.
Eventually, the dice she creates will be part of the gameplay for a TTRPG based on the Shaman States universe. Grinning, Chrishaun says, “I want to be able to play with my co-authors, playing their characters in their slice of the Shaman States universe.”
Chrishaun’s newest interest is in maps. Working with artists and cartographers to develop interactive maps of the Shaman States, she hopes to run her website as both a shop and an alternate reality game, or ARG. As she refines her game mechanics, Chrishaun is planning Kickstarters and getting ready to publish the systems reference documents that explain the guidelines for playing in her world. She intends to launch the game in 2025.
“It always goes back to doing wild and wacky things because I enjoy them, because they relate in some way, and putting that out there and talking about it,” Chrishaun says.
Despite having three successful Kickstarters behind her and USA Today best-selling author status, Chrishaun says that being able to talk about her work has sometimes been a challenge. “So the question becomes, how [can] introverts and neurodivergents like myself do those sorts of things? The most consistent way I’ve been able to do it has been showing the process of me making it.”
While she’s had success with ads, she’d rather put her energy into doing the things she loves and sharing them with the people who love them too. “I want those people to come to me for all their monster-hunting needs. So I go to places and talk about my stuff in places where those people are,” she says of following her interests into Facebook groups and posting on Instagram. “I’m doing things that I’m confident in. I’m having fun with them, and I’m talking about things that I love talking about. In the end, that’s all that marketing is.”
Chrishaun’s passion for her work drives her success as an author and creator. “This career is defined only by me and those that like my work,” she says. She hopes other authors will recognize their own successes and ignore the naysayers.
“I wish writers were more confident in writing what they really, really want to write, regardless of whether or not it sells, because those ideas, once out, can be applied to things that, while they may not sell in this community, may sell in another,” she says. “Or your launch approach might not do well on Amazon, but might do really well on Kickstarter. Just being more open to taking more risks and having a bit more fun—it’s hard, but it’s worth it.”
Photo credit: Kady Dunlap