The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.
As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.
I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.
My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.
Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.
The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on Match.com and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.
I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.
My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print. My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.
I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.
I would have never imagined a year later I’d have already published a collection of short stories and be on my way to launching my debut novel. That after almost a decade of work on the former and three years on the latter, I’d be enjoying an adventurous, never-a-dull-day year of publishing on my own terms.
I might say I’ve found my true north.
The idiom captures the difficulty of knowing one’s right direction in a world of magnetic forces that would have us wander this way or that. I spent two years of my life querying agents, working with one for over a year, and revising the manuscript constantly according to potential market specs. There were some dark moments of staring at a screen in a panic (my words have failed me!); arguing on a phone (you think the point of my novel is to get 16 year-old girls of bland suburban tastes to read it? Who ARE said girls–I don’t know them!); or questioning my own instincts about Wendy’s character (are you clinging unreasonably to her beliefs and obsessions?). I wondered if I’d deluded myself that I ever had a chance in this business.
I had to regroup and let my faith rally, and I had to remind myself that I am a writer, first, last, always. Not a second of that wandering and wondering was a waste. Every moment taught me skills and strengthened muscle for the moments I live now, full of trust my words are beginning to have a reach I’ve dreamed about.
No, my numbers haven’t knocked the Kindle best-sellers out of the park. But slowly, surely, great news trickles in daily, after two months of only a Kindle edition. A friend 3,000 miles away wants a signed copy of the collection, now that my paperback came out last week. A group of high school students will be discussing “Midrift.” Eight wonderful reviews are up on Amazon. Kind, unsolicited emails arrive from readers. An interview will happen next week on a nationally-syndicated radio show.
I’m having a lot of fun, too. I’m sharing my cover design with friends, family, and a support team, seeking people’s gut reactions and design eye. I’m talking sales and marketing with my dad, and getting requests for images and URLs from my web designer. I’m arranging head shots with a former student, Teresa Porter, who is pursuing her dream of photography–now a busy professional winning awards and penning a blog that’s gone viral, because she’s speaking her true north-truth.
“Can you believe we’re here?” she said to me the other day. “You getting published, and me with a photography business?”
My first reaction was to laugh with delight. Those who know the intense type-A worrier that I am can attest this is not my typical first reaction to things. Which tells me I’m true-northing it right now, truly.
I am also very excited about a co-operative venture I and two other devoted students of Doris Betts have recently undertaken: True North Writers and Publishers. Bob Mustin and Dave Frauenfelder, my partners in this venture, are passionate, gifted writers with whom I’m honored to be associated. We encourage one another’s work, promote it, and plan some exciting events for signing and sharing this summer.
Our first precept is Scribere quam videre scribere. To write rather than to seem to write. (If you know the North Carolina state motto–Esse quam videri, To be rather than to seem (to be)–and if you try to write regularly, you know what we mean!) We’re NC writers sharing authentic writing for the New South, and we will keep each other honest in this endeavor.
My ship sees its way clear right now, the waters glassy with calm, the lighthouse straight ahead. My compass doesn’t waver. I know that when the clouds gather, the sky roars, and the swells rise, I’ll have to grab a little bit tighter to that instrument and trust, trust, trust. But for now, I’m loving the peace and the joy of following my true path. So grateful I’m able to be here!
My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.
|Image found here|
But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.
As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?
The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?
You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?
And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?
My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.
At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.
I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.
Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.
Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.
Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.
Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.
Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.
The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.
It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.
Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.
So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.
The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.
Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.
Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.
Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block?
With my nose running down my face, I gathered kindling today for our wood stove. It was a bitter cold for this California girl, twenty-something degrees, so I snapped sticks with a vengeance and got my freezing self back indoors as soon as possible.
|Photo by Steve Ohlsen|
Don’t feel sorry for me–it wasn’t a Little House on the Prairie moment, as in the endless blizzards of The Long Winter. But I did tell myself I felt virtuous and outdoorsy, meditating on why I needed to be doing this very thing rather than writing.
Most days, I’d rather be writing or doing something related to it, as the self-publishing world now demands. When you choose to go indie, you learn quickly that you must not only keep to a writing schedule for your big projects but also craft
My collection of short stories, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future, is available on Amazon. It’s viewable on Kindle, and with the free Kindle app on iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android.
To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.
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A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.
It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?
Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time?
But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.
Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:
How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”?
When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?
Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).
Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.
In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.
I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.
If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.
I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.
When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.
The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.
In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.
Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?