In 2011, I began a journey that hasn’t ended yet: I started writing my first thriller novel, and my first-ever attempt at writing fiction, The Golden Crystal. I wasn’t planning on publishing it beyond having a couple hardcover copies printed: one for my dad for a Christmas gift and one to have on the coffee table at home, because, well, vanity.
As I reached the end of the project, something nagged at me. I loved this process. This journey of taking nothing and creating something out of it; it wasn’t a new feeling for me, but it was certainly a different kind of satisfaction. I had to have more. I decided to try to “shop it around” and see if I could get it published, but quickly chose another path.
At the time, “self-publishing” had a strong stigma attached to it. It was a little better than the stigma associated with it ten years prior, but it was there nonetheless. To some extent, we’re now all okay with self-publishing (in general), and most of us recognize it as a viable alternative to waiting around for rejection letters to hit our mailbox.
Fast-forward to now: it’s 2015, I’ve self-published many books including helping others with their books, and I’m sometimes struck by how much has changed in the 4-5 years since. This post is that reflection, a “7 Things I’ve Learned” post that might help you, inspire you, or make you want to quit altogether (sorry!).
1. Writing the first book is the hardest, until you start the next one.
I read in more than one place that writing that first book is the hardest one. In some ways it’s true, as you’ve never dealt with long-form outlines, story structure, and character development among moving and changing plots. You’ve never struggled with the “muddy middle” of a book, and you’ve never felt the insane frustration of realizing you’ve written yourself into a corner and unless you opt for a deus ex machina intervention, you’re going to have to trash tens of pages of work.
But then you finish it, and start working on the next one, and think to yourself (or tell yourself out loud, if you’re weird and talk to yourself): “this time, I know what to do. I understand plot and structure and how to get these characters to breathe and move and be alive.”
You tell yourself that, and you’re certainly partly right, but then you start the work. There’s another “muddy middle,” plot holes creep up without your realizing it, and those pesky characters only do what you want them to when you don’t know what you want them to do.
You bang your head against the table and realize you know nothing about pacing, story arcs, three-act (or is it four-act) structure, scenes and sequels and conflict and resolution, and should you try to write yourself more into your characters?
Then you finish the book, and start the third. You think to yourself, “okay, this time, I know about all of those things and I’ve read a bunch of books on those subjects and I’m ready.” Then you start, and…
You guessed it. The cycle continues.
2. Self-publishing or traditional publishing isn’t the choice.
We all want to believe that we’re choosing one of two options:
- Self-publishing the book ourselves, doing all of the work.
- Traditionally-publishing the book, letting someone else do all the work.
But the truth is it’s neither of those things. We’re not able to make the choice to have someone else do all of our work, we’re choosing to try. We’re choosing to submit countless query letters to agents, hope one picks us up, then hope they’re really good at selling books to the publishers they work with and that the timing of the industry is just right. Then we’re hoping the publishing company gives us an advance that will let us do the marketing and book tours ourselves, and that the royalty at the end of the day is high enough to make a living off of if the book sells an average amount of copies, which is most likely how many copies it will sell.
See where I’m going with this?
Sure, I’m a little biased towards self-publishing, but that’s because I enjoy control. Which brings me to the next thing I learned:
3. Self-publishing is less about “self” than we’d probably like.
I wish I could do it all myself. I really do. I wish I could edit, design the cover, do the layout, and market and promote the book all alone.
But I can’t. I need readers to help out, beta readers to make sure it doesn’t completely suck, and any number of professionals on board to help with the myriad tasks that need to be done.
A vast majority of the “stuff” can be done by one person, but that person probably shouldn’t be the person in charge of writing the next book. Know what I mean?
I learned early on that having someone come alongside you to partner with you and free you up to focus on the next book, or even the next step of launching the first book, is invaluable. Mike was that guy for me, and I can’t thank him enough.
4. Writing is rewriting.
I hate repeating myself. I hate repeating myself.
That hurt, but it was only a sentence. Imagine doing that for an entire book.
Since I’m still a “new” writer (I’m only creeping up to the million-word mark in my career), I have to rewrite stuff all the time. Maybe the pros do, too, but I don’t know.
And if you’ve ever finished a 130,000-word first draft and then read it back and decided it really needs a complete rewrite, you’ll understand the nightmare that comes next. You’re so ready to be done. You’re out, towel in the ring. But it has to be done. So you “throw it in the drawer” for a few weeks, forget about it, then sigh one night over a glass of whiskey and pull it back out, or check your Scrivener menu’s “Open Recent…” option.
And there it is. Beckoning to be deleted, forgotten. Beckoning to be made new, started over, and fixed.
Another sigh. Another glass of whiskey. It’ll all be over soon… right?
5. Writing is editing.
Nope. It’s not over soon. You’ve beaten the draft to death and there are slight glimmers of hope in the second (or third or fourth) drafts, and it’s time to run over it with a fine-toothed comb.
But this is painful because you have. to. read. slowly. and try catch all the things, all the things that suck and you missed the first nine times.
Oh, and by now you’re so sick of the story you can recite it in your sleep during a lucid dream but you don’t because if you did you’d want to kill yourself.
Guess what? After that, it’s time to send it to the editor!
6. Writing is editing… again.
…who will start that whole process over, open that steaming can of worms, and dump it on your head.
If they’re good.
My editors were great, and they opened my eyes not just to grammatical inconsistencies and errors, but also to big-picture ideas and stylistic things that has really shaped my writing. I always joked that I should’ve added Mike’s name to the cover of The Golden Crystal and taken mine off.
7. Self-publishing is a journey, not a destination.
We say this about a lot of things in life, like, for example, life, and it really is true.
I can’t look at my success right now and say, with any seriousness, “I’m there.” I’m not – there’s a destination in mind, for sure (“OWN ALL OF THE MONEY!!!”), but if you can’t look at the journey and enjoy the journey, overall, you’re on the wrong journey.
This isn’t one of those journeys that’s thrust upon us, like being given a ring by a tall wizard and told to race across the planet to drop it in a volcano (just ride the eagles!), so we can choose to self-publish and be a writer.
So enjoy that process. There are parts that are awful, like having to edit and rewrite and pay for cover design and look awkward from now on whenever we walk into a Starbucks, but overall the journey is amazing. We’re authors, man, and screw anyone who tries to mess with us!
…or something like that.
That’s it — I have learned a total of seven things since I’ve started writing and self-publishing books. Seven things total.
I’m still learning, and I hope I always will be. I love books, in whatever form they’re currently taking, and I love creating worlds and building Inception-like grandiose environments for my characters to run around in and love, hate, kill, and save each other. I love hearing readers tell me where I blew their minds, and I actually love when they tell me they hated everything I did and I should stop writing altogether (though I don’t love that as much, and certainly not as often).
So I’ll keep writing and rewriting and repeating and repeating myself until the cows come home, or until someone gives me another idiom to compare doing something to that makes more sense.
I hope you will, too. The world always needs more stories, and it always needs storytellers. Get good at this, and you’ll be in business for a very long time (okay, I guess I learned eight things).
I’ll leave you with my favorite haiku:
Haikus are super
But sometimes they don’t make sense