Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bootstrapping For Succes: Turning a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Into A Best Selling Novel

WHY DID I SELF-PUBLISH, and how did I know I was ready?

Wow, that’s impossible to answer. It’s right up there with trying to explain love to a man that's color blind. Or to describe what chips are to a Brit, i.e., impossible.

Those two questions are mingled all up inside each other like a tapeworm in a colon. It is, however, something worth looking into. It’s a long story. So please, sit back and enjoy.

FICTION WRITING IS JUST LIKE learning to be a gourmet chef. Yes, anyone literate can write. But that doesn’t mean they can do it well. I can make a grilled cheese sandwich that probably won’t make you throw up, so I guess that makes me a master chef, right?

Again, maybe. But probably not. The thing is, my kid thinks my grilled cheese is amazing, my friends are always telling me my grilled cheese is amazing. I mean, how much harder could it be to run a kitchen for a restaurant with a Michelin star?

I could probably stretch this metaphor out for a while, but hopefully, my point is coming through. How can I, the writer, know when I’m ready to open my fine dining restaurant for the world to enjoy?

Wait, instead of leaving that food metaphor behind, I started mixing it with writing talk. Dammit. See? This is exactly what I was talking about. Don’t know what the hell I’m doing. 

Anyway, if I’m going to pick back up on my cooking thing, I look at the craft as something that can be broken down into smaller bits. Some things are like chopping vegetables, necessary, and something that you get better at very quickly. You get that down, then you move on to the more complicated things.

Me, I’m the sort of guy that starts with the complicated parts, then works backwards to reverse engineer the skills I need to be competent. If that sounds unnecessarily complicated, well, welcome to how I do things. It’s not pretty.

The truth of the matter is, I decided that writing was something I wanted to take seriously about a decade ago. Already in my thirties, I figured I’d wasted my formative years on sports, girls, video games, music, and reading… oh wait, maybe that last part wasn’t so much a waste.

In fact, I’d been reading for so long that I thought I would make a great story just because I wanted it to be, well, great. And when I wrote something, the euphoria of creation made me think I was a genius on par with the very best this world has ever known.

In a stunning plot twist, that turned out to be, a lie.

If something like the Kindle had been available then, I probably would have put up the first thing I ever wrote, a slightly cleaned up first draft from a first time writer, and called it my masterpiece.

But that wasn’t an option. A year or so after I wrote that would-be novel, I took a class offered by a local author through our continuing ed department at my local University. Each week, we’d read the first 20 pages or so of someone’s work and discuss, in the Milford method, how it was.

And so I read critically, probably for the very first time. I learned a few things. There were local people, in my little town, that were way better than I thought they’d be. In fact, as I learned re-reading my own work with a critical eye, that almost everyone that submitted work turned in something much better than what I'd managed to write.

I was crushed. The way the class was structured meant I still had a few weeks before my first 20 pages were due to be turned in. During that time, I frantically read about three books on how to write a good story. I rewrote, revised, and all around, spent as much time working those first 20 pages as I did writing the whole damned novel in the first place.

I handed it in. It was critiqued. Turns out, it still wasn’t there. It wasn’t what people said to me that made me realize that. It was in their eyes. The way they danced around and politely suggested things that I should have known. You know, like when you tell the 4 year old from across the street that pooping in the kitchen floor isn’t the best place for that. People were having a hard time finishing my excerpt.

So, the class ended, but the group continued to meet. I keep rewriting, keep working out the bugs. I put up that story and started another, then another, and still another. I wrote short stories, more attempts at novels, but I kept coming back to the first story I ever wrote, the one that had been my ‘one great idea’ that I’d tinkered with throughout my twenties when I spent years just researching and never writing.

Eventually, Angry Robot books had an open door window. I’d felt like I was getting better. I might not have unabashedly loved my work when I reread it, but I also didn’t feel like it was unreadable, there were times I would laugh at a particular turn of phrase, or a plot twist I’d forgotten about would shock me during my annual reread.

So, that open door window I mentioned, the publisher, the same one that first discovered Lauren Beukes and Chuck Wendig, two monstrously successful writers, had that open call for novels. They asked for the first 5 chapters of your completed novel for consideration.
Just one more editing pass to go!

That first story, the one I’d tinkered with for years. The one that I’d submitted the first 20 pages for all that time before in that writer’s workshop. I’d not touched it in at least a year, aside to just read it again. But it was there, more or less finished. Collecting (digital) dust.

So, I took the first 5 chapters and sent it off.

I got a simple email a few months later telling me that they felt the story had potential, and asked for the full manuscript.

I felt like I’d won the lottery. I sent them the full, as requested, and then sat on pens and needles while I waited.

It was during this time that I decided I was ready. The kindle had been out by now for a year or two. People were starting to make waves in the wider world. Amanda Hocking was the soup de jour, and the wild west opened up for all of us would-be 49ers.

Damn, what did I just write in that last paragraph?

A Dead God’s Wrath was a story I’d just finished at the time. A novelette set in the south in the 1890’s. Of course with spec fic items all over it.

In retrospect, I wish I’d waited. I think another pass over the text would have helped (I have gone back and re-edited it since). But I never pulled it down, I feel like the work I’m doing now is better than what I was doing then. But I suppose I’ll always feel that way. It will be a sad day when I look back and think my best writing is behind me.

I slowly started trickling out stories to the kindle, I didn’t dump my whole backlog there, but as time goes by and new things catch my eye. I think fondly on the 5 novels or so that I’ve tucked away for safe keeping.

In the end, Angry Robot decided I wasn’t quite ready for prime time. I had been encouraged enough that I sent the manuscript out to most of the big 6 (that’s how many there were then) that would accept my unsolicited slush, and they all passed. I submitted it again somewhere last year, a smaller house, and they wrote me a very nice letter back and asked me to revise and resubmit.

I haven’t done that, by the way, I’m not sure why. Partially, It’s because I submitted the first 5 chapters and it was good enough that they wanted to see more. When I sent it out to a beta reader later, they said that the second half was what made the book good, and that they’d never would have read past the first 5 chapters if they’d picked it up in the bookstore (I asked for that kind of feedback, btw, they weren’t being mean). And since I'd gong over so many times, rewriting it over and over that I'd lost perspective. I couldn't tell what was good advice and what was bad.

And the other reason, and probably the main reason, is because it’s something I’ve had as a part of me for a decade now. And I’m almost afraid to do anything with it. For me, it’s like spending 17 years waiting for the next Star Wars movie and building it up in my head to be this thing that nothing can ever compare to. You know, if it doesn’t take the world by storm, or it gets lackluster response, then I’m afraid it will crush me.

So, it sits, it waits.

And in the meantime, I have fallen in love with self-publishing. I hope to continue putting stories out there forever. No matter if I have success with doing I the old fashioned way or not.


  1. I'm glad you didn't sit on Dead God's Wrath forever. That was a good story.

  2. It really was a good story. One of the best things I've ever read.

    This is a tricky question: when is writing good, or at least good enough? Once you get past the technical details (do you have too many semicolons, are your infinitives split too much, do your participles dangle) it's so tough to decide. If you don't like a story does that mean it's not good? I don't know. I've read books (and seen movies and TV shows) where I thought the story could've been better, meaning generally I probably wouldn't have written it that way -- but the story was still passable or good or even great.

    For example, I'm listening to the "Narnia" books on CD, and I noticed that at many of the action setpieces, C.S. Lewis fades away and has someone else tell what's going on. This morning was the duel between Peter and Miraz in "Prince Caspian," and Lewis tells NOTHING about the fight directly: what little we get are Edmund and the tutor telling us what's happening.

    That same thing happened in the battle at the end of "The Horse And His Boy": We get the battle told to us by the hermit looking in his pond.

    "Show, don't tell" being a common thing to tell writers, how did Lewis ever get published? And yet those stories are classics.

    I fall back on: if I like it, and the technical parts are mostly correct, then it's a good story. When people make suggestions that might improve the story, I might give it a try (although I hate rewriting). I did that in "Up So Down," and I'm still not entirely sure the story is better. It's different, but I don't know if it's better.

    (I have an interesting story about why "Up So Down" never got resubmitted to a publisher that was interested in it, but that's for another day.)

  3. Great post. Like you, I didn't start seriously seeking publication until my 30s. There's a lot to love about self-publishing and I'll never regret that I did it.

  4. A very sober account of your secret writerly origins. Much appreciated.

  5. I'd respond to this but most of what I think I would say is actually going in my post on the subject, so you'll just have to wait until Thursday.

  6. Wow..true writers never give up. I don't write to be published, I just write to have some fun. What you are doing now does sound fun.

  7. @PT - Thanks!

    @Briane - Okay, now you took a good thing and went too far with it. The 'one of the best things' comment. And really, aside from wanting to slap a new cover on it with that line in quotes, I'm not sure what else I can say. For the rest of your comment... Darn, I can get past the 'one of the best things' line again. I'll end with that.

    Christine - Agreed!

    Tony - A typo riddled outpouring from the heart.

    Andrew - I await your insight.

    David - Well, I'd be writing whether I expected/hoped for publication anyway. Might as well try to have it all, I guess.