There’s more to life than winning awards, you know (though that’s probably pretty nice too)

Earlier this year, I entered How I’m Spending My Afterlife in the 26th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The judge who read it had some nice things to say (I assume they would have told me if I’d won anything, and since they didn’t mention anything, I guess I probably didn’t, which is okay because I am getting plenty of validation from this critique, let me tell you):

HOW I’M SPENDING MY AFTERLIFE knocks it out of the park. Wonderfully produced, its colorful, evocative and clever cover is sure to draw many an eye and pocketbook. And readers will likely not be disappointed; Alton Carver is fully developed, appealing scoundrel who owns his mistakes but doesn’t quite know what to do with them and his wife (widow?) Nicole is equally misguided. The true victim of the piece is an innocent, daughter Clara who is portrayed realistically as well. Readers may recognize parts of themselves and others in these characters; motivation in and of itself to keep turning the pages.
But author Spencer Fleury pulls together other elements as well, including a plot that bubbles along at rapid pace and lots of humor. Alton makes no bones about his love for all things materialistic, such as parting ways with his beloved Porsche when he fakes his death. “…you either understand what I’m talking about or you don’t, and if you don’t I feel sorry for you.” While Nicole calls Davis, her ineffectual lover, “an idea hamster…coming up with ideas and never taking them anywhere, just…spinning his giant hamster wheel until the next one came along.” Such writing is reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen, another chronicler of all things Florida.
Although the book has some vagaries, such as exactly how much money is at stake, where it is located and what happens to it after events unfold and the exact nature of Alton’s initial crimes, these are not enough to detract from the an excellent escapist read. And like any good piece of writing, it’s reflective of society in general and imparts a solid moral lesson that allows readers to figure it out for themselves.
  • Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 5 (on a scale of 1 to 5)
  • Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 4
  • Production Quality and Cover Design: 5
  • Plot and Story Appeal: 4
  • Character Appeal and Development: 5
  • Voice and Writing Style: 4
Thanks, contest judge! I’m glad you dug it.

One of the (hundred) best

Validation is mine: How I’m Spending My Afterlife was just selected as one of Shelf Unbound Magazine’s 100 Notable Indie Books of 2018!

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There it is. Gaze upon it. One of the hundred best independently-published books of the year. You know you want a copy.

It’s a small bit of recognition, true, but it’s also very gratifying, and nearly makes up for the whole Pulitzer snub. Thanks for enjoying the book, Shelf Unbound, and for telling your readers that you did.

Why I self-published my first novel, and why I hope to never do it again

TL;DR – self-publishing is both democratizing and hard AF. It is not a shortcut, and it comes with a few major drawbacks that you should consider if you’re thinking about putting out a book the way I did.

If you have a copy of How I’m Spending My Afterlife sitting on your bookshelf, you might have noticed that the spine carries an imprint: that of Mind Balm Press. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to tell you now that Mind Balm Press does not exist. It is not a real publishing house, and the only reason those three words are on the spine at all is so that the book looks like all the other books on your shelf. I mean, they all have their own imprints on the spine, right?

So if Mind Balm Press didn’t publish the damn thing, who did? Well, I did. Self-publishing is easier and more accepted now than it ever has been before. It’s a legitimate, viable way to push your work out to your audience, and there are a lot of talented authors out there who self-publish high-quality books and do quite well for themselves.

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The big payoff: How I’m Spending My Afterlife on the shelf at the Books, Inc. store on Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA

It certainly wasn’t the route I set out to take, though. Back in 2016, I was dragging my manuscript through all the traditional publishing channels and getting basically nowhere with it. I spent about a year or so sending out queries to agents and trying to get in front of them at the handful of writers’ conferences I was able to squeeze into my schedule and budget. I had some nibbles, got a few requests for the full manuscript, and while all the agents who read HISMA told me they enjoyed it and thought it was well-written, none of them fell in love with it, which seems to be a prerequisite for an agent to spend a year or more of their professional life trying to find a home for a manuscript.

Maybe my queries were weak. I did use the same basic structure for all my queries, but I tried to change things up on the regular, always testing new approaches to the copy. But since nobody ever gave me any specific feedback on why my query didn’t grab their attention, it was a bit like playing shuffleboard while blind.

After a while of that, I had a decision to make. I could keep on grinding it out, finding new agents to query and sending them a letter and the first chapter or two of the book and waiting up to four months before getting a response, or I could start trying the independent presses that accept submissions directly from authors and wait as long as a year to hear back on those

… or I could also just put it in a desk drawer and start the next project. That’s a valid choice. Lots of people write several novels before they manage to sell one to a publisher. There is no shame in that, and it’s not like I had any lack of ideas for more novels.

But I felt pretty strongly that HISMA was a good book, one that could go toe-to-toe with anything the big publishing houses were putting out, one that could find its audience and resonate with them. Turning HISMA into a vault novel would, I was pretty sure, be doing myself—and possibly other people too—a disservice.

And yes, I know how that sounds. But I’m telling a story here, and there’s no point in sugar-coating things now, is there?

So that left self-publishing. I’d been keeping it in the back of my mind as a last-resort option for a while, but I was still reluctant to commit to going down that road. See, I used to have this uncle who wrote a novel once, maybe fifteen years ago. His schtick was that he ended every chapter with a different character uttering the same line. It was … not great, and he ended up bringing it out himself on a vanity press, which is basically what most self-publishing was back then. He wound up with a garage full of copies he couldn’t sell.

But my book would be different. For one thing, I can write decently well. For another, I have a background and a network that might actually help me do this right. I spent a lot of years working in both marketing and in various aspects of media, and during that time I had countless graphic designers and editors and so forth fall into my orbit. My father spent his career in advertising, and he taught me how to flow text into page layout software when I was 14 years old (I think it was Adobe PageMaker, which I don’t think even exists anymore). I once owned a record label—Mind Balm Records, natch—and I figured that a lot of that knowledge would transfer over.

I also have a certain amount of self-awareness when it comes to my own assessment of my abilities, so I was confident I’d have no problem hiring professionals to double-check even the things I felt I could do well enough on my own. This included hiring a professional editor, and the one I ended up hiring had a resume that included some of Neil Gaiman’s books as well as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I enjoyed.

And when I thought about it a little more, the whole enterprise became more and more appealing. The idea of having total control over every aspect of the project was a plus, I had to admit. It wasn’t my biggest driver—that was just getting the book in front of people—but certainly seemed like something I could work to my advantage. After all, I was trying to use this book to launch a career as an author, and having complete control meant I’d be able to manage how I and my work were presented to the world from the very beginning.

The potential for higher royalties certainly didn’t hurt either. When you self-publish an e-book through Amazon, you can grab 70% of the sale price for yourself, as long as you have it priced between $2.99 and $9.99. The numbers are different for physical copies printed with CreateSpace, but they’re still better than you’ll get on a traditional publishing deal.

So I went for it. I hired that editor. I bought a batch of ISBNs. I got the art director from one of my old jobs to put together a cover for me. I tweaked and re-tweaked the interior. I got professional author photos taken. I cooked up a marketing plan. I set a publication date. I scheduled a release party. I got the word out.

And just like that, on October 3rd, 2017, I was a published author. Self-published, to be exact, but published nonetheless.

I’m glad I did it, if only because self-publishing was probably the only way I was going to get HISMA out into the world just then, and I needed to be done with that book. I was having difficulty moving on to the next project, and while I’m only getting started in my authorial career, I do already know that the only thing that matters is what’s next.

But all that control and self-determination (or is this more self-actualization? I can never keep those straight) comes with strings attached. Whether those strings are tight enough and strong enough to cancel out the advantages will depend on the author and his or her specific situation; for me, they were enough of a hindrance to convince me that I never want to self-publish again if I can help it:

1. For one thing, you are completely on your own when you self-publish. There is no institutional support, whether we’re talking financial or moral. If something has to get done, you’re the one who has to do it. And doing everything by yourself is hard. Of course, I knew it would be that way before I even got started, but expecting it and experiencing it for yourself are two very different things.

2. It’s not just slogging through the long list of things you have to do that’s difficult, either. Many of the individual items on that list are hard, in and of themselves, to accomplish without either a track record or institutional backing. Like getting reviews, for example. Reviews are the lifeblood of any successful indie book launch these days. But reviewers with a platform get countless requests each and every year, and they can only work through a tiny fraction of those. If you are persistent enough, you can shake free a few stray reviews through sheer force of will, but it’s incredibly time-consuming to do this.

(And speaking of reviews, if you’ve read How I’m Spending My Afterlife, I would really love it if you could take a moment and leave a short review of it on Amazon for me. Thanks so much!)

The hard truth is that nobody cares about you or your book. You have to make them care, and this is probably a lot easier (though by no means objectively easy) to do when you have a publisher helping you out.

3. This won’t be a problem for those who are a bit less introverted than I am, but I’m extremely uncomfortable talking about how great I am or how great my work is. I’ve always hated self-promotion, and as a result I’m terrible at it. This is something that a publisher’s marketing  department would do for you, but if you don’t have one, you have to do it yourself (see point 1).

4. There’s still a stigma attached to self-publishing, even if it is only a shadow of what it once was. A lot of bookstores won’t carry self-published books, even if you do use Ingram instead of Amazon-owned CreateSpace for distribution (indie stores hate authors who use CreateSpace, and I can’t say that I blame them). Some will, but only on consignment—and even if they do take your book, you still have to reach out to or visit each store individually to make the sale. Many reviewers won’t touch them either. And while this is dispiriting and frustrating, I do kind of get it. There’s still a lot of crap floating around out there in the self-published world, even if it is better than it used to be in the aggregate.

5. Self-published books are often not eligible for literary prizes and awards. No, I never would have expected HISMA to win the Man Booker Prize or anything like that, even in my feveriest fever dream. But it makes sense to set yourself up to take advantage of as many promotional opportunities (and winning a major prize is definitely an example) as you can.

6. Finally, self-publishing can be wicked expensive. In 2017, I spent about $5,000, all told, on getting my novel to market and getting the word out about it (a big chunk of that was just for the editor, which I will always consider money well spent). It’ll be a while before I earn that sum back, even with those more generous Amazon royalties—but that’s fine. I have a day job, and I didn’t do this for the money.

To be fair, some of these drawbacks won’t be as applicable to writers who work in certain self-publishing-friendly genres. If I were a sci-fi or fantasy writer, I’d probably have had a different experience with it.

I went with self-publishing because it seemed like the only option available to me at that time, and I didn’t want to set HISMA aside for a year or three on the off chance that the situation might improve in that time. I certainly learned a lot from the experience, but I do not want to do it again. Next time, I’m hoping to land a traditional publishing deal, and I’m working to make that happen.

But if my choices are self-publish or don’t publish at all? In that case, I’ll self-publish every time.

Tomorrow’s the day

So. Tomorrow’s it, then. Publication day for my first novel, How I’m Spending My Afterlife. The realization of a dream I’ve kept alive at some level for nearly my entire adult life. It’s been three and a half years since I typed out the first page of the first draft, and to finally get here after all that time is exciting and terrifying all at once.

And in that time, here are three things I’ve learned:

  • I have a lot of very supportive people in my life, and am lucky for that.
  • The real hard work of this is just beginning.
  • I’m good enough to do this again, and I will.

Check out the book here. I hope you dig it.

Either way, wish me luck.

Destination unknown: writing without a map

I started writing How I’m Spending My Afterlife in May of 2014, but I’d had the plot and characters in my head for at least seven or eight years before that. Maybe even longer.

There were a few reasons for that long delay in turning the idea into a book (I talk about some of them in my post about being a late bloomer), but one of them was particularly pointless and stupid: I didn’t know in advance how the story was going to end. And because I had never seriously tried to write a novel before and had no idea of what I was getting into, I was terrified of investing years of time and toil into a project I might not be able to finish.

There’s a whole cottage industry of advising neophyte authors on how best to tame the beast that is the writing process, but there’s no consensus on what that best way actually is. (Which makes sense, I guess: if there were a clear path, then there’d be no market or need for all those books and seminars.) Outline or no outline? Should you write character backstory that will never be read by anyone by you, or is that a waste of time? Write each chapter in order, or skip around and fill in the blanks later?

Most of the advice I was reading at the time urged the use of an outline. That made sense to me. Even then I was self-aware enough to understand how my mind works, and how easily I could get distracted and find myself writing down tangents and blind alleys until I’d forgotten the story I was trying to tell.

It also made sense to me to write with a specific destination in mind: in other words, to know the ending I was working to reach, the narrative resolution I was trying to achieve. So I refused to start until I knew where I wanted to end up.

This was a huge mistake that cost me years.

I remember countless phone conversations with my best friend during these years, trying to hash out with him what the end of this story should look like. He tried his best, but ultimately was no help at all because we have different ideas of what a satisfying resolution should look like: he kept suggesting Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines twist endings, and I kept shooting them down, terribly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t think of anything better.

It was maddening. I had a solid setup. I had strong characters. I had a story arc. I just didn’t have an ending.

But then I realized that if I had strong characters, I had all I needed right there. Not because having that means you don’t need an ending, but because strong characters would tell me what the ending was. All I had to do was start writing. When the time came to wrap things up, they’d let me know.

And it actually worked. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft before I figured out how the book would end, how it had to end; after I circulated a draft among some trusted friends of mine, I used their feedback to make the ending better.

I just let the characters live their lives and tell their story. I trusted them and never tried to make them do things they wouldn’t do. That’s all there was to it.

Of course, if you don’t have solid characters with strong personalities and specific desires and goals, this won’t work. The up-front effort goes into building those characters instead of a detailed outline. And let’s be clear, that does take a lot of up-front effort. But strong characters always make for the best fiction anyway, so it’s worth it.

I guess the point of this post is that if you want to write, don’t worry about conforming to someone else’s idea of process. I listened to the wrong people back in the day, and it cost me a metric shit-ton of time. I should have just trusted my instincts more (this is actually the piece of advice I would give to most people, in most contexts). I’d be a lot farther along in my fiction-writing career if I had.

I’m well into a draft for novel number two now, and I’m taking this approach a step further: I do have an ending in mind, but I’m not completely sure how I’m going to get there. The story arc is hazy. Plot points are un-plotted. It’s an even bigger leap of faith this time because I can’t give an elevator pitch about what I’m working on; it’s possible there’s not even a novel in what I’m doing. But I do have strong characters, just like last time, and I am confident they’ll show me the way again. So check back in 2019 to see how it worked out.