Speaking of awards I haven’t won yet …

Earlier this week I found out my story “Fantastic Atlas” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Ascent, the journal where it appeared back in March of this year.

This, combined with the very favorable write-up my novel How I’m Spending My Afterlife received for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Contest (which it did not win, alas), has made for a very affirming and confidence-building week for me.

Of course, it is just a nomination. I haven’t actually won anything yet. And as John Fox points out in a pretty divisive blog post, a lot of people get these nominations every year. That’s because every small literary magazine is eligible to submit up to six pieces they published during the previous calendar year. There is, therefore, a school of thought that says the nomination itself is pretty meaningless unless it’s followed by a win, or at least a Special Mention, and that boasting about it is unseemly.

My take: Nah.

Nobody says we shouldn’t brag about getting our stories published. In fact, that’s just good self-promotion, and it’s pretty much required these days (hell, self-promotion is the reason I wrote this post in the first place). So why wouldn’t I be proud of it when an editor tells me that he thinks my story was one of the best things his journal published this year?

And I’m not the only one who feels this way, either.

So yes, I’m gonna brag about it, and I hope I win. I got a Pushcart nomination! Hooray! Go me! But even if I don’t win, it really is an honor just to be nominated.

I’ll definitely mention it when I start sending the short story collection out to agents and editors, though. Way up high in the query letter. They are gonna hear about it, boy howdy.

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.

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.

On being a late bloomer

I got a late start writing fiction.

It’s something I always wanted to do, at least going back to when I was nine or ten. That summer, I got it in my head to write a story, a Friday the 13th-style slasher story about a maniac named Clay who killed off summer campers (modeled on kids I knew from Roper Day Camp in suburban Detroit) until meeting his own violent end, which I think was electrocution-based.

I had fun writing it, but writing fiction didn’t stick then. I put it aside until I was in high school, working in a library and reading books like Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (whose short fiction has always, in my opinion, surpassed his novels) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye. These books inspired me to try again; I can do this too, I thought.

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Late bloomer at work, 1981 or ’82.

So I wrote. I wrote through my senior year of high school, my college years, my first couple years in the Coast Guard (that’s when I also started trying to write screenplays, having seen Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross just before I graduated college). What I didn’t do is take a single creative writing class. I don’t say that to brag, because I still don’t know if that was the right decision or not. Looking back, I think a class might have helped, but at the time I didn’t think writing was a talent you could develop in a classroom setting. I am pretty sure I was wrong about that, honestly.

The thing is, I hated everything I wrote. Everything. What seemed brilliant in the moment read like pretentious auto-fellation the next day. Every line of fiction I wrote ended up mortifying me.

But I good enough at writing to write other things. Ad copy. Record reviews. Software manuals. Magazine articles. Scripts. A three-hundred-page dissertation on land use policy in environmentally-sensitive landscapes (yeah, don’t bother with that one). Everything but fiction.

I had no style. And I had no idea how to develop any style. I began to accept that I would never write novels or publish short story collections.

But it was more than that, though, and when I was in a particularly reflective mood I could articulate the real reason I wasn’t writing fiction: I didn’t have anything worth saying.

I’ve always viewed successful fiction, the best fiction, the kind of fiction that endures, as having the ability to show us truths about ourselves and the world around us that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And certainly I had stories I could tell, life experiences that lent themselves to narrative. I’m doing that right now, in fact, with my second novel, which is based on my experiences in the US Coast Guard in the mid-1990s. I recognized a long time ago that I had the makings for a novel in my experiences during those four years of my life. But I had no idea what any of it meant, or more to the point, what any of it could or should or would mean to anyone else.

I’ve been carrying those experiences around with me for more than twenty years now; it took me most of that time to really understand what they meant, what they revealed to me about the world, about other people, about myself. And it took me even longer to decide that I was able to express that understanding through fiction, through stories, through my own creative process. Hell, I didn’t get there until after I turned 40.

So I started to read writing books, on technique, approach, mindset, whatever. Most of them didn’t help. Then finally, one of them did: David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist. I focused on a few specific technical suggestions and applied them to the first eight pages of an idea I’d had in my head for a few years. Then I put those pages in a drawer and forgot about them for a few more years. Then I found them, discovered to my surprise that they weren’t so bad, and decided to finish the book, even though I didn’t know how it was going to end. The result was How I’m Spending My Afterlife, which took me two years and change to write and which will finally see the light of day in October.

Understand that I’m not hoping to justify my late start in this post. For one thing, I don’t need anyone’s permission for or approval of the path my life has taken to this point. But more important, I don’t think that starting late requires justification.

But.

I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t try to measure your own progress in life against anyone else’s. That’s certainly sound advice but is also nearly impossible to put into practice. It’s just human nature to look at someone else, someone who has achieved the success and status that you crave for yourself, and wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you’re lagging so far behind.

A lot of writers who have a career trajectory I hope to achieve are younger than me, sometimes a lot younger. It’s dispiriting sometimes. I sometimes feel like I could have already made it big by now, or at least respectably, if only I’d started sooner.

But would I have? If I wasn’t ready to write, I wasn’t ready to write. Yes, starting late was almost certainly a disadvantage from the perspective of building a real career out of writing fiction, assuming that’s even possible to do anymore. But it just as easily may have been the only way for me to do this at all. If I’d started too soon, before I was confident that I had anything to say, what would that have looked like? I mean, I remember some of the novels I planned to write, back when I was in college and before I knew the first goddamn thing about anything. They were formless, plot-driven, thinly-conceived. If I’d written those under my own name, I’d be calling myself Steve Bennett by now.

I think I did myself a big favor, honestly. I may have lost 20 years of back catalog, but I think the odds are good that I’m much more likely to remain proud of my work for years to come.

Would your character really do something like that? Or, when not to listen to people in your writing circle.

 

Ever since I’ve started writing fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve sought out feedback and critiques from readers and other writers alike. At the beginning, I used to take every comment to heart – almost no matter what it was – and at least try to incorporate the feedback into the next draft.

I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons. A lot of feedback is little more than noise. Some of it can be downright harmful. Experience is the only way to hone your instincts for separating good criticism from useless.

In the critique groups I’ve participated in, a common note relates to the implausibility (to the critic, anyway) of a character’s actions at a key point in the story.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” a well-meaning critic might say about something your protagonist did. “Why would he do that?”

Be careful here. This can be valuable feedback. But it can also weaken your character and undercut your work. Which way it goes depends on what the speaker is actually trying to say.

If she means that your character’s actions seem inconsistent with what you’ve established as the character’s personality, motivations, abilities and obstacles, then pay attention. That means you’re allowing the needs of the plot to dictate what your characters do, instead of having your characters’ actions drive the plot. You’re making them reactive instead of proactive, and in the process, forcing them to behave less like humans and more like puppets. Or robots. Whichever you think is worse.

If, on the other hand, what she really means is something like “well, I would never do that (or would have made a different choice) myself, so I can’t believe that your character would either,” you can probably safely ignore her.

Your characters don’t have to be rational. They don’t have to be prudent. They don’t even have to be smart. They do have to be interesting, and they do have to be consistent. If your character’s behavior is consistent with the personality you’ve established for them, and with the conflict that is at the center of your story, then you’re good.

This is the first in what may or may not be an irregular series on the writing craft and what little I know of it. I hope you find at least some of it useful.