Pursuing The Reader’s Standard

Earlier this month I completed the final line edit for my fourth novel and this week I’m working my way through the final line edit for my fifth. It’s slow-going and I find myself mulling over the same paragraph for almost an hour or tweaking sentences until they don’t even read like English anymore. The fact is, my brain is exhausted but I still have two hundred pages left to go before it will truly, finally, once and for all be finished. Editing and revisions are always difficult but there is something about that FINAL line edit that is so painstakingly sluggish, I practically feel like I’m moving backwards. Probably, because in many ways, I am.

The library I work at hosted an author event this past Saturday and I got the chance to catch part of the Q&A session. Someone in the audience asked the author when she knows a book is truly finished and after responding the way that most authors do and admitting that she could work on a WIP until the end of time, she said something else that surprised me. This particular author did not have a degree in Creative Writing, nor did she study it in school, but by being a voracious reader first she came to realize something about writing and the way books are consumed by the general public.

When it comes to good writing, she spoke of it as if it were a wide canal and as if the outer banks represented the threshold or standard by which readers judge that writing. The more narrow the canal, the more limited the audience, and the wider the canal, the more versatile the book’s appeal. The author explained that readers will always have a personal standard when it comes to books but that pursuing that reader standard is not the same as pursuing perfection. In fact, the author might still be tweaking her upcoming release if she hadn’t abandoned the pursuit of perfection and instead simply focused on doing her best. That’s all readers really want. At one point she even told the audience point-blank that if she had spent a hundred more hours perfecting her latest novel, the reader wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. Why? Because readers aren’t looking for perfection. They’re looking for a good story. They’re looking for a strong voice. A unique and authentic voice. And all of those things can be accomplished simply by doing our best.

I needed to hear those words now more than ever. I have a lot of anxiety built up over the potential success or failure of my next release and its a ball and chain so literal that I can barely make any progress on this manuscript. My production has slowed down on every WIP in my queue and even as I’m nearing the end of certain projects I’m still second guessing every single decision.

Even though it’s pointless.

I know that I’ve done my best. In fact, it’s the only thing I do know for sure, and maybe it’s the only thing I need to know in order to declare that I’m finished. Truly finished. I’ve done my best and that’s all I can do. That’s all any of us can ever do. But the good news, or more accurately, the GREAT news is that our best is good enough. We are good enough. For the people who matter most, readers, our best is good enough.

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Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs

I know I spent the majority of July blogging about the harsh reality of being an indie author but after exposing you to the awful truth, I thought I’d expose you  to another truth, this one sweeter and, believe or not, just as possible. I haven’t sold enough books to make writing my full-time gig just yet. In fact, on top of writing every day I also work sixty hours a week between my two jobs. It’s exhausting and I long for the day when I can give it all up and just live in my yoga pants in front of my laptop. But even though that might sound like a pipe dream coming from someone who has sold less than a hundred books in the past two years, the truth is it’s not. The truth is being a successful mid-list writer isn’t just attainable, but if I continue to put out quality books and build my readership one person at a time, it’s actually inevitable.

If you’re a follower of The Passive Voice then you’re probably already aware of their popular post, Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs. It’s pretty infamous among aspiring and experienced writers alike because it’s a running list of indie writers who have had the pleasure of leaving the drudgery of nine to five behind. More than 500 comments have accumulated just in the past couple of months from indie authors who not only make a living wage from their writing but from writers who were able to pay off their mortgage, or bless their spouse with an early retirement, or build their dream home, or get out of debt all because they took a risk. Because they had the guts to publish their work on their own. Because they had the guts to believe in themselves.

I know I’ve often warned those new to self-publishing not to let their expectations get out of control or to craft a dream that relies more on luck than hard work but I also don’t want any of us to stop hoping. Because this is what can happen when we hope. When we believe in something so strongly that we’re willing to risk everything in order to make it happen. Not all of these indie authors are mega-rich. In fact, most of them don’t make much more than what’s required to pay their bills. But whether they’re selling thousands of copies a month or just a few hundred, these authors are still living the dream. Because they’re writing every day and no one is telling them what they should write about or how or when or to hurry or slow down or change this or change that. They are in control of their words and because they’ve stayed so true to them, they are in control of their lives.

Creative and financial freedom can go hand in hand, all it takes is a lot of drive and a lot of patience. For some of these authors it took years to build their readership, their backlists in the double digits before they finally started generating steady sales. For others it took even longer. But they kept going, hoping for success but never wishing for it. And then it happened. It can happen for us too. If we just keep writing, every single day, it can happen for us too.

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The Indie Experiment-The Reality

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning
The Indie Experiment:The Decision
The Indie Experiment:The Teacher
The Indie Experiment: The Truth
The Indie Experiment: The Dream

The Indie Experiment: The Reality

Hitting publish on my first novel wasn’t just an act of defiance, it was a dream come true. My book was out there, drifting in the bowels of the internet, just waiting to be discovered and the freedom of that was more satisfying and more terrifying than anything I’d ever done. But even though the dream may have started small, the very act of self-publishing making it come true, somewhere along the way that dream grew exponentially. Like any other newbie I spent the majority of my time, not working on my second novel, but researching every self-publishing success story out there. I read about people like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath and with every new article and bit of data I manufactured this new dream. This bigger dream that was more than just making money from my books and more than even making a living. I actually let myself get lost in the possibility that I could win the indie lottery and become a millionaire.

I was twenty and I was naive and I was greedy. Most young people are, which is why when absolutely none of that happened I was crushed. Yes, I was actually crushed that my book hadn’t sold a million copies and that I was still living in my shoe box apartment with a poltergeist toilet and rabid raccoons that liked to sleep on my doorstep. I know a lot of writers out there, inexperienced writers in particular (who may or may not have stumbled upon this blog post in search of the very same self-publishing insight as I did three years ago) will find it really difficult not to indulge in the dream of huge world dominating success. Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be rich doing what they love? It’s the ultimate dream and the more indie success stories that continue to crop up, the more attainable it seems. The more it seems less like a fantasy and more like an achievable goal.

Even when you enter into self-publishing with a clear head and realistic expectations it’s almost impossible not to hope. In fact, that unwavering (albeit at times, unrealistic) hope is actually necessary. Being successful in the arts or entertainment industry takes a certain amount of blissful ignorance or else we’d all give up at the first sign of failure–another necessary ingredient to success. But sometimes that hope can also hinder you because having unrealistic expectations has a tendency to turn normal setbacks into failures when in reality they’re just necessary growing pains. When I was binge-reading every indie success story I could find, second-hand sources had a tendency to make it sound like all of these people I admired had only toiled for mere months before hitting it big. There was nothing about the education that came before or the years of rejections via traditional publishing or the mental and emotional demons each writer had to slay before they were actually able to hit publish. Subconsciously I knew they’d put in the hard work because, as a writer myself, I knew all that it took to write a novel start to finish. But still, there was something distilled about these success stories, shallow and…too easy. When I self-published my own novel I certainly didn’t think that it would be easy to find readers but I also didn’t anticipate it being near impossible.

These days writers are a lot more forthcoming about how hard it really is to find indie success but that still doesn’t stop people from having unrealistic expectations. Everyone thinks that they are talented enough or deserving enough to be the exception to the rule but the truth is success isn’t guaranteed to anyone. The truth is, even after putting in the work, you still might not sell enough books to buy a pack of gum. But despite this fact people are still trying to discover some kind of secret formula. Some people claim that sales automatically pick up after you publish your second or third novel. Some people claim that the right price point is key. Some people swear by using certain promo sites. Some people suggest writing only series or connected novels that revisit the same characters/setting/etc. There are a lot of assumptions and opinions out there about what sells books and I can tell you from personal experience that I have yet to obtain the proof that supports any of them.

Despite having some pretty lofty expectations when it came to publishing my first novel, I also wasn’t the type to just sit around and wait for lightning to strike. Instead I wrote. Like crazy. It was all I did for the past two years, and literally it’s all I do now. I know no one wants to hear about the months I spent in my pajamas on the couch, never seeing the light of day but I imagine if you took a snapshot from the first few years of any successful indie author’s career you’d discover them doing the exact same thing. There is nothing I want more than to make a living as a writer and even as someone who doesn’t make very much money self-publishing, I still devote at least four hours a day to writing. Just writing. And it’s the reason I was able to publish three novels during my first year of self-publishing. Unfortunately, the reality of my situation was that that momentum just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just write three novels and put them online. It wasn’t enough to just wish that someone would discover them and share them with their friends.  So I took the plunge into marketing.

I’ve always been a fairly private person and even though I started dabbling in blogging around the release of my first book, marketing absolutely terrified me. I attempted putting together some kind of blog tour but after the past two years of soliciting reviews from book bloggers and sending out close to a thousand emails, I only have about thirty reviews to show for it. Thirty. That’s the reality of being an indie author. You will work your ass off and the profit will be minuscule or sometimes even nonexistent. Luckily though I never let these things get in my way and my main focus was always on writing. Seven months after I published my first novel, I published my second, the third draft of which was already complete by the time I published The Things They Didn’t Bury. This time around I did absolutely no marketing and didn’t solicit a single review. I guess I just had my fingers crossed that that myth about 2 being the magic number would hold true. It didn’t.

But I was still writing. Even though no one was actually reading my books I was still writing. One of the things I’m really proud of as I look back on my writing journey over these past couple of years is my ability to put the blinders on and just keep working. It’s a necessary trait of every good artist because staying focused on the present moment is really the only way to finish. And finishing is what separates the dreamers from the doers. I’ve always been a dreamer but I’ve also always been a doer, which is why my unrealistic expectations didn’t cripple me like they could have. Instead I looked at every month that went by where I didn’t sell a copy of my novels as just one month closer to the day I would.

In my first 2 years of self-publishing I have sold less than a hundred copies of my novels. And unless you are extremely lucky (as in win the lottery, get struck by lightning, survived a near death experience more than once lucky) your experience will probably be pretty similar. The good news is, after everything I’ve learned, I still believe that hard work and patience will always be rewarded. Maybe not in the way we want or expect but I believe that always doing your best is the quickest way to success. So what does all of this mean for anyone considering self-publishing? It means don’t be an ignorant fool. It means that for a while you are going to have to erase all of your expectations and find something else to motivate you every day other than financial freedom. And most importantly it means that we shouldn’t believe in things as insubstantial as luck, but instead we should choose to believe in one thing and one thing only–ourselves.

But don’t stop dreaming and don’t stop hoping. I still haven’t. After selling less than a hundred copies I still hope every day that things will take a turn for the better. But I also don’t rely on that hope. Instead I rely on myself, on my hard work, on my passion, on my drive. In 567 days I have yet to take over the world but despite my more realistic expectations these days, I hope and I know that that doesn’t mean I never will.

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Bracing For Rejection

In approximately two weeks I will begin the arduous and soul crushing process of asking strangers to review my books. I’ve been through this song and dance before and over the last two years I’ve probably sent out almost a thousand emails. Yes, there are in fact that many unique bloggers out there and yes most of them have rejected me. After sending out all of those emails they’ve resulted in exactly 26 reviews. 26. I don’t even want to do the math on what minuscule percentage that is because it would be absolutely pointless. And yet I’m about to begin this process all over again.

Different authors have different methods when it comes to marketing. Some do absolutely nothing and sell hundreds of copies right out of the gate. Some do paid advertising, spending a small fortune and then don’t even sell one copy. But usually after failing to get the proper results, a smart author would reexamine their methodology and decide to try a different route next time.

I didn’t do that. At least not the first three times. In fact, after failing to gain any traction after sending out hundreds of review requests for my first book I decided not to do anything at all for my second. No review requests, no free chapter Fridays, no giveaways. You could say I gave up before failure could even be an option just to save myself from the heartbreak. It wasn’t until the release of my third book that I decided to give it another try. But rather than try another marketing route like a sane person might do I decided to send out review requests again, only this time I decided to send out 600 emails instead of 300.

It was another disappointment and despite the fact that I should have seen it coming I still had the audacity to be surprised. Now that I’m approaching the release of my first series (the first three novels I plan to publish consecutively this fall) I’m faced with a dilemma. Either I stick to begging for reviews the old fashioned way or I consider going another route, maybe one that costs actual money. In other words I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. The only problem is…I’m not sure what exactly was the mistake.

Was it hoping too much and creating these ridiculously unrealistic expectations? Was it believing too much in the stories themselves? In myself? Was it thinking that asking people to give up their time in exchange for a review was all it would take to create some momentum and that I could just send out all of these emails and then leave the leg work to someone else? I think all writers are guilty of straddling this line between total self-loathing and total self-righteousness. One day we think that our book is amazing and that everyone should read it and the next we think it’s the worst thing ever written and should be burned immediately. It’s an exhausting way to live but the truth is it’s also necessary. Because it’s within this very tug of war where our passion truly ignites.

So maybe I won’t send out hundreds of emails. Maybe I won’t give away hundreds of free copies. Or maybe I will. Because maybe the mistake wasn’t in the trying. Maybe the mistake wasn’t even in the hoping. Maybe the real mistake would be to not approach this project with the same unwavering belief that this story is good enough and that it is powerful enough to speak for itself.

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Indie Life 07-09-14

It’s time for another edition of Indie Life, hosted by The Indelibles. You can sign up by clicking the graphic! IndieLife7

It’s my return to Indie Life! While I wish I could say I’ve been slacking on these posts because they no longer apply to me and I’ve just signed a million dollar contract with some fancy New York agent, the truth is being indie is the very reason I’ve hardly had time to keep up with blogging at all. Because being indie means financing all of my own projects and since I’m not selling thousands of copies of my books a day, that means I have to work. A lot. I took on a second job in the Spring, bringing my total hours to just shy of 60. And that brings me to today’s indie gripe–the unpredictability of life.

I know this is a law of the universe that effects all of us but one of the most tedious and important parts of being an independent artist is being organized. There are a lot of spontaneous artists out there who rely on divine inspiration rather than deadlines and who create only when they feel like it, abandoning it as soon as it starts to feel like work. But the success and the fulfillment doesn’t come to those who quit. Those things are reserved for finishers and if you’ve been doing the indie thing for any length of time, you’ve probably got finishing down pat.

See, I have a formula for finishing and it goes a little something like this: writing every day+reading every day=books. Pretty simple, right? When I’m living my life within the parameters of this routine a magical kind of momentum is created and it’s the secret to how I’m planning on finishing four novels this year. FOUR WHOLE BOOKS that will be the hard-earned result of extreme dedication and a devoted work ethic. But despite my diligence and despite my deadlines, there is always the chance that something will go awry and sometimes that something isn’t small. Sometimes that something is big and important and needs your immediate attention. Sometimes you will have to set your art aside and find a second job shelving library books just so you can pay your bills.

It’s a sad truth but a truth nonetheless. Because unfortunately for us indies, there is no amount of want or need or hard work or deservedness that can make pursuing our dreams a totally seamless endeavor. Even when we put the work in every single day, without a huge publisher behind us or a huge readership, there will always be the chance that things will go wrong, or other responsibilities will stand in our way. That’s just a part of being indie. We are in a constant state of choosing, swapping out needs and responsibilities based on what we can physically and mentally accomplish that day. Sometimes after a long day of working our regular 9 to 5 job, we only have enough energy to do laundry and our manuscript gets pushed to the side. On other days we might have to make the hard decision to miss coffee with friends just so we can meet a self-imposed deadline. But regardless of how stringent we are when it comes to doing what we love, let’s be honest, until we’re paying the mortgage with our writing, that time will always be up for debate. Not because we don’t believe it’s important but because we’re only human and there is only so much we can do.

So maybe this week’s indie gripe isn’t really about being indie at all. Maybe it’s really about the modern day juggling act we’re all trying to master, the balance between surviving in this world and thriving in it getting harder and harder to achieve. Today was one of those hard days. But even though I have several looming deadlines and the thought of not making any progress on my WIP today ties me in a knot, I will forgive myself. Because I’m indie. Because I’m human.

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