The Indie Experiment-The Reality

Self Publishing

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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The Indie Experiment-The Dream

Self Publishing, Writing Process

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

It took me four years, a million drafts, two independent study courses, and time in another state to write and finally finish The Things They Didn’t Bury.The idea originated my senior year in high school and I nurtured it and explored it through my entire college experience and after each personal evolution, the story experienced a new evolution as well. I wrote every week and then every day, getting words down in a fury through my father’s illness and then picking them apart after every new creative writing course each semester. In the beginning there was no end goal, not even to finish, but as an end finally started to reveal itself I couldn’t type a word or take a step without doubting it. And this was when I realized that I did have a dream for this story and it was more than just to create or to finish, it was to write something good.

In the beginning this story was not good. It was muddled and shallow and all over the place but something inside me just wouldn’t give up on it. A lot of writers  have abandoned their first book, so many that some people even consider it a right of passage. I used to think that I’d managed to skip that step of my artist initiation but when I look back at the story I ended up with versus the story I started with, I realize that I didn’t skip a thing. The Things They Didn’t Bury is not the same story I began writing my senior year in high school. Everything from the location to the plot changed completely with the exception of just the characters names. By the time I actually finished the novel it had had several other identities, all scrapped, and all for good reason. But the point isn’t how many novels I abandoned in the process, the point is that I kept writing no matter what. When I realized that even after I finished this novel that I wouldn’t be able to stop writing I knew that it was time to come up with a plan.

Sometimes we steal dreams and sometimes we stumble across them but when a desire that big takes hold of you there’s really nothing you can do except follow it. By the time I finished my first novel I’d already declared my major and had already made the decision to pursue writing professionally. What I hadn’t decided on was how. I’d taken journalism courses, news writing courses, short story writing, poetry workshops, fiction and non-fiction writing, writing for feature films, and script writing courses, and while each method and medium spoke to me I couldn’t deny the connection I felt to the challenge of fiction writing. There was something so romantic about it and the process itself allowed for the kind of spiritual exploration I was desperately craving. I knew that I wanted to write novels and after sharing one of the earlier versions of The Things They Didn’t Bury with one of my professors he gave me some advice on querying–something I had no idea I even needed to do.

I put it off, letting the story experience a few more evolutions before I finally started to do some research. I looked into agents, trying to find a good fit, something that proved ridiculously difficult as I’d written my entire novel without a definite genre in mind. In a lot of ways, letting the novel grow as it needed to without trying to fit it into some kind of box left me with something really unique. But on the other hand it made it really difficult to pitch. I went into querying totally blind, seeking out agents who had even a smidgen of interest in multi-cultural fiction that wasn’t easily categorized. I don’t really remember how many emails I originally sent out but I do know how many personal responses I got. Zero. Every response I received was automated and could be summed up in two words: “No thanks.”

I was deflated but not necessarily devastated. The entire process was pretty exhausting but I also considered it more of an experiment rather than a genuine attempt. Part of me had always thought that the story wasn’t ready but that was mostly because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t grown enough as a writer yet but luckily since I was only nineteen, I still had plenty of time for that. Other writers might have chosen to abandon the story at that point or at least to start something new and try to move on but I just couldn’t see myself letting it go for good. I worked on it sporadically, picking at it mostly, but not ready to do another round of re-writes. In the meantime I shifted my focus to short stories and after randomly deciding to enter a contest hosted by a small press, something pretty crazy happened. I actually won. And so began my first and only experience as an almost “traditionally” published author.

After I won the short story contest and collected my prize money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of one of my textbooks, the acquisitions director asked me if I had any other short stories that I might be willing to let them include in one of their upcoming anthologies. I was totally naive and so over the moon about someone actually thinking that I was good that I sent them over two more stories to include in their collection. After they read the other stories they asked me if there was anything else I was working on and I told them about my novel in progress, the one I was still nursing a sore heart over having been rejected by all of my dream agents. Obviously I was in a somewhat vulnerable place so when they offered me a contract I was elated. Long story short, after taking the contract to my professor for his opinion, I realized that this small press was one step above a vanity press and that they were basically trying to rob me blind.

I decided to stop querying at that point or even entertaining the idea of being published until I was finished with school and had a little bit more experience. But even in the midst of attempting to take a break I still couldn’t move on from the story completely. Not yet. So I decided to give it another go, one more round of extensive re-writes to try to turn the story into what I’d always hoped it would be. After graduation I moved to Florida for about a year and a half and during that first year all I did was work on this story. It was the perfect timing and without things like school or friends or money I could focus completely on my work. I also found my very first critique partners online, whose help was so invaluable, especially since no one had read any incarnation of the story except for my professor. Working with other writers and setting deadlines for myself to query again by the Spring made me feel not just like a writer but like a grown-up. I learned so much about the importance of being self-disciplined and holding myself accountable for making my dreams come true. Because this was my dream. Somehow it had evolved from just being a passion to being a commitment, something I woke up every day with the intention of working towards. I had expectations and I had goals, and not just word counts or meeting deadlines. I wanted to be published. I wanted to write full time. All of these things were what pushed me to not only re-write the story, basically from scratch, for the hundredth time but they also pushed me to query again even after failing the first time.

When I queried the second time I was confident. I knew the story was good and that I’d reached a new level creatively. I knew that it had potential, that I had potential, and I knew that if someone would just give me a chance I could prove to them that I was in this for the long haul and that I was capable of building something even greater than just this novel, but an entire career. Unfortunately no one gave me that opportunity. Again I’d put my heart and soul on the line and again all I’d gotten in return was a bunch of automated messages from agents who didn’t see the same potential in this story that I did. And this time it actually hurt. Not a lot but a little bit. I felt the sting of rejection but even worse than that was coming to terms with the fact that this story I’d spent the past four years of my life working on may never be read.

That was the hardest part of all of it, the fact that this piece of me, this thing that had dragged me out of so much darkness, wasn’t considered worthy enough to be shared with the world. But I knew it was worthy. I knew it was important. I’ve written about some authors referring to special projects as “the book of your heart” or about having to shelve novels that mean more to them than anything they’ve ever written. Some artists might be capable of that, of abandoning things for no other reason than the fact that someone else doesn’t think any money can  be made from it. But I just don’t work that way. I think when something speaks to you or through you in a way that changes your entire life, that thing is no accident. Me writing this novel was no accident and if the experience of writing it was so revelatory, how much greater are the odds that reading it will be just as powerful? So I couldn’t abandon this story. In fact I downright refused. And even though some people might think that I made a mistake by striking out on my own or that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and/or talking about, I have come away from the entire experience having learned a very important lesson about defiance. That sometimes defiance is good. That sometimes it is brave and right and true. Sometimes a little defiance makes all the difference.

The Indie Experiment-The Truth

Self Publishing, Writing Process

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 thing about hiding, even if it’s just one small part of who we are, is that it doesn’t hurt anyone but us–I’ve been re-reading this line for the past half hour, trying to figure out a way to frame this part of my journey. It’s a scary part and a sad part and something I don’t know how to talk about because I never really have before. Not like this where anyone and everyone can hear me, not without ducking or dodging or hiding or making myself sick. I don’t want to talk about it but I have to. I know that. Because this is how it all began, how I wrote something down and it changed my life, how it changed me.

The Things They Didn’t Bury isn’t a story about a girl looking for her mother or a girl falling in love for the first time or a girl growing up and coming into her own. It’s about me and I didn’t even realize it until I was over 70,000 words and four drafts in. When I was sixteen I found out the man who’d raised me wasn’t my biological father. One moment I was whole and happy and safe and the next I was empty and full of cracks, pieces of me scattered in people and places and memories I’d never known. For a year I didn’t try to fill them or fix them; I didn’t acknowledge them at all. Instead, I did what my family did best, I buried that secret so far down that pretending it had never happened was almost as easy as breathing. But the thing about cracks, about pain, is that even when you can’t feel them there, even when you’ve convinced yourself that they never existed at all they still do. They are invisible and when they are invisible they are dangerous. Because when you can’t see the cracks you have no idea when they’ll split you in two.

A year after I found out that I was the family secret the man who’d raised me got sick. My father was dying and we didn’t even know it and suddenly that year of pretending was all waste. Because it only made losing him that much harder. I hadn’t dealt with things because I hadn’t known how and even when I started writing it wasn’t to pull me out of anything, it wasn’t to work through my feelings, or to serve as some kind of cure. I was writing for escape. And yet, I hadn’t escaped a thing. Because after finishing The Things They Didn’t Bury, after reading the final version of something that had been in a constant state of evolution for three years, I was faced with all of it. Everything that I’d felt, everything I didn’t want to feel, everything I thought and believed and worried about. I was faced with the truth of me. My truth. And I finally realized why I hadn’t broken down, why I hadn’t given up after being abandoned by one father and burying another. Because those things that were inside me weren’t strangling me anymore. They weren’t stewing and they weren’t ruining and they weren’t hurting me. Not like before. Because they were trapped somewhere else, in that story, in those words.

Words. That’s what saved me. Even when I wasn’t paying attention. Even when I was just trying to escape. They saved me anyway and they keep saving me. When I’m afraid of failing or I’m afraid of being rejected or I’m afraid of feeling. Writing lets me feel things without being cut open, without being destroyed. Writing lets me say anything and be anything. Writing lets me share and connect and discover. That’s why I write and why I can’t stop. Because writing frees me from the shame of secrets. Writing lets me tell the truth.

The Indie Experiment-The Decision

Self Publishing, Writing Process

My Indie Journey From Start to Finish:
The Indie Experiment:The Beginning

The Indie Experiment:The Decision

The Things They Didn’t Bury was still in the Scraps of Incoherency stage by the time my first year of college rolled around. I sat down to work on it every once in a while, but the truth was, it was the idea of it that excited me most of all. Putting the pieces together was fun but using those pieces to build something with depth and meaning and, oh yeah, words, was hard. Writing was hard and even though every time I did it, something surprisingly good came out of it, I was still treating it as a hobby and not my life. I’d discovered this passion but there was still this part of me that was afraid to follow it. And it certainly didn’t help when everyone and their mother had the same opinion about majoring in the arts. That it was a waste. That it would lead nowhere. That it was only for self-indulgent hippies (even though most college students are self-indulgent hippies). So I was afraid. I was afraid of so many things–being vulnerable, being honest, being a failure. And I delayed the inevitable, keeping my consideration of majoring in Creative Writing all to myself, and even more than that wishing it would just disappear. But it didn’t. Even when I almost did.

November of my first semester of college my father was diagnosed with cancer. After six months of misdiagnoses they finally found the thing that was killing him and it was too late. It gutted me. For a year I watched him dwindle down to sharp edges and pale skin, my giant amazing father suddenly smaller than me in every way.  And there was nothing I could do about it.

My first semester of college was a blur. I dropped out of every club and missed every game and wandered from class to class without speaking a word to anyone. And when the spring semester rolled around I took the bare minimum, torn between wanting to hide at school so I wouldn’t have to see him hurting but knowing it would hurt me more if I didn’t. So I stayed home with my father while my mother worked, making him toast and eggs in the morning and fixing him lunch and showing him how to work the laptop, all while swallowing glass. Choking on it until I could be alone in my car, parked in some grocery store parking lot or waiting for the gas nozzle to click off, strangers staring at me as I screamed into my steering wheel.

But in the midst of all of that there was a bright spot. Just one. I took my first Creative Writing class that semester, the roll call only six deep, my teacher the spitting image of a girl laying on the grass at Woodstock, and I loved every second of it. We focused on short stories and the first one I wrote was about a single dad who lived with his two kids in some imaginary town in South America called Paloma. It was uber-literary, full of imagery and run-ons, and totally pretentious. But even through all of that muck my teacher still said it was good and the most revolutionary part was that I believed her.

When they moved my father to a hospice facility it was right down the street from my school and I would curl up in the chair next to his bed with my moleskin notebook and just write. For hours, for weeks, that’s all I did. I would sit and write about these strangers who were feeling what I was feeling or feeling what I wanted to feel and I could see every heart like it was my own. I could see the world in all its mysterious connectedness, the threads between us all growing slack and taut. I could see the world, ugly and broken, naked and beautiful. For the first time I could see the world. And for the first time I didn’t feel so alone.

When you watch someone you love die everything has more meaning and everything has more urgency. And I was filled with this sense of urgency to make a declaration–about myself, about my words. That I was full of them. That there was nothing in the world that made me feel as free or whole or brave or alive. So I made that declaration, choosing the arts when everyone said not to, choosing to follow my gut even when I was terrified. But I had grown so much in the past year, I’d seen so much, done so much. I’d sat by my father’s death bed and told him goodbye. Something I still can’t believe I survived but something that made me strong. And in that moment of standing in my truth, I needed to be. Because I’d seen my place in the world. I’d seen the world and I knew that I was never meant to stand apart, alone. I knew I was never meant to be one tiny blip, a place marker, a point of reference. But I was meant to be the thread between those points, weaving words into the holes and empty spaces between us. I was meant to be a writer. Because that’s all writing is at its essence, a declaration to the world that says, “I am here and I am with you.” And even though it doesn’t always feel that way, when I am writing I know that nothing is more true, for all of the people I’ve met, all of the people I’ve had to let go, and all of the people still waiting, I am here and I am with you. Even when our hearts are broken we are not alone.

Introducing The Indie Experiment

Self Publishing

I’ve blogged a lot about self-publishing, about how to know if it’s right for you, about how to keep your expectations in check, about how to make sure you’re absolutely ready to go indie. Because it’s tough out there. My first year as a self-published author has come and gone and the truth is I don’t have much to show for it except a bunch of real-life examples of what not to do and an insatiable, although some would say insane, desire to share those with all of you. So I shall. From beginning to end, every wrong turn and accidental success, every embarrassment and every dream come true. Because even though I’m not rich and famous that’s still exactly what happened. My dream of becoming an author came true and if that’s not a story worth telling then I don’t know what is.

The Indie Experiment:The Beginning

I wrote my first novel when I was in middle school and it was called “Screwed”, no sexual innuendo intended (Come on, I was twelve). I remember spending half an hour just picking out the right font–probably something swirly, probably something lime green. It was about a middle school, of course, and the main character just could not catch a break. I seem to recall something about a swirly and her losing her retainer in the cafeteria garbage. I spent all afternoon typing it up and at the end I was so proud that I did something that I’ve been reluctant to do since. I asked someone to read it. It was my mother. I think she’d been vacuuming and her clothes smelled like pine-sol, something I noticed because I was hovering over her shoulder as she read. I don’t remember what she said afterward. Something good, I’m sure. Something encouraging. Even though it was terrible. The next day I deleted it.

Eighth grade I thought I’d try my hand at poetry. Well, more like I was forced by my English teacher. I think I was just relieved that we were finally going to take a break from grammar. I hated grammar. But luckily for me the school was having some kind of contest and everyone was asked to participate, the best poems from each grade being printed and bound in a collection that our parents could then purchase, because you know, schools don’t sell enough useless shit in the name of school spirit. I wrote two poems about dying and one about patriotism (that last one was required) and miraculously they were chosen to be included in the anthology. I thought I was the shit. Until we got back to learning grammar.

I wrote sporadically, usually just when it was required for class, but fast forward to my senior year of high school (because I really don’t remember much in between) and that’s when I really started to get the “itch”. No, not that “itch.” The writing “itch.” I can’t really pinpoint the first story or the first moment when I started thinking about writing again but we were getting assigned to read a lot more contemporary fiction and I really loved my teacher and I guess I was just thinking about my future a lot more and what I really wanted to do with it. My high school years had been mostly devoted to volunteering with the National Honor Society and I’d even gotten a scholarship for having the most community service hours. I was getting ready to apply for an internship at a local non-profit, expecting to work in some field where I could go to work every day and try to save the world. But then something happened. It crept up on me, I guess, and I’m not sure what to call it except the truth. Of who I was and who I wanted to be. And I wanted to be a writer.

I’d always loved to read more than anything. More than playing sports, more than socializing, more than…math. Okay I love everything more than math I just couldn’t think of another example that wasn’t already summed up by everything. But you get the picture. Reading is definitely to blame for my current affliction and I remember having an especially revelatory moment during my senior year while reading The Kite Runner. The book literally took my breath away. It was perfect in every way, in every way that I wanted to write and think and be. I wanted to write stories like that. Sweeping emotional stories about family and culture and love. And then, in the midst of me grappling with the decision between pursuing writing and social work I got an idea. It started with just two people, a boy and a girl, and that was all it took.

The Things They Didn’t Bury changed so drastically from those first scribbled notes I made when I was seventeen. It changed countries and even changed wars. But what remained the same was the love story and now whenever I get an idea for a story that’s always what comes to me first–the people, that central relationship around which everything else in the story orbits.

I spent a lot of my senior year in the library doing research and taking notes. But even though I’d always been a good English student and had always gotten good grades on everything I’d ever written, I still wasn’t sure that I could write a book. Sometimes, even after writing five, I’m still not sure. But so began my volatile relationship with self-doubt. It also didn’t help that during my last semester of high school they finally decided to add a Creative Writing class to the schedule, except it was “invitation only” and I wasn’t invited. I was secretly devastated. And secretly I still am. But I like to look at it as my first real moment of defiance. Because who cared if I wasn’t invited into their stupid little writing class? I was still going to write and more importantly I wasn’t going to stop. Not then. Not ever. And once I had that realization, that not writing was not an option for me, the decision was easy. So easy that I waited until the day of the deadline to turn in my declaration as an English major. And even though I’m sort of living proof at the moment (although I partly blame this damn recession) that what people say about majoring in the arts is true, I also wouldn’t change a thing. Not one second. Not one day. Not one word. Because when I’m off the clock and not busy making someone else money, that time is all mine, and without everything I’ve learned there’s no way I’d be able to spend it becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be.