Blog

My Biggest Self Publishing Disaster

Every writer has horror stories. Here’s one of mine.

Back when I was using my old name and only publishing poetry (2016), I had zero negative experiences with self-publishing. My formatting was on point, uploading my content to the various bookseller sites went as smoothly as it could. There were a few operator errors with Kobo but nothing disastrous.

Two years later, my poetry collections weren’t getting any new downloads and I thought I’d revitalize my writing career by diving into fiction. I was super confident because I had just finished the first part of a science fiction story. I was 35,000-ish words in and I had just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor’s The Binti Trilogy.

I thought, “I can write something paced like that. Novellas are way easier than whole novels.”

Ha!

I polished part one and started my first draft of part two. I bought a gorgeous book cover and published it.

Mistakes I Made/What Went Wrong

1. I did not use an editor.

2. I ended the novella on a cliff-hanger. Note: cliff-hangers themselves aren’t inherently bad, but for this specific situation, it was bad.

3. I didn’t have any kind of marketing or project/release plan.

4. I got caught up in the excitement of self-publishing and did not give myself enough time to finish my story arc.

After I hit submit and published Past Life, I sat down to work on part two, which was to be called Morning Star, after the space ship my main character would find herself transported to after the explosive ending of Past Life (remember, I said cliff-hanger)…and all my ideas for part two fell apart.

ALL OF THEM.

5. Without my supporting characters to interact with, my protagonist was flat, not even two dimensional. She was a line*. A boring line.

6. My plot was full of holes that I couldn’t patch.

I remember one of my writer friends suggesting something like, “Well, MC knows how to adapt to strange situations, if Supporting Character is with her, showing him how to adapt you can deepen their relationship.”

I told her, “Supporting Character is dead and the book’s already published so I can’t really change that…”

7. In my frenzy to fix everything, other characters were emerging. These characters did not fit with the original plot at all but at least I could write them. So, of course, I tried to change the plot to fit them in but that made the story arc fall apart even more.

Time passed, first, it was only 4 months, then 5, then 6. Then a whole year. The one review I got for it was an amazing rant about how disappointing the ending was. I wanted to tell this reviewer and the world that part two was coming and everything would make sense but that was a lie. Part two was DOA and I reached the point where I had no desire to fix it.

My confidence crumbled and I scrapped the project. I de-listed the book and cameing this close *pinches fingers together* to delete all the files. In 2019 I made a half-hearted attempt to revise the project but I soon realized I needed to put A LOT more work into fleshing out the technology and deciding how the story would end. Too much work. Not enough love.

I might finish it one day but for now, that manuscript is sitting in my “Shelved Projects” folder and may never see the light of day.

So, what am I doing differently now?

Here’s what I learned:

1. Finish the story before you even think about publishing. Make sure you have an ending, even if it’s just in an outline or in your head.

Lots of writers say this and we hear this all the time: don’t worry about marketing and publishing until you’ve finished your book. And we all go, “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.” And immediately buy book covers for stories we haven’t written yet. Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But seriously, if I try to think about all the publishing things before I finish working on my final draft, bad things happen.

2. Hire an editor.

I have a master’s degree in poetry. I know how to write and proofread myself. WRONG! … Well, not really wrong. I do know how to do all the crafty things BUT—

—and here’s the thing I’ve never heard anyone say about editors but this really happens and it’s amazing—

When my editor looked at my manuscript, not only did she identify all the little technical mistakes I made, but she provided a fresh perspective on the story that I didn’t have. She also asked important questions that not only helped me fill plot holes I couldn’t see but they made me THINK.

Not only did I learn where the weaknesses in my story and writing style were but I was able to add little details and sometimes whole sections to chapters that I wouldn’t have thought of without another PROFESSIONAL’S critical eye on my project.

Editors don’t just fix grammar mistakes and point out what isn’t working in your book, they help make your book better. They polish, they highlight.

The best analogies I’ve come up with so far are:

Editors are like when you take your dog to the groomer. Your dog is already amazing (because it’s your dog) but after a bath and a brushing, your dog is extra amazing.

Having your book worked on by a professional editor is like power washing your house or having a new roof put on. (I’ve been doing a lot of home repairs during the quarantine.) Your house is great because it keeps the rain off and your stuff safe but after you clean the outside it looks, well, clean. And fresh. And shiny. And not a dump.

That’s what an editor does. Hire one** even if you think you don’t need it, even if you know you can edit yourself.

3. Make a realistic Project Plan.

I thought putting notes in my calendar and hoping I’d finish my draft “on time” was enough planning to get by. It is and it isn’t. Coming up with a project plan involves a lot of honesty. And telling the difference between what I want to do versus what actually happens.

I wanted to finish draft 1 of book 2 during this year’s Camp NaNoWriMo. That didn’t happen in April because school got in the way. It didn’t happen again in July because school got in the way again. I couldn’t do what I “thought” I could do. But what I thought was really what I WANTED and we can’t always get what we want.

So, for me to be able to say, Pulling Teeth and Other Stories of the Slaughter Chronicles will come out this winter, I need to figure out what to do to really make that happen. That means giving myself enough time to do things and budgeting time for my editor to do her job.

4. Don’t be embarrassed/ashamed/lose morale when mistakes/bad things happen.

I can’t say there won’t be more mistakes coming and you will definitely hear about them when they do. The best thing that I can do as an indie author is learn from them and move forward.

For posterity, here’s the cover of Past Life. It’s a pre-made cover I bought for $20 on thebookcoverdesigner.com. It’s so pretty and I still love it. Sadly, because it is pre-made and I ordered it so long ago, the designers will not make any new changes to the title or my author name, otherwise, I would totally repurpose it.

*This is a reference to Flatland. 10 points if you got it.

**I am aware during this uncertain and painful time it is not always possible to indulge in extra expenses like hiring an editor or a proofreader. Income is precious and sometimes you have to decide between paying your bills and extra stuff for your writing. But if writing is part of your income, you need to invest in things that make your writing the best that it can be. That editor is going to help you make more money. So sometimes you have to budget, sometimes you have to postpone your projects.

Right now I’m looking at paying for a proofread or taking my cat to the vet. Guess which one is going to win? My cat, obviously. I have to put that in my project plan. My release date might get pushed back (again) but at least my cat will be pain-free (gingivitis is a thing).

I get it, we can’t always pay for an editor. But I’m telling you right now, a good editor is worth every penny.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

5 Things About Divorce

Even though I am in the happiest, most loving relationship of my life, I am also a divorcee.

A successful divorcee. Honestly, getting a divorce was the best decision of my life and I went through a brief, unrestrained period of telling all my friends at the time that if they were having relationship issues they should just dump their significant others and start fresh because it all worked out so well for me.

After watching Sarah Millican’s 5 Tips on Divorce, I decided I would make my own list…and share it with you.

My favorite part about Sarah’s tips is when she says something like: there comes a time when you realize that your ex wasn’t as brilliant as you thought he was. I didn’t worship the ground my ex walked on or anything but there was a lot I turned a blind eye too when I really shouldn’t have.

Disclaimer #1: I am not going to go into the ugly details of my divorce. I am not writing this to bash my ex (as fun as that would be). I am not writing this post to paint myself as a saint. This is a breakdown of a few of my experiences. At the end of the day, we were both terrible to each other, the divorce happened for a reason.

Things I learned when I got divorced:

1. Moving in with your parents (or other members of the family) is okay.

My divorce needed to happen and had many positive outcomes but I wouldn’t call it fun. Just like any major life change, a lot of adult things that need to happen and I did not have the ability to make it on my own at the time.

I worked with the lawyer and paid all the legal fees. My ex didn’t lift a finger to try to fix what was broken in our relationship and he didn’t help end it in a healthy way. I had to figure out how to balance moving out of my house, renting a storage unit, finding a new job (to pay for the legal fees), and take care of myself.

I felt extremely embarrassed about moving back home and I felt like I leveled-down or lost points as an adult. I learned the hard way that when it comes to survival you have to throw ego and pride out the window.

I know not everyone has positive relationships with family or other reasons why this might not be feasible.

I was very fortunate that my mother was willing to let me move back into her house after I separated from my ex. My two cats were very lucky too.

My relationship with my mother wasn’t perfect at the time, but I will always be grateful for her giving me a place to land and not have to waste money that I desperately needed to save on renting an apartment.

Moving in with my mom also kept me grounded. I didn’t go out and get trashed every night because I knew she wouldn’t appreciate me staggering home drunk. She helped me be accountable for my actions moving forward.

2. It’s okay to be sad about the whole thing.

Seriously. Even though I wanted my relationship with my ex to be over, he was someone who I’d spent almost 8 years of my life with. We had valid reasons for breaking up but it was still hard for me to close that chapter on my life.

I also had to deal with the fact that our relationship was unhealthy and there was nothing else I could do to make it work for both of us. I tried changing my behavior, even going so far as to pretend to be someone I wasn’t just to make him happy. That led to a lot of unhappiness and self-harm for me.

I felt like a failure for not keeping the relationship alive even though it was killing me. It was only after I had distance from everything that I realized how toxic things really were between us.

3. Counseling may or may not work. And it’s okay if it doesn’t.

Before I decided to go ahead with the divorce, I tried marriage counseling. I say “I” because my ex didn’t really care about counseling and didn’t think we had a problem ( or there was a problem but it was more my problem than his).

When we went in I immediately started crying and explained how I felt and everything that was stressing me out and what was wrong and my ex just sat there, not talking. The therapist then said I was an over-controlling manipulator and my poor ex was just sitting there afraid to even sneeze because I took over the conversation.

I didn’t go back to that therapist. She may have been right about me being controlling to some degree but she completely misinterpreted my ex’s silence as “fear.” Again, I’m not trying to vilify him but he was a manipulative asshole and knew exactly what to do to make himself look like an innocent victim.

That experience, though it was uncomfortable and I felt very let down by this mental health professional, made me realize that my ex never really respected me and it reinforced the fact that I needed to get out.

4. Know what you want.

While I was waiting for the divorce to be finalized, my soon to be ex-father-in-law told my mom, in an email, that some best marriages endure when the husband and wife live apart. He wasn’t talking about being in a long-distance relationship or living apart because of outside circumstances like job locations. He was trying to convince her and me that we should stay married but just be separated.

What’s the point in that? That’s like having a spouse with none of the benefits…which was what my relationship really was. To me, marriage is a partnership and separation is the opposite of partnership*.

I married my ex pretty early in life and I had no idea what it took to make a successful relationship. Communication and compromise are only at the tip of the iceberg. I firmly believe that you have to want to be around the person you marry, you need to want them in your life and their presence needs to bring you joy, otherwise, what’s the point of being married to them?

Getting divorced and saying goodbye to all that gave me the space to identify what I wanted in a life partner.

5. “Choose better next time.”

This last one is a bit tongue-in-cheek but it’s valid. After my divorce, I went to a comic convention with a few friends and got to see one of my heroes, James O’Barr. The Crow is one of my favorite comics, it has all of my favorite things; love, revenge, addiction, supernatural crow shit. It’s great.

I got my picture taken with him and I said, “Your stories got me through my marriage and my divorce.”

He said, “Choose better next time.” And we both laughed.

Relationships can be complicated and shitty but they are also super important. If you can’t honor and cherish the person you supposedly love, there is definitely something wrong. I mentioned earlier that I got married young, I had a few ideas about what loving someone else meant but I was too self-absorbed (as most 20-year-olds are) to really consider what making a commitment like marriage actually means.

Marriage means compromise and hard work, it means honest communication and forgiveness. It means stepping up and doing the dishes and laundry when you’d rather be napping.

When I was considering divorce I had to get really honest with myself. I didn’t love my ex anymore, I don’t know if I ever really did. Aside from work and interest in one video game, we had nothing in common. By the end of our relationship we weren’t talking to each other, we were making passive-aggressive quips or flat out fighting. But when I was in it I felt this perverse need to latch onto what was in front of me (even if it was toxic and I didn’t want to admit it). I was afraid I would end up with nothing. And just okay is better than nothing, right?

No! Fixer-uppers are fine for buying a house, not lifelong commitments to another human being. And why would you want to settle for “just okay?”

The most important lesson that I learned through my divorce is: there is no situation that you cannot get out of. Walking away might be complicated and difficult, walking away might mean changing your whole life but you always have the option to walk away.

Especially when walking away means building an emotionally healthy life.

Disclaimer #2: I am not a lawyer. Please do not use anything in this post as legal advice.

*Note: long distance relationships and couple separation based on outside influences like job location are totally different things. Couples are still together emotionally in those situations. I am actually in a long-distance relationship with my current husband right now, you can check out my thoughts on those here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash

How Much Is Too Much?

I’m one of those people who loves bonus content.

In movies, I love deleted scenes, director’s cuts, and making-of extras.

In books, I love deleted scenes and world-building content. I love reading author blogs and listening to podcasts where writers talk about their processes; how they created their characters, where they got inspiration for their fictional countries/societies, how they grappled with technology issues, etc.

In Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Series, the author/publisher begins each book with a list of the jewels and a social hierarchy. In Seanan McGuire’s October Daye Series, the author/publisher includes a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the books.

Ever since I was in middle school (and first read the Black Jewels series) I’ve wanted to do something like that for my future books.

So, here’s the thing…

I’m a discovery writer, I write a lot of things that get cut out of the final drafts of my novels.

I’ve got a bunch of world-building artifacts (lists, letters, and video transcripts) that I’d like to share with you, my wonderful perspective readers, but I’m not sure if you’d like it. Rather, I think you’ll like it but I don’t want to bash you over the head with it.

The Slaughter Chronicles are set in modern times, mainly in the United States. So you won’t need a dictionary or dramatis personae. However…

I’ve created a fictional “private security” company that kills people who’ve turned into supernatural monsters. There’s a BIG BOSS that rules over everything, there are department heads, there are support staff. There are annual reviews. There are budget meetings. There are Christmas parties. Company Christmas party short stories are coming.

All of these things, while they have come out of my head and I love them, are not part of the main story arc of the series.

Pulling Teeth and Other Stories of the Slaughter Chronicles is a collection of adventures and mishaps that my protagonist, Regina Slaughter, finds herself in before the events of Havoc’s Moon (book one). In this collection you get a glimpse of Regina’s life between ages 9 and 13. In Havoc’s Moon we jump to a more adult version of Regina. She has never been to one of these company Christmas parties and she probably never will (since she’s, you know, a werewolf).

Right now, I’m toying with 3 options:

1: Put everything in the books and hope for the best.

With this option you get all the content in one tidy package but I run the risk of presenting you with stuff that will bog you down and make you not want to read my book or give you stuff you will skip over. I do not want to do either of those things.

2: Put all my extras here on my website in a special section devoted to The Slaughter Chronicles.

This way you can use my website as a reference when you need to and you can get on with your reading in peace.

3: Ration it out and put one or two pieces of bonus content relevant to that particular part of the story at the beginning of each book.

Right now, at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, as I write this, I’m leaning toward a combination of 2 and 3. I want to have a place where everything is collected and neatly organized in one place but I also want to have fun little artifacts in my books.

Do you like extra, bonus content? Do you care about world-building? Let me know in the comments.

Research Road Trip: Ozark National Forest, AR

The first three books of my grimdark, urban-fantasy series, The Slaughter Chronicles, are set in rural Arkansas. But not just any part of rural Arkansas…THE FORESTS. So, State Parks and National Forests are of great inspiration to me.

One of the most brilliant things I ever did with one of my writer friends (Kathy!) back in 2019 was go into the building where one of her protagonist’s worked. It was so cool looking at what kind of carpet was on the floor, how the buttons were arranged in the elevator, what kind of marble statues they had in the lobby, etc.

Putting eyes on your actual setting is one of the most important pieces of writing advice I can give. But being out in nature, in general, is so restorative for the creative spirit. Even if you hate nature, get out in it. Let bugs bite you and write about how much you hate it. It’s inspiring.

I had several inspiring things happen to me this trip.

This might not be a big deal to you, dear reader, but a few weekends ago I got to ride in a side-by-side.

I had no idea what I was missing.

Seriously, utility terrain vehicles ARE. THE. BEST. Even if they can tip over. I have a new dream now. It’s name is Polaris RZR.

And the forest itself was gorgeous.

Naturally, this experience had to find its way into my book. I re-wrote the first three chapters of Havoc’s Moon based on this little adventure.

Addendum: I realize it’s not always possible to physically visit your project’s setting. Pandemic. Finances. Etc. etc. But if you can’t visit, you can RESEARCH 🙂

10 Things About Me

Hello there!

While working on launching my urban fantasy book series and working on re-branding my fiction, I thought I’d make a more personal post. Take the focus off of writing and let you get to know me a little bit better.

So, here are 10 things you may or may not know about me.

1. To start off, you already know that Jessa Forest is my pen name, not my real name. When I was in the process of picking out my pen name, my first choice was Jessica George, after my great grandfather. But that name was already taken.

Continue reading “10 Things About Me”