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

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 🙂

Love Your Characters

Love what you write. Much of how I look at writing/craft/process comes from years and years of poetry. My thoughts on imagery and diction are fueled by my medium. It is this lyrical perspective that gives my prose writing its unique voice. That and my brain is just weird. As a new writer to the […]

Love what you write.

Much of how I look at writing/craft/process comes from years and years of poetry.

My thoughts on imagery and diction are fueled by my medium. It is this lyrical perspective that gives my prose writing its unique voice. That and my brain is just weird.

As a new writer to the world of genre fiction (specifically urban fantasy) there are things that I don’t actually see or realize until I write them and then I have the, “Oh, that’s where that went wrong,” moment.

One thing I learned while reading fiction and learning to write fiction is that you have to love your characters. Not just like them. Not just tolerate them. Not just the main character or even the side characters.

Because if you don’t they won’t sound or look genuine on the page. They’ll look like cardboard stand-ins for real people and, most importantly, they won’t talk to you and tell you what they are doing in your story.

And if you don’t enjoy reading what you write after you’ve written it, like if you finish the “final draft” and never want to look at it again—not because you’re tired of the story because you’ve read it literally 1 million times over and over again—but because deep down you’re embarrassed or you think no one will want this but you’ve worked so damn hard and you want it out in the world for people to read…guess what! It’s not good enough. Because you haven’t put your heart into it.

And yes, I speak from personal experience. I never wanted to look at the first book (of fiction) that I self-published.

Continue reading “Love Your Characters”

Research Road Trip: Queen Whilamena State Park

(I’ve edited and re-published this post from last year because I wanted to add more pictures and remember a fun road trip while I am sheltering in place. I hope all of you who read this are safe and healthy and I wish nothing but the best for you during these difficult times. I love you all!)

Last Summer (as I write this) I drove down to Mena, Arkansas with the intention of hiking in the morning at Queen Whilamena State Park and driving around in the afternoon exploring the teeny-tiny towns surrounding the state park.

The drive down was really pleasant. But then it started raining. Thankfully, by the time I got to the Queen Whilamena Lodge and Restaurant the rain had stopped BUT there was fog EVERYWHERE!

I had not checked the weather on my phone. I didn’t even think about the possibility of anything but clear skies and humid air (Summer in Arkansas, y’all). But that is not what I got.

There was a fleeting moment where my heart sank and I thought, “I drove all this way and now I have to go home…”

But then I took another look at the fog, which was literally getting thicker by the minute and I thought, “HOLY SHIT THIS IS PERFECT WEATHER FOR A HORROR NOVEL!”

I mean look at that! That’s amazing!

If I’d gone on a “normal” day I’d have hiked, got some nice pictures of trees and buildings, and gone home with nice things to think about but this–the fog, the rain–gave my setting character. Or my setting looked at me and said, “Acknowledge that I am a force of nature!” while slapping me in the face.

And there was this really nifty fungus on the trail that was all glistening and fleshy. I almost walked face first into a MASSIVE spider webs trying to photograph it.

A new beginning to Havoc’s Moon bloomed in my mind. I got to make rough stage blocking for an action scene and took pictures of this one specific outcropping from multiple angles for reference later. I was so inspired IT WASN’T EVEN FUNNY!

So the moral of this story here is think about what your setting is like in bad weather. You never know what will happen. But also, it’s important to visit, if you can, where your book is set because you’ll get to think about concrete details you may not have considered from your chair at your writing desk.

And I learned that my main character’s favorite food is not pizza like I thought it was, but fried green beans.

You never know what’s going to happen when you go out on location.

Good luck and happy writing!