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