To Move Forward, Go Back A Little: On Writing and Editing My First Book
Writing is an exercise in fear. You start with nothing, just an idea and a blank page. Hours, days, or years later, you end up with a bunch of words strung together into something that — if most writers are like me — you simultaneously adore and loathe. Then you put it out into the world for readers to consume and judge. Done right, you’ve just laid your soul bare to the world and invited anyone who wants to walk all over it.
For as long as I knew what jobs were, I wanted mine to be stringing words together one way or another. Ironically, when I was first starting out in the writing game, I had surprising success, and I took it as validation that I was just that good (and not that the nascent internet needed content, any content). Yet, I wasn’t that good at it. Relatively speaking, I turned in copy that would be the envy of any other 14-to-16-year-old writer, but I was all voice and no skill. Eventually, I filed those hopes of being a full-time writer away with other discarded dreams: being the co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon, being an astronaut, and being Metallica’s hype-man.
When the Post-9/11 GI Bill passed, I took the advice of most of my family and decided to study Computer Science. The goal of a degree was to get a good job, and being a writer was definitely not one of those. It took me just a few weeks to realize I was helplessly out of my depth. Despondent, I applied to the University of Pittsburgh — the first school that accepted me when I sent out college applications during my senior year of high school — and signed up for the writing program. If I was destined to be a failure, then by god I was going to be a failure doing something I loved.
In the three years I spent at Pitt, I took every writing class I could get my grubby mitts on. I studied literature, took fiction and nonfiction classes, I even signed up for an intro to poetry class (but only because the teacher was really good). Thus, I produced about nine short stories, seven nonfiction essays, and a handful of poems. About 10 percent of them were pure garbage (one short story literally had a “Scooby Doo-ending”), but the others? Those I liked. In rare moments, I even thought they were good.
In my late-stage writing career, I have purposefully avoided writing for big-name outlets. The competition is fierce, and my confidence roller-coaster doesn’t really allow for that sort of stress. But, I also wanted to be part of building something. I don’t just take the path least traveled by, I barge through the brush into a place that everyone else knows better than to walk through because of the thistles, thorns, and bear-traps.
While at Pitt, I tried to work towards writing two separate book-length projects. One was a nonfiction effort digging into online dating and how it was changing relationships. The other was a book of short stories with the connective narrative tissue of the death of a soldier in Iraq and the subsequent protest by a volatile and hateful church group.
When I left the university, I had some 50,000 of words of the nonfiction book complete, but Tinder had just been released, and it changed the entire online dating game. I completed six stories for the fiction project, but two were forcing their connections to the overall narrative and the characters just stopped talking to me. I was able to keep writing, but the stories just sucked. So, for about four-and-a-half years, I again put aside my own writing and dove into the work-for-hire game, covering news and politics.
Freelancing has been a good career for me. I set my own hours, get to work in my pajamas, and there is enough variety that I never feel bored. It’s tough, and there’s no security, but writing is all I know how to do. My thought was always that writing for money would lead naturally into writing for pleasure, and that soon I would have volumes written and submitted to publishers with my name on them. Naturally, that hasn’t happened.
The publishing business is in trouble, too. Across the globe, book sales started to fall. Publishers of all print media, but especially books, began to lose money, which meant even fewer books were published each year. Paperback books, usually a better seller than hardcovers, declined to, leading many to wonder if e-readers weren’t “killing” the publishing industry. Soon, the sales of audiobooks and e-books appeared to be the saviors of publishing, but now those are down too. Paper books saw their sales increase, but these were mostly adult coloring books and other non-traditional books.
Shortly after leaving Pitt, I was alerted to an event held by the English department, featuring an editor for a major publishing house. I wanted to hear about how bad things were in the industry I was likely too late to ever break into.
Of all the interesting information this editor shared, the most interesting thing he talked about was how he worked on the team that prepared E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy for publication. During my time at Pitt, we found copies of this book and marveled at how terrible the writing seemed to us. We were steeped in the works of the greats and aspiring to reach their heights with our own work. But this story — erotica seemingly written by someone who had never read erotica before — went on to become the best-selling book of all time in Britain and one of the top ten series in the United States.
While the prose in the book is objectively, sub-par, the four years I’ve spent writing for the internet has made me far less critical of people who put themselves out there and take the steps to create and then release a book. And, quality of the writing and the story aside, James’s tale is actually inspirational.
Her books began as a fanfiction story set in the Twilight universe. James was annoyed at how chaste the dour ingenue and the sexy-dangerous vampire were, so she decided to write the story she wanted to read. She was already a fanfiction author with possibly millions of readers. So when she published her first Fifty Shades book, it skyrocketed in ebook sales, caught the eye of a publisher, and the rest, as they say, is history. Say what you will about James’s story, she followed that hallmark of writing advice that sounds like pablum: write the stories you want to read.
So, that’s what I’ve started to do. I have four fiction books in the works right now, all with the potential to be serialized. They are characters and worlds that intrigue me. The stories I can tell are the sorts of stories I seek out either in prose or on television or film. But, they are also unique. The characters and the stories have elements of popular genre stories, but are their own thing. (At least, if all goes as planned.) I think they are great stories that people will enjoy, but would a publisher?
There are thousands, if not millions, of articles out there telling people how to sell a book. Most, at least the ones being honest, say two things clearly. First, you have to develop your own following before you can get published, which is why so many celebrities who aren’t know for writing get huge book deals. For example, vloggers, Vine stars, and other social media celebrities have their own publishing imprint now that is partnered with Simon & Schuster. Second, they will tell you that you shouldn’t expect to make any money, ever. Authors get only a few cents to a few dollars from each book they publish, and (to add insult to financial injury) they are expected to market their own books. Thus, if yours is a book that you want to read but it isn’t clear that others will, no publisher would ever take the risk.
The book that I’ve just published, What I’ve Learned: Stories, Essays, and More, is one of those books. No publisher, even when they were making loads of profits, would ever publish it. It’s part fiction, part nonfiction, and part poetry. Yet were these stories not collected as they are, they likely would never see the light of day. Some are years-old, so they are unlikely to be published on their own. And, frankly, I don’t have the patience to submit the fiction to literary magazines that don’t pay their writers anyway. If the citizens of Gravenwood, PA (my hometown version of Stephen King’s “Castle Rock, ME”) were ever going to live on their own, I would have to do it myself.
This is, I hope, the first of many books I will self-publish and bring into the world. Do I think I will attract a book deal and a film deal like James with my goofy time-traveling thieves, mythological cops, or the weird pantheon of superheroes I invented as a kid? Nope, probably not. Are they stories I want to tell and share with those who might be interested? You’re damn right.
Still, putting a book together is no easy task. Thus What I’ve Learned was born. I both get to bring these works that I am proud of out into the light, and it serves as a practice-run to self-publishing. Think of it like a proof-of-concept product. It takes older (but high quality) work and packages it for a new audience. It also shows that I can pull this off. But, it does something more, too. It reminds me where I’ve been as a writer. It reminds me, not to be too-on-the-nose here, what I’ve learned working next to other writers, whose eyes are filled with stars and their brains filled with stories and words. It reminds me that I don’t have to worry about if I can do this, because I’ve already done it.
Artists, writers especially, feel a compulsion to do their work. Some are able to do it as a hobby or side-gig to their main careers. Others, like myself, jump in with both feet, eager to swim but fully prepared to drown. For as much as I’ve tried to avoid being a full-time writer, I’ve failed at that. In fact, there’s a Hunter S. Thompson quote that has always resonated with me that articulates this feeling.
It comes from a letter to another aspiring writer friend of Thompson’s that he drank with in the late 1950s, Roger Richards. He wrote:
“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”
Fate’s thumb hangs over all of us, flicking us in the forehead with it’s crusty, crooked nail to remind us that it’s up there. But it can flick right off, because I’m a storyteller, and — like E.L. James before me — that’s what I am going to do. I can’t afford a graphic designer, so my covers will be amateurish and not exactly beautiful. I can’t afford an editor, so there may be typos or even larger structure problems. I can’t afford to purchase ads or book reviews for them, so all I will have is genuine word-of-mouth. Like the author who writes them, my books will be imperfect, kind of low class, but a hell of a lot of fun.
Self-publishing has its own problems, many of them not yet even discovered. But it allows for writers like me, with neither the patience nor the acumen for this crummy business, to put our work out there for the people we want to have it anyway: the readers. It also cuts out the middleman, possibly giving authors who can’t command the royalties of James (or even lesser gods like King, James Patterson, et al.) a bigger cut of the profits. More time spent not starving or homeless means more time for more writing.
Thus, my collection What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More is now available as a paperback from Amazon (Medium is a bit of a hater though, because while all sorts of websites embed in these posts, these just look like ugly, generic links):
And as an ebook from the Kindle Store and Smashwords (who will soon include it in the Apple and Nook stores, as well):
Please purchase a copy of this book, then purchase copies of other books. Only readers can save the business and keep that thumb of fate from crushing us while we defiantly shake our notebooks at it until we’re gone.