Each aspiring author’s choice: To publish or self-publish?

To publish or self-publish? Panic

Lately I’ve thinking a lot about my long-held dream of getting a literary agent and seeing my book traditionally published. The truth is, as I continue to query my third manuscript (fourth if you count that one I partially wrote in high school), I’ve been feeling pretty demotivated. The process is ridden with rejections.

I know I’m a good writer. In the span of about five years, I gained traction as a freelance journalist, earning the praise and respect of a number of high-profile folks, and ultimately transitioned full-time into a much different (but also heavily writing-focused) role with a single company, where I’ve gone from bottom-rung to the head of a department and member of an executive team. In what I do, I’m successful — and supremely grateful. I know, with confidence, how much my skills have grown and how much more potential I have to fulfill. I’m damn proud of myself.

But there’s still a part of myself that craves a different outlet. An ambition that needs to be satisfied. And that’s becoming an author. Not a writer who’s finished and revised several manuscripts, mind you, but a Published Author (insert sparkles here).

fancy author gif

And as years spent on one manuscript give way to years on another, I’m beginning to question what I really want: to see my name on a book on a shelf in a store or library, or to have readers — dozens or even hundreds or thousands of them?

I think it’s a little of both. I want to feel like I’ve “earned” my keep by getting an agent, getting a publishing deal, and seeing my books for sale. But I also know that if I did all that (or even part of that) and my book still tanked and no one read it … it wouldn’t mean all that much to me.

I want my book to be read, too.

Getting published is hard. The odds exist (and are real) and yet don’t exist at the same time: Honing your craft increases your chance of success, and each novel is a learning experience … just one that takes one or two years to complete each time. It’s a long-ass journey. Ava Jae, a young adult author I admire, wrote 10 books before she got an agent. Even writers who’ve made it into The New York Times can’t get book deals.

And while I’m not sure I want to self-publish — there are a number of drawbacks to that route, including hurting your chances of getting traditionally published in the future and the plain fact that the only person deciding whether your book is ready is you, a very biased opinion holder — I’m not sure I want to wallow in silence forever, either. I don’t want to shelve manuscript after manuscript, all for a goal I may never reach.

So what does my future hold? Well, more querying and more novel writing, undoubtedly. But I’m also toying with the idea of letting some of my old, failed manuscripts free on a community like Wattpad. Those stories are languishing alone on my computer; they’re not going anywhere. If I release them anonymously, for free, with no sales numbers to haunt me — whether they get two views or two thousand — what’s the harm?

At the end of the day, it’s my choice. I have to decide what’s important to me.

Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?

Micro editing or macro editing: Which comes first in a first draft?

Pokemon No Idea What I'm Doing GIF

Quick life update before we get into the good stuff: September was a busy month for me. I finished the first draft of my novel WIP (!), adopted a dog (!!), and got married (!!!). So yeah, that’s why I sort of disappeared last month.

Now that things are calmer (well, not totally calm — dog training is a big undertaking) and I’ve taken a much-needed break, it’s time to dig my hands into my manuscript again and revise. To get myself pumped and in the writer’s mindset, I’ve been reading Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and listening to writing podcasts (I use and recommend the platform Podbean). One episode I came across was on the “Story Grid Podcast” show and discussed micro editing and macro editing in a first draft.

So I’ve always heard that macro editing — the big-picture revisions to your story’s major structure and core elements, like world-building, plot, and character — should come before micro editing — the smaller-scale revisions to aspects such as sentences and word choice. It makes sense when you think about it: Why quibble over grammar or diction when you’re probably going to make massive, story-altering changes that might undo or negate all that work?

In other words, you don’t edit the prose of your first chapter 10 times, then move on to chapter two and repeat until you hit “The End.” You rework the clay of your story’s body to get the shape right before polishing the details.

Pokemon Weight Lifting GIF

But Tim Grahl, the host of “Story Grid,” actually advocates for the other way around: Tackling more minor tasks first before moving on to the big stuff.

The reason, he explains, is because after you reread your first draft and make a list (a spreadsheet works well) of all the problems you noticed or parts you’d like to improve, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And trying to start with the big items is only going to make you want to throw your hands up and quit. How are you even supposed to know where to start?

By starting with the micro, Grahl says, you can knock out smaller tasks while getting a better feel for your novel and how you’re going to fix those macro issues you’ve identified. Which means you’re less stressed and more equipped to conquer the revision process.

I like his thinking.

Of course, Grahl isn’t saying, “Tweak that sentence or fix that typo before doing anything else.” He’s saying, “Fix small issues, then big ones,” and I imagine he agrees the fine-tuning should still come at the end.

That said, every writer has their own style for tackling revisions, and what works works. To me, the most important part is to just get through it, make progress, and keep finding solutions to those pesky problems so you can improve your novel.

What do you think of Grahl’s advice?

The smartest advice you’ll hear about showing and telling emotion in your writing

Cat Mind Blown

I love watching writing videos on YouTube. Often it’s information I already know, but listening always inspires me to get back to my own writing. (I’m almost done with the first draft of my third manuscript, guys! Eeee!)

That said, sometimes I stumble across a gem of insight. That happened to me yesterday when I watched novel editor Ellen Brock’s video on how to describe emotion in your novel without being melodramatic or cliché.

Why do I love her advice so much?

  1. Because soooo much writing advice gets our brains stuck on showing, never telling, when telling is a useful tool.
  2. Because there’s a ton of advice out there that only encourages writers to show emotion in cliché ways, like “her hands clenched into fists” to demonstrate anger.
  3. As Ellen points out, no one in real life is 100 percent transparent about their emotions at all times. We’re more often concealing what we’re really feeling.

The key is, as Ellen says, introspection.

“What your character thinks, how they interpret the world, how they interpret their emotions — that is a lot more important than what they feel,” she says.

“If you pull a gun on someone, pretty much everybody in the world is going to feel afraid in that situation. But that doesn’t tell the reader anything about your character. That’s not special, that’s not unique. That’s just the obvious reaction to that situation. What is special and unique is what your character thinks.”

Ellen also gives some examples of what this looks like in Stephen King’s novel Misery, including how he uses this technique in combination with showing or telling, so definitely give her video a watch!

I’ve always felt this way about describing emotion in my gut, but it’s so helpful to have someone else validate that idea and put it clearly into words.

What do you think is important about showing, telling, and describing emotion in a story?

4 most important skills to master for writing good fantasy

Wonka Imagination

Lately I’ve thought a lot about my skills and what differentiates a good (fantasy) writer from a bad one. Or what makes an original, engrossing fantasy novel versus a bland, boring one.

Now, there is no perfect recipe. And doing anything well is difficult. But I’m becoming more convinced that if I or anyone else can do these four things right, we’ll be in a much better position as writers.

Stop giving a shit about the rules

You should absolutely learn the tenets of good writing practices, from everything involved in creative writing to grammar. You should also study story structure.

But when it comes to writing the first draft, you should forget all of it.

Okay, here’s the thing. Writing rules can constrain you to the point that you don’t take risks, and that’s bad. For example, I’ll get so obsessed over not using “to be” verbs that I slow myself down when I’m first-drafting because I’m always searching for that perfect verb. Or I get so worried about showing and not telling that I struggle to put words down at all and end up distancing readers from a character when I could be putting the reader in their heads more. I’m holding myself back, and I can feel it.

Lower Your Expectations Writing

Do me a favor. Crack open a book you like and flip to a random page. Now count the verbs like “was” and “is.” You’ll probably see a lot of them. Or actually analyze a scene and count how many times the writer tells instead of shows. Often this is hard to do because you get sucked into the story — and that’s what really matters. Nobody will care how many times you use “was” or “were” if you can succeed in getting them in the characters’ heads and investing them in what’s happening.

I absolutely recommend outlining before writing so that you at least keep yourself on track. And yes, you should absolutely care about using stronger verbs and showing more than you tell. That’s good writing. But you probably don’t need to worry about it as much as you are, especially when you’re first-drafting. Turn off that editor brain. Get messy. Indulge your whims. You’ll have a better story for it.

Put a twist on everything

It’s important to take risks not only with your prose but also with your world and characters. When I think about stories that captivate me and make me jealous of an author’s imagination, I think of stories that do things differently.

The Fifth Season is a book I’m reading right now that’s an excellent example of this. There aren’t towns, there are “comms.” It’s not another stereotypical medieval fantasy world with land surrounded by oceans, it’s a world of shifting tectonic plates, where earthquakes are the normal way of life and everything — from how society functions to how magic works — builds from that one idea. It’s brilliant, really.

But author M. K. Jemisin is just pulling stuff out of her ass. She’s a writer! She’s supposed to make stuff up! You can invent as crazy and new and different of a world as you want!

Adventure Time Jake Rainbow

Yes, you need to create a consistent, logical world with constraints and consequences. But otherwise you can do anything you damn well please. My new goal: Think of something I’d assume would be “normal” in a fantasy story and challenge it by putting my own spin on it. Even if it’s something small, if you do that enough times, you’ll have a book brimming with originality much like The Fifth Season.

In a way, it’s hard to give ourselves that kind of creative license. Fantasy writers are very much influenced by The Lord of the Rings, cyberpunk writers by Neuromancer, supernatural writers by Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, etc. etc.

But guess what: Those writers made shit up. You can make shit up, too. There’s no law saying you have to follow their rules, and if you don’t, you’ll be all the better for it.

Make everything harder, and force characters to act

Conflict is at the root of a good story. But again, easier said than done. It’s hard to 1) constantly up the ante because we love our characters and 2) put them in a position where they have to do something and then actually go do it. Our characters should be those people we yell at in horror movies who go through the door when why would they be so stupid as to go through the door.

Think of it this way: If a crazy killer broke into your house, you’d probably be tempted to hide in the closet and cry and hope they go away. Or maybe you’d call 911 and then play it safe until the police arrived and handled it for you. But the more interesting stories are those where the character is so much braver or more foolhardy than we’d be, and they just start doing things. Because without them taking charge and taking risks and trying things out, it’d be pretty boring to watch. This goes for all of your characters. They need to actually move to move the story forward.

Alien Movie Ripley Action

Same thing applies to intensifying conflict. As writers, we have to be willing to get our characters in a pickle and then do the hard work of figuring how the hell they’re going to get out of this one. But that’s what will keep people reading.

Nail their voices

You know that test that goes, pick a passage of dialogue at random, and if you’ve done your job, you should be able to identify the character without looking at the dialogue tag? That’s maybe a little excessive, but the general idea is right.

Voice is being able to tell, how does a character speak that makes them unique from the others in my book? Voice is reading their POV and having all the writing filtered through not the author’s style, but the character’s style. Reading their chapter should be an experience in itself.

Die Hard GIF Bet Your Ass

Again, easier said than done, right? What helps is to create a quirk or trait that is all their own, as well as a core value that defines their life philosophy (or “misbelief,” an often imperfect worldview). That’s going to help them stand out from the other characters.

Now think of those couple qualities as a straight line. Constantly, when you write their character, you need to write around that line. You can veer in a zig-zag, snake-like pattern around it as you reveal new facets of their character and personality and story, and as they falter and grow. You don’t want to stick purely to the straight line because, well, then you’ll have a boring, one-dimensional character. But if you keep who they are in mind and return to that throughline, it’ll be easier to write them differently than other characters — not only in dialogue but in their actions and narrative voice, too.

All in all …

The more I write and acknowledge weaknesses in my writing, the more I realize how important all these things are to do. And “do” really isn’t the right word. These are goals, and I should always strive to meet them to the best of my ability.

And that ability is growing, little by little, story by story. It takes time and practice and experience, and sometimes you gotta get the “bad” stuff out of you before you can drill down to the really juicy stuff. But if we stick with it, we’ll get there.

What do you consider the most important skills to master in writing an awesome, original story? What makes a good book “good”?

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