What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on the blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher change that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

And both.

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works.  And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words.  Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story.  Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.”  I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

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What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten.  The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t.  He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong.  Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires.  For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing.  However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block.  A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again.  I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited.  And waited.  And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable.  Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline.  She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor.  She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible.  But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately.  Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy).  During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation.  Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner.  The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth.  However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak.  One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before.  Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2.  How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series?  And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest.  (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!)  Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest.  It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters.  The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3.  So what do writers do with Book 2?  Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominos for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two.  Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end.  That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending.  (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process.  Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out.  Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

What do you like to see in a sequel (as a reader or a writer)?

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A sad ending to our self-publishing tale

An unfortunate truth about experiments: they often end in failure.

Sure, I’ve heard the anecdote about Thomas Edison and how his thousands of attempts to perfect the light bulb.  And some might argue that failures teach us more than successes.  But when one’s heart is inexorably tied to the experiment, the disappointment of defeat runs deep.

On December 4, 2013, my wife and I published a children’s chapter book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers.  The titular character occurred to us when our daughter was yet an infant and the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon” was uttered in jest when it was time to put on her overnight onesie.

We jested about how donning magical pajamas transformed her into a superhero, and we thought the concept clever enough to entertain notions of writing a story about said heroine someday.  After our son was born, we jokingly referred to the two of them as the Goofers Twofers, an idea we tucked away as a possible name for the Pajamazon Amazon’s nemeses.

It was roughly six years before Stephanie and I put pen to paper.  It took us a handful of months to write the first draft and another year and a half to edit the book and prepare it for self-publication (more on that process here).  Our daughter, now 8, contributed the interior illustrations; a friend and coworker, the cover art.

On December 4, 2013, we finally published our book.

Less than two months later, we removed all traces of its existence from online retailers and deleted the Pajamazonamazon.com.

While ideas are free, words can be owned.  More accurately, words—and combinations thereof—can be trademarked.  And after receiving what boiled down to a cease-and-desist letter from the trademark owner of the word “Pajamazon,” we had a simple yet heart-wrenching decision to make: either fight for our family project (and pump potentially tens of thousands of dollars into the legal process) or fold.

Considering we sold only fifty copies and hadn’t even recouped our setup costs, reason dictated a prompt removal of our book and website from the public marketplace.

I can’t begin to explain the depths of my disenchantment.  What began as a fun family project and then evolved into a medium through which we could share our collective creativity with the wider world has become a source of frustration and pain.

For the record, I harbor no ill will toward the legal owner of the word “Pajamazon.”  That individual is protecting his own rights, and even if I don’t agree with every aspect of his objection—and even if I think our book poses little or no threat to his work—I can understand why he would want to protect his own endeavors.

Even though book titles cannot be copyrighted, the use of a trademark in the title or elsewhere in the book opens the door for legal objection.  While I did embark on some research into the topics of copyright and trademark prior to publication, my due diligence apparently fell short of the mark.  In all likelihood, I searched for other instances of the phrase “Pajamazon Amazon,” never imagining that the made-up word “Pajamazon” in and of itself could come back to haunt us.

(Some have asked whether our story could be salvaged if we substituted a different name for the superhero.  In theory, yes.  However, to change the alter ego of our protagonist alters the very nature of the story.  The name was the foundation of everything—from the outlandish book title to the abilities her magical pajamas bestow upon her.  If we were interested in pursuing commercial success at all costs, then we might entertain the notion of major edits.  But at this point, such a compromise would feel like adding insult to injury.)

Like Edison implied, experiments are learning experiences.  If I ever self-publisher again, not only would I spend more time searching for existing trademarks, but also I would likely spend some time and money trademarking ideas of my own.  There are other takeaways as well, perhaps fodder for future blog posts.

While I walk away from this ordeal with additional wisdom, I endeavor to leave any bitterness behind.  Whenever my mind tries to play the What If? game, I remind myself that nothing can change the fact that my wife and I wrote a book together, that other people have read and enjoyed it, and that we will always have a hard copy to treasure.

Even if The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers (very) limited run could be construed as a failure, the fact that we achieved what we set out to do is an indisputable success.

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This writer is making a new kind of resolution

I’ve never put much stock in New Year’s resolutions.

That’s not to say I haven’t ever made any, but like most of the population, my success rate is less than stellar.  As much as we all would like to believe that something magical happens when the calendar resets, our behavior—and personalities—seldom change with the flip of a switch.

I understand why we do it.  Anyway, it’s not as though we’re apt to make major life changes during the marathon of late-autumn and early-winter holidays…

When it comes to my writing, I prefer to work under deadlines.  Sometimes those goals coincide with the end of the calendar year, as was the case recently.  I dedicated much of 2013 to a couple of sci-fi short stories and the children’s chapter book I co-wrote with my wife.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time for The Soul Sleep Cycle in 2013.  And I was OK with that.

But I knew I didn’t want another year to go by without working on the rewrite of Book 2, so in the back of my mind there was a Dec. 31, 2013, deadline for my other projects, including The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers.  And when friends started asking if the book would be available in time to order copies as Christmas presents for sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews, my wife and I made a priority of self-publishing the book as early in December as possible.

Mission accomplished.

Well, sort of.

As far as The Pajamazon Amazon goes, there is still a lot we could—and arguably should—do if we want to achieve any kind of commercial success with the book, including making it available as an e-book.  Marketing and PR are my day job; I know there’s no shortage of tactics at our disposal.

Likewise, submitting short stories for publication is an ongoing process: as soon as a rejection arrives, there’s always the next destination on the list.

Then there’s the rest of the writing-related activities that vie for my free time, such as updating this website, co-managing the Allied Authors of Wisconsin website, and helping friends with their writing and publishing endeavors…

My days of being able to focus on a single manuscript for long, uninterrupted periods are over, which leaves two possibilities for planning the year ahead:

1. Work harder!

Been there.  Done that.

In fact, I tried this approach in early 2012.  The overly aggressive writing schedule was unsustainable.  I doubt anyone can allocate every spare moment of his life working on (or even thinking about) writing.  Even the best jugglers need a break, or they risk dropping a ball.  Or a chainsaw.

I’ve done my best to narrow my focus since then.  Well, I stopped writing the newspaper column at least, and some of the other side projects have decreased their demand for regular attention.  Nonetheless, I continue to have a dearth of opportunities to tackle everything I’d like to do.

I’m at the mercy of physics.  Cramming more time for fiction into my week just isn’t a viable option in the real world.  Whenever I try to do that, it all starts to feel like a burden—like doing work for the sake of doing work.

2. Stop thinking of it as work!

I have fond memories of my days as a dabbler, back when the writing itself was the endgame, not publication.  While there are a few fundamental differences in a writer’s approach when he decides to write commercially instead of just for fun, it shouldn’t be at the expense of fun.  If one finds satisfaction only when reaching a milestone or achieving some measure of success (e.g., recognition, profit, etc.), then the activity is doomed to resemble a dull “day job.”

Or worse, it’s a part-time job that doesn’t pay.

While I still intend to partition off regularly scheduled periods of time for writing and writing-related activities, I simply can’t afford to be a slave driver when it comes to my fiction.  If I want to succeed, I’ll still need to be strategic, but not sadistic, when it comes to self-made deadlines.

(I suppose that’s where patience comes in handy.)

So instead of making a bold declaration like “I’m going to have Book 2 of The Soul Sleep Cycle completely rewritten and edited by the end of 2014,” I prefer to make a different kind of resolution…no, make that a mission statement.

My goals for 2014—and beyond—are to find genuine happiness in the craft of writing, focusing as much (if not more) on the journey as the destination; to define success in terms of quality, not quantity or pace, of projects; and to maintain healthy, realistic deadlines while treading the fine line between dedication and compulsion.

Finishing/fixing the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep will remain a top priority.  The myriad of other tasks will filter in as time allows.  I fully expect to write fewer blog posts in 2014.

Once the ball drops on 2015, I can’t promise I’ll be any farther along in terms of finding a publisher for my novels and short stories or in terms of Pajamazon Amazon sales, but if all goes according to plan, writing will still be fun.

And without that, there can be no happy ending.

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 3)

Painting of Saint Monica

While there isn’t a true patron saint of patience, St. Monica’s name gets bandied about. | Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Patience isn’t just a virtue; it’s vital.

In this third installment of a series exploring the anatomy of a well-adjusted writer, the focus falls on another overlooked—and arguably undervalued—trait: Along with thick skin and a strong spine, a writer needs the serenity of a saint.We live in a do-whatever-it-takes, fight-for-your-dream, grab-life-by-the-jugular kind of world.  Any writer who wants to achieve even a modicum of success has to work hard.  The obstacles are plentiful, but many of them can be overcome by a combination of creativity, intelligence and diligence.  When faced with adversity, the determined writer simply fights harder.

And that usually works.

Usually.

Here’s a tough lesson for those who have devoted countless hours and made sacrifices for their passion: Sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait.

While a writer can set her own pace when it comes to the craft of writing—from outlining and typing the first draft to editing and soliciting—a manuscript eventually must go out into the world.  When that happens, all illusion of control soars out the window.

News flash: The publishing industry is slow.

Whether you’re waiting to hear from a prospective agent or an editor (or, more likely, the assistant to the assistant to the editor whose charged with shoveling through the slush pile), you’re going to have some time on your hands.

Find your happy place.  Get all Zen.  Give yourself a break.

Or don’t.

I suspect the majority of us writers juggle multiple projects.  If there isn’t something waiting on the back burner, you could always start tinkering with a new story.  Write something fun, crazy, outside of your comfort zone, or just plain bad.  Cleanse your palate.

Whatever you do, keep occupied…because a watched plot never boils.

Lest you accuse me of singling out traditional publishing, I found plenty of opportunities to indulge in impatience throughout the self-publishing process.  Those proof copies of The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers couldn’t come fast enough, and the day we gave CreateSpace the thumbs up to sell our book on Amazon.com, I must have refreshed my search page a hundred times waiting for it to appear.

And now that it’s there, I can list off a dozen follow-up tasks I want to tackle.  (It’s realistic to create and implement a marketing plan in twenty-four hours, right?)

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I have a history of allowing forward momentum to sometimes steamroll common sense.  Take this impossibly aggressive writing schedule, for instance.  I suppose we writers have to cut ourselves some slack too.

Perhaps a measure of impatience is inevitable.  Real life can get in the way.  At the end of the day, no one cares about your book as much as you do.  If you don’t serve as champion of your story, who will?

So, yes, fight for your dream when it’s appropriate.  But when it’s not, take a deep breath (or two), fold your hands, and demonstrate faith in your work through patience.

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Self-publishing: a seldom-told story

Partial cover image of "The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers"

We knew we wouldn’t be able to create a cover worthy of the story just on our own, so we found a graphic designer to give the book the pizazz it needed visually. (Enjoy this teaser image for now!)

Here’s the good news: self-publishing puts authors in control of nearly every aspect of the publishing process.

That’s also the bad news.

Once upon a time, a successful writer could get away with being a brilliant storyteller and leave proofing, editing, cover design, interior layouts/paginating, and distribution to folks whose full-time jobs were to manage such things.

Today’s writers who walk the path of traditional publishing continue to benefit from the collective expertise of professionals.  At the same time, the self-publishing route has become more accessible and profitable than ever before.

Which means more and more folks—such as my wife and I—are taking the do-it-yourself approach.

The pros and cons of DIY publishing, self-publishing, independent publishing (or whatever you wish to call it) could monopolize an entire series of blog posts.  Suffice it to say that amateur publishers have more freedom when it comes to the presentation of their novels than their contract-signing counterparts do.

Yet that freedom comes with a price.  For instance, a traditionally published author might not have much of a voice when it comes to the composition of her cover.  In fact, I’ve heard of situations where writers downright despise the depiction that ultimately graces the front of their books.

Not so with self-publishers—that is, of course, if you are a graphic designer, know one who will do you a favor, can afford to hire someone with the talent to translate what’s in your head to the printed page, or are satisfied with a template you (and God knows how many other writers) found online.

Fortunately, my wife and I know more than a few graphic designers, and we’re both extremely satisfied with how the cover for our upcoming children’s book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers, turned out.

Then again perhaps “DIY” is a misleading term when it comes to self-publishing.  I’d wager very few independently published authors could ever do it all alone.  Even those who can’t afford or otherwise spurn professional help in the form of artwork, editing, and proofing (a perilous decision, in my opinion) aren’t likely be the ones buying paper, setting up the press, or building their own retail website to sell their work.

Why would you bother when services like CreateSpace can handle the printing for you, and Amazon.com is more than capable of handling monetary transactions and distributing copies?

Despite such shortcuts, however, plenty of work remains for the self-published author.

I’ve read articles that purport the contrary, but believe me when I tell you that self-publishing is a significant investment of time.  Most of the checklists I’ve stumbled across online are far from comprehensive, and even if they were, looks can be deceiving.  A single line item can swallow up an entire afternoon…day…week…

On more than one occasion while trying to make sense of journey, I’ve felt like a certain British lass who wandered haplessly down a rabbit hole.

For example, we asked our cover artist to leave a space for the barcode, which we knew we would be purchasing in the near future, along with an ISBN.  No big deal.  It would be easy enough for her to add it to the back cover later.

But before we could create the graphic of the barcode, we needed to determine the price of the book, which we couldn’t do until we learned how much it would cost to print the book, which we couldn’t calculate until we were reasonably certain how many pages it would have, which ended up being only one aspect of price because we learned that printing our interior in full color was cost-prohibitive, which meant we needed to figure out if our color illustrations would look good in grayscale, which we couldn’t do until we consulted the graphic designer who was working on the cover.

Yes, I’ll have some more tea, Mr. Hatter…

Before someone accuses me of unfairly representing and/or tarnishing the reputation of self-publishing, perhaps a disclaimer is needed.  Our situation might not be typical for the following reasons:

  • This is our first attempt at self-publishing, so there’s a learning curve.  I’m confident that if we were to go through this exercise again, it would go faster and smoother.
  • Because there are two authors, there are two opinions when it comes to details big and small.  Not every decision is a drawn-out negotiation, but before either of us pulls the trigger on any task, we at least have the courtesy to consult the other.
  • I’m a (recovering) perfectionist, who sometimes gets bogged down in research.  (More evidence of that here.)  I prefer to consider all of my options before committing to a course of action.

I’m also incredibly detail-oriented, so if the page numbers on the contents page don’t align perfectly along the right margin, I have a problem with that.  The point is to make our book look as polished as any traditionally published title.

Speaking of page numbers, I must have spent an hour last Sunday battling Microsoft Word, which boasts an incredibly convoluted process for setting up Page 1 on any page other than the first or second with a document.

Even after setting up a section break to separate the story itself from the book’s front matter, I needed a YouTube video to show me the location of a tiny, random button that appeared at certain times on a certain tab and which needed to be unclicked so that the footer styles wouldn’t carry over from the intro to Chapter 1.

And then I had to figure out why only odd page numbers were showing up.  On second thought, forget the tea.  Alice needs something stronger…

The entire time, I kept thinking, “There are people out there whose job is to transform a manuscript into a print-worthy layout.  Someone—or several someones—could do in a matter of minutes the steps we’ve been attempting to do (on and off) for the past handful of weeks.”

But that’s the tradeoff.  We could have decided to hire a service to handle such things.  We also could have attempted to sell The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers to a traditional publisher of children’s chapter books.  Instead, we’re doing as much as possible ourselves.

It’s been a learning process as well as an adventure outside my comfort zone.  But that’s Wonderland, for you: unfamiliar, sometimes infuriating, and often…well…wonderful.

Editor’s note: The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers is no longer available for purchase. Here’s why.

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