Once the excitement of writing and publishing your first book fades, the elephant in the corner begins to stir, ‘What’s next?’ It’s a fair question and was posed by at least eight or ten of the thirty-six lucky owners of my first novel, ‘The eBay Killers’.
While the first to admit my writing project known by its code word of EBK, was little rough around the edges, it was and achievement I am still proud of, and for a few indulgent moments, the idea of a career as a novelist looked a possibility. Having knocked out the first 50,000 manuscript in under a month and thought to myself ‘This is quite good, bit of a tidy up and its good to go to the publishers.’ Brave and optimistic words from an uninformed (well, I was actually informed but in denial) but I’ll get back to that part in a moment, the dramatic effect is better this way I think.
I excitedly delivered the manuscript to my wife, who eagerly jumped straight into my intricately woven web of intrigue and thrills. One of my first writing lessons was: never sit and watch a reviewer as they work through what you think is a masterpiece. I did; and it wasn’t good.
I knew every word on every page. I knew where each witty metaphor was carefully placed, the subtle intricacies of every character, and every challenge my long-suffering lead character, Mike Winters, was about to encounter. For a moment, I was sure I had nailed the brief but I misinterpreted my wife’s furrowed brow for intense concentration, when in fact, it was just confusion.
What could it be? Plot, character development, settings, scenes, movement between scenes, dialogue, the correct balance of senses being pinged across every sentence, no it was far simpler than that. I had committed a rookie error and delivered a novel written in third person and it completely failed to engage my very first reviewer. I remember sitting and listening to her feedback, armed and ready to justify my approach, and how she was missing the point I intended to make. I asked for my feedback well done, and got what I ordered. It wasn’t a tasty dish, and as an aspiring author at the beginning of my career, it was tough to digest.
Begrudging Acceptance of Feedback
Desperately wishing her appraisal to be off target, I started reviewing her comments and before too long, begrudgingly accepted the harsh reality; my first draft was a dud and there was far more to be done than a spit and polish edit. EBK was a train wreck, albeit, a disaster that in my mind was still saveable. The plot was reasonable, characters interesting (if not a little clichéd) and given the book was set in the south of Canberra where we live; the scenes were at least physically realistic. (Which would of course play into my hand for an eBay Killers bus tour at some point).
Back to work, but not without a side-trip to the sanctuary of procrastination, and in my case, that meant going on an exhaustive search for a better writing application (because that had to be the only difference between my first rugged draft and a masterpiece). I searched high and low across the net and burned up precious hours to ensure that when I was finished rewrite, I could publish my manuscript on every platform possible. ‘Fuck the Publishers’ became my new mantra. Who needs a book deal? I was about to become a one-man publishing machine.
I get what you’re thinking because I had read it too, first time success for authors is virtually unheard of and any writer worth their salt understands that the first draft of anything is usually crap. I think Hemingway or Steinbeck said that, but what the hell would they know. They wrote their books on ratty old typewriters with ribbons, cigarette ash and at least two sticky keys.
I was a 21st century writer, armed with state of the art tech that would eliminate every possible barrier to writing a bestseller. I could publish to print, Kindle, Amazon and every smartphone on the world. I didn’t need to sell books at $30, I could sell then at $0.99 and the good old intramanet would take my masterpiece to an audience of millions billions ready to join the David Miller fan club. There is a spread sheet on my computer upstairs (which was dumped as a writing tool because I am portable man, I go where my story wants to) with a breakdown of sales by revenue stream. I had everything I needed to become a financially independently writer solely responsible for altering the writing and publishing landscape. (Note: later discoveries would also lead me to adding a well-written book and customers to the list).
Where was? Right, 3:00am, armed with a cup of coffee and ready to kick off the mammoth task of rewriting EBK from third person to first. My naivety reared its head again, surely it couldn’t be that hard to swap perspective across the whole book and still maintain the flow. The lessons came hard and fast, and my small task grew by the day, as I fiddled and muddled my way through each chapter making what I thought were the ‘minor’ edits to restore readability to The eBay Killers.
You know where this is going already. After a thirty day first draft write, editing the book into first person dragged on another six months gifting me more frustration than a virgin writer has the patience to endure. By the time I worked my way through to the end, adding the extras needed in scenes to read in first person, my fifty thousand words swelled to sixty-two thousand.
I knew the book was a rambling load of crap still in desperate need of more work, but being the disciple of technology, I fired up the editing module of Storyist and went word hunting. I was on a mission to hack and slash my was through the bloated manuscript in hit pursuit of ‘had’, ‘which’, ‘that’ (easily substituted for ‘which’) and a bunch of other grammar road kill that I was sure were the source of the disjointed and rambling prose staring back at me. Falling back into past habits learned when I was writing advertising copy for websites, each sentence became clipped and measured, every sentence a short an idea, every paragraph a subject.
The hacking and slashing went on for weeks and I attacked the task with the single-minded focus of a beaver relentlessly rearranging sticks in search of the perfect dam. Just as our energetic rodent discovered, the perfect dam is unachievable and the perfect book would remain just beyond my keyboard calloused fingertips. They are both endeavours where at some stage; you need to put it to the test. My pruning exercise drew to an end, the leaner manuscript was down to 54,000 words and (in my view) the ship was back on course.
Review Part II
Ground hog day was on me again as I nervously paced the house appearing busy, but actually scoping out my wife’s reactions as she scanned her way through the book a second time. After taking a mental note about card games and my wife’s ability to hold a serene and unreadable poker face, her next review came to an end about the hundred page mark and the manuscripts next issue became apparent, ‘The sentences are all short and clipped. There’s no flow through the story and the conversations all seem businessey.’
I received the feedback just as any writer who thinks they were on a winner would; with a bunch of sentences all starting with ‘But…’ Sure Dave, I said to myself, you’re right what does anyone know about your book, your art, the time you’ve spent, the sleep you’ve gone without, and how much you have suffered for your art. Around this time, I spent a huge effort sharing my suffering as I belaboured my Herculean efforts to friends, families and any stranger who would listen.
Did Someone Say Trainwreck?
The manuscript I smugly announced to the world back in May, was now a smouldering grammatical battlefield caught in a briar of multiple points of view, with a stop-start rhythm guaranteed to trigger a migraine, or worse, the indifference to guarantee a books final resting ground on the ‘free to a good home’ shelf at your local Vinnies. I had edited through the cold of a long Canberra winter, and rather than bring life to the book, I was now so deep into the story I was blind to its issues. Words out of place grew invisible to my brain who my now, was completing each sentence before my eyes scanned the line. The darkest of time were upon me. I became insular and no longer sought feedback or reviews. I could fix what needed to be fixed and save the whole project by myself thank you very much.
The next phase in the saga of EBK was yet another round of editing to add life, colour, texture, sounds, emotions and god willing, enough oomph in each page to push the readers onto the next. The book as a project became an abstract battle plan, like a map of Europe on the wall on an old WWII movie, Berlin was the target, but I had mini-battles on every front, fires and intrusions to defend, and I still had to go through the publishing process.
Writing the word now, ’a process’ is what EBK eventually evolved into. It became less about telling a story worthy of attention, and more about finishing and rushing my way through the remaining steps just to say I was a published author. It became the blinding light to which I was now drawn, like a moth on a hot summers night. And yes, as Meatloaf put it, I offered my throat to the wolf with the red rose. The red rose was the tantalising bait of being published and drawing the whole chapter to a close (so to speak).
Thanks to the evolution of online publishing, rather than the office drawer becoming the home of another unpublished manuscript, every aspiring writer now has the ability to become published and hang out a shingle. I have no issues with being published without a book deal.
Through Christmas and January, I rose each morning around 4:00am and tinkered endlessly with EBK, finally sending it out to a select group of friends and family to complete final reviews. In hindsight, I my selection of reviewers carried an unconscious bias. I invited final reviews from my closest mates and family and consciously didn’t ask for critical page-by-page reviews. It was like my final reviews were nothing more than another step in the ‘process’ to be checked off. Did I have editorial reviews done? ‘Of course!’
Feedback! Thanks But NO Thanks
I also knew there was no way in hell I was going to make any major changes at this point. My mates did what mates do, they completed the reviews, we had chats on the phone and I ‘mmmmmmed’ and ‘of coursed’ my way through any feedback and made next to no changes. It was a learning experience for the future as well; mates and family will always support you no matter what and be proud of you for taking the task on. If you want an editor, go and find one and be prepared to have a rocky relationship where they tell it straight. My own fear about EBK was I knew a copy editor would send my manuscript back laden with so may comments, that red ink would likely outweigh the black.
What had started as an exciting challenge on Anzac Day 2014, was now a project I had to finish. I know the words I’m fucking over this, spilled forth more than once and the pace of my final assault to publish the book built every day.
While I started a journey to produce a great book, that was now derailed by an urgency to get the whole thing over and done with. Rather than be something I created and nurtured, I now saw it as the bastard child that needed to leave home. Another more egotistical side also began to rear its head, the need to publicly declare myself as a ‘writer’. Funny thing about ‘writer’ versus ‘author’, a subject much debated in online forums. During this piece, I swapped constantly, more often than not writing author first and then replacing it with writer. I’m not sure if it’s an unconscious thing or not, but I relate author to someone published, and while I did achieve that, it was a poor mans publish and maybe to this moment, I won’t accept author, maybe I never will. I am David Miller, writer.
All Aboard the Self-Publishing Express
My commitment to finishing the project and hitting the button on publish was in full flight. I now carried a full print of the manuscript everywhere; it became my constant companion, my albatross. With its big bulldog clip, ratty edges, black scribbling’s and pink highlighting it was an ugly beast that demanded attention, ‘What’s that?’ Bang! An opening, another person to share the artists tortured journey with, and off I’d go, retelling my journey and quite regularly, finding an ear belonging to a person who always wanted to write a book. What a hero I was, ‘You should just roll up your sleeves and give it a try.’ ‘Oh I could never do that, I admire you for taking it on.’ And there it was, retelling the story of my great literary challenge had overtaken the book itself.
I no longer cared. It didn’t matter now how good the book was, it didn’t matter there was errors throughout from my third to first person debacle, it didn’t matter the content was stuffed with self-indulgent crap designed to make me seem deep and insightful, the fact was, I would self-publish, sing my own praises from the hilltops. Bugger all people would buy the book and the legend of David Miller, writer would be cast.
With a full-time declaration of ‘The End’ in a post on davidmillerwriter.com on February 17, 2015, The eBay Killers was finished. Ten months of labour, made up of one month of creativity and nine months of editing had come to an end and I could retreat to the safe zone of tinkering with formatting, cover graphics and sorting out how I could unleash EBK on an unsuspecting world.
The How To Stuff
I won’t bore you will all the details, but here’s a quick grab of the tools I used to self-publish:
- Writing software: Storyist. It was a cool app which set the structure of the novel, broke it into chapters, had separate sections for characters and setting so I could remember who was and who and where the hell they did it. Storyist also managed the export of the finished product in prep for submission to the sales channels. Cost $45.
- Graphics: Fiverr. I wrote a brief and submitted to Fiverr, the first jobs were a disaster but I eventually found a designer who understood I was publishing to multiple platforms. With a great recreation of my stuffed fox (and star of the book), Tyler on the cover, graphics took four days with a cost was $15. Make sure you use a designer who knows the channels you are proposing to use to you cover your bases in one design run.
- Formatting: eBookLaunch. While Storyist had a raft of exporting options built in, I opted to send EBK to a one-stop shop and have the formatting done once in prep for submissions. Three-day turnaround and ready for submission, total cost $35.
- Hardcopy Printing and Amazon: CreateSpace. Who was I kidding; I was always going to be a sucker for having a batch of hard copy books published. Its part of the journey, and regardless of how you may see the final product, if you never write another book, I thoroughly recommend having hard copies done. The process was easy; dropping in the text version of the book from eBookLaunch, there is a simple interface that steps you through the process, including adding your graphics. Errors that may affect printing are listed, you sort them and out and you are ready to roll. As the author, I think it came out to around $8 per book published in a batch of thirty. As CreateSpace is an Amazon company, via your account, you can also submit your mobi formatted file and set up your Amazon account in the same swoop.
- eBook (multiple publishers): SmashWords. This little discovery was a major find and saved a ton of time, as the number of publishing channels is huge. With a single SmashWords account, you can submit your book to all the major self-publishing platforms including iBooks, Barnes and Noble, SmashWords, Kobo etc. There is no charge and you will pay a commission on sales. As a first-timer, I recommend just getting it done to learn the process rather than bitch about how much commission you are about to give away. Let’s face it, with minimum account balances and no eager audience, it’s a tough ask to expect a journey to the mailbox to clean out the commission cheques.
- Website: WordPress. I invested in my own domain name (davidmillerwriter.com) with GoDaddy (Domain $5, annual hosting for WordPress $60) and bought a theme through StudioPress. As an eternal website tinkerer, I was fine with setting this up myself. Did I need one? Maybe, but as my intention was to establish a long and successful career as a writer, I followed a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy. The site looks professional, even if the writing isn’t quite up to par (yet)!
With little pre-launch marketing kicked off while I waited for the hard copies to arrive, I leaned on the experiences of an earlier chapter of my life as a marginally successful Internet marketer and began to create the hype of the impending book launch. With visions of a glittering function where people would mingle with champagne and canapés while eagerly waiting for me to read some passages, I began reading my own press and was quickly lost in a world where I self-published, became an overnight indie sensation responsible for transforming the publishing landscape while sticking it to the man and merrily humming ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra as I watched the royalties swell my bank accounts.
Did it really happen that way in the end? Not quite.
I fostered some illusions about the world and how the heady life of a self-published author would pan out. I once read a post which said one formula for working out your total first book sales was to take the total number of Facebook friends (125), divide it by four, add you immediate family and that would be the total number of book sales you could reasonably expect — without actually hitting the boards and going for to door. Total sales at last count – 38. How did they know that?
The Final Rite of Passage
The one thing I learned in starting the process to write a book, is you need to finish, and finish it properly. With that thought in mind, I prepared my submission and headed off in search of my first rejection letter. It only took six week to receive the ‘Thanks but no thanks’ and it was the happiest day of my writing life. Like so many authors before me, I had been rejected.
It’s a simple fact I have come to accept, I am not a special and unique flower with a secret hidden skill waiting to be unearthed. The journey I embarked on is a well-trodden path littered with books far better written than The eBay Killers, by far better writers than I could ever hope to become.
The illusion I created, which I have only recently emerged from, is being able to push out a manuscript in a month, panel beat it to near death and then self-publish does not make you a writer. It means you understand the mechanics of what needs to be done. The old saying ‘writers write’ stands and that is the real journey to head out on. My journey became an egotistical chest beating exercise that glossed over the fact that as a writer, I am on L-plates, and need to proudly accept that, while getting on with the job of becoming a better writer.
As I sit with my second coffee of the morning, it’s 5:30 am and the end of this piece has happily met my first goal — to sit back down and punch out 1000 words every day, and that’s what I will do. I know there’s good stories roaming in my mind, getting them out and cobbling them together into a good yarn, that’s the game.