When I was a sophomore in college, the professor teaching my short story class invited me to be part of her advanced creative writing seminar, in which students would write a novella. After an initial round of fits and starts that never got anywhere due to my paralyzing fear and perfectionism, my professor ordered me to stop thinking and just write. In fact, she made me call her voicemail every night to report how many pages I’d written, something I now recognize as an act of above-and-beyond kindness on her part that I took for granted at the time. By the end of the semester, I had a 120-page, single-spaced novella and a feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment like I’d never experienced before. I remember watching the pages come out of the printer in the library’s computer lab and feeling the pile grow in my hands. Among a number of critical comments from my professor, like “stop using exclamation points like a condiment” (apparently, my 19-year-old self thought they were needed to show strong emotion), was the concluding assessment that I really had something good and should “do something with it.” Caught up in the glow of validation, I vowed that I would indeed do something. But the glow faded, and the huge pile of pages in front of me that I had been so proud of became something unwieldy and overwhelming. So I put it away somewhere and moved on to other things. For about fifteen years.
About five years ago, I was reading a book of theoretical physics for laypeople called The Elegant Universe. During that same period, I read a magazine article about some of the most haunted cities in Europe just before taking a nap. During the nap, my subconscious made one of those “aha!” connections between the two things, and when I woke up, I had an idea for another novel. My workplace at that time was a very unhappy place for me and many of my colleagues, and writing the first draft of this story I’d come up with during a nap was, at first, a kind of therapeutic escape. Ten months later, I had a 98,000 word behemoth. My friends were all very excited and, sweet as they were, talked about how it was going to be the next big thing, everyone would love it, etc. Which was really nice, but also a complete fantasy.
I was starry-eyed and vain enough in the beginning stages to tackle the revision process with the belief that I had something that, while not the next bestseller, could get the attention of an agent and end up published by one of the big publishers. I did a couple rounds of catching typos, rewriting some dialogue, and cleaning up some awkward paragraphs and thought I was done. I foolishly started querying agents at this point and was brought back to earth by a string of rejections. Granted, rejections are par for the course when querying agents and trying to get out of the slush pile, but the actual experience of it made me take a harder, closer look at my manuscript and see it for what it really was–an early draft that needed considerable work. One of the agents I had queried had been kind enough to write a personal note (a very rare thing from NY agents flooded with hundreds of queries a week) and make an editing suggestion about where my novel should really begin. It meant cutting out the first two chapters entirely, which was a far more radical edit than I’d been prepared to consider before. But at that point, I was ready, and the real work of revision began.
Over the next couple years, I labored over that manuscript, getting feedback from wherever I could–mostly friends, but also from a well-known YA author whose critique of my first 50 pages I won in an auction to raise money for an MFA program in Vermont. I also entered it (midway through revisions) into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, made it to the quarterfinals, and got a review from Publishers Weekly that, while complimentary overall, had a couple critiques that also gave me direction for further revision. I then started the query process again, and this time my results were a little better. I was still getting rejections, but I was also getting more requests for full manuscripts. But even though a few agents responded with personal notes (as opposed to the form rejection) telling me specific things they really liked about my novel, they all concluded that, in the end, it just wasn’t something they were passionate about and could represent. After another hard look at the manuscript, I had a sense that while it was a much-improved version of the first manuscript I’d tried to shop around, it still wasn’t quite to the level it needed to be. But I didn’t know how to fix it, so I put it away, not sure I’d ever return to it.
Last year, I decided to try again. I recognized that I was learning valuable things through this laborious process, and there was some stubborn part of me that wanted to see this project through, to do what my 19-year-old self had failed to do. To my relief and surprise, when I looked at the manuscript again after not reading it or thinking about it for an entire year, the flaws were obvious. That year off had given me emotional distance, and I was able to ruthlessly chop passages and rework sections in a way that would have made my heart bleed a year prior. Something else had changed as well–namely, my desire to continue querying agents and get published in the traditional way. The thought of researching agents, crafting query letters, perfecting my pitch, etc. made me want to weep. It wasn’t just the thought of more rejections–it was also the thought of how much time and energy it takes to do all of that. As a full-time high school English teacher, I just don’t have a lot of free time and energy, and I didn’t want it to all get used up by the business of querying. I wanted to use that time and energy to read and write. And maybe hang out with some friends once in awhile.
The clear alternative, then, was to self-publish, something a couple of my friends had been encouraging me to do for a while. Initially, though, I was deeply resistant to the idea. It reeked of failure to me. When you self-publish, you pay for everything yourself, which means no one has to choose you–there is no quality barrier, no ensured professional process, and thus there are a lot of really crappy self-published novels out there. But, as my friends pointed out, there are also some good ones, along with some up-and-coming talents who are actively choosing to self-publish in order to preserve more control over their own work and profits.
When I really thought about it with an open mind, I realized that self-publishing was the best fit for me, especially since going the traditional route and getting an agent was no guarantee that any of the publishers would actually buy my manuscript and publish it. And that even if they did, the process could take years. I’m not trying to become a career novelist. I don’t care about being a commercial success, which is a rare outcome even for most novelists published in the traditional way anyway. I really don’t want to have to do publicity and promotion (most self-published authors do, but the appeal to me is that I don’t have to and no one can make me). I don’t want a Twitter account. I don’t want to interact with people on forums. I just want to be done with this and have my novel available for the family members, friends, and handful of former students who’d want to buy it. And if other people want to read it too, that will be great–the cherry on the sundae.
Even after recognizing that self-publishing probably was the best and most logical choice for me in the circumstances, it still felt kind of cheesy and embarrassing. Determined to try and create a product as professional and polished as any traditionally published work, I hired a professional editor to help me iron out any remaining kinks in the manuscript. I did considerable research on the best companies for formatting and publication, and I hired a professional graphic artist to design the cover. I also submitted the finished manuscript to Kirkus Reviews despite the overwhelming tide of online opinion that it’s a terrible idea to do so given how mean Kirkus can be to indie novels (“indie” being the cooler/slicker term for self-published authors in recent years). I was terrified of getting a disparaging review, but I was willing to take the risk because I was also deeply craving some type of industry validation of my work. And I got it. Kirkus awarded me one of their coveted starred reviews (WARNING: there are some major spoilers, so you might want to skip it if you intend to actually read the novel).
And yet, in some annoying way, that’s still not enough. At church a couple weeks ago, an acquaintance who knew I’d been working on a novel asked when it was coming out (I love the unwitting optimism of people’s assumption that just because you’ve written a novel, it will automatically get published). When I told her it would probably come out sometime in October, she got all excited and asked, “Who’s publishing it?” I felt about ten inches tall when I said, “well, I am.” She was very sweet about it, but I could see her expression change. That was exciting, but less so.
In the end, I think my squeamishness is something that would probably be there even if I had managed to publish traditionally, because either way, I’m still exposed. My work (which, in some ways, is hard to separate from me) will soon be out there at the mercy of anyone’s judgment, whether it’s a private thought or an Amazon review. And that’s terrifying. I might think that the validation of being vetted by an agent and publisher would offer more protection, but then I think of all the authors who get published traditionally and are savaged by critics anyway, or whose sales are so disappointing their publisher and agent drop them. Whatever route it takes, the work is the work, and people’s responses to it aren’t going to be affected by who published it, for better or for worse. I’m hoping for the better, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.