Someone asked me to write up a brief version of my journey to becoming a published author to share with a college class on creative writing. After typing it up, I decided to share it with y'all too. So here you go...
Today the path to become a self-published author is fairly mainstream. Many self-published (or independent) authors have gotten movie deals, made the best sellers lists, and take home six-figure incomes. I started in a much different world. A world with strict gatekeepers and deadly slush piles.
Decades ago, when I was still in elementary school, I started writing stories. They were all fantastical and just as strange as you might assume from someone that age. As an example, one of my first stories was about a guy who drove his Lamborghini Countach across the desert. I have no idea why he was in the desert in a Lamborghini; that is just as lost as the story itself is.
Later in high school I wrote a story about an alien that came to Earth and tried to understand what he saw. That alien’s name was Vydor, a name that has stuck with me ever since. That was one of the few stories I finished in that era of my life. Since I was handwriting them, I would lose the papers and have to start over constantly.
I wrote and lost many stories over those years. They varied in genre, style and quality greatly, but they had a common core, a core that is with me to this day. They told the story of good people overcoming adversity. Today we have a name for these kinds of stories, “noble bright,” but back then I would have just said they were fun stories. They were stories meant to take you away to a better place, a place where good wins without becoming evil.
There is one story though I started in the ninth or tenth grade that essentially was about wizards in space. The main character’s name was Vydor, and he was human this time. Vydor gets around, you see, but regardless I spent years working on that story. I rewrote the story by hand many times until I got it on a computer where I could more easily edit it.
For years, no one read that story, or indeed most of my stories, but eventually my wife convinced me to try and get it published. This was before Amazon and the rest were taking indies and putting out ebooks. I shopped it out with an agent and a publisher, and they told me at the time that they wanted to see at least four books before they would take me seriously, so I started a sequel for it.
Over time the deal with the agent soured and the dream of publishing was shelved for a while. I kept working on the books, and my wife tried to do some basic editing on them. During this time there were a few disasters where the books were lost and had to be recovered from old backups and all edits were lost. More than once.
In November of 2010 I put the book up for sale at $0.99 on Amazon’s ebook platform under the title The Enemy of an Enemy. It had a cover that was a real photograph of a nebula and the title was in some sci-fi font I found somewhere. It looked really cheesy, but I was finally a published author. I knew that no one would buy it, but that did not matter. You could go to a real bookstore, look up my name, and see a book I wrote.
In those days, self-pub was the wild west and the fact that the book had never been edited by a professional did not matter. Several months after it released, Amazon set it to free, and an outfit I had never heard of called “EReader News Today” listed it on their site. The book flew off the charts. I moved something like twenty thousand copies in a matter of days.
Keep in mind, this is 2010, long before the ereader boom. No one took ebooks seriously at that time but that did not matter to me. I was not only a published author, but I was flying up the charts.
Then the reviews came in. They were a mix of five star and one star. The one stars were all due to the fact that the book really needed an editor. Most of those were very valid complaints and well-earned. The five stars came from people that saw past that and loved the story. They were the readers I focused on. Those that came for the story, they became my tribe.
I released book two, The Academy, the following June and book three was not far behind that. People were now paying for my books and I was getting email from readers that enjoyed the stories, including one touching letter from a woman that said my books got her through chemo. These readers are why I kept at it despite some very harsh reviews, some of which contained vicious personal attacks.
I was bringing joy to strangers around the world. That was what mattered. That was all that mattered. I would have kept writing no matter what. I am a storyteller; I cannot help but tell stories, but I kept publishing because of the light in the eyes of those readers. To bring joy, and an escape from the often-harsh realities of life. That is why I publish.
Fast forward to today. I have three series, over a dozen books and over a million words in print. My sales have been very much a rollercoaster ride. Some years I made really good money, other years I lost money. Throughout it all I have stayed in touch with my readers, and some of them have been with me since I first released Enemy in 2010. They saw past the poor grammar and spelling to the heart of the story and traveled with me through learning how to be an author.
Today my books all go through multiple editors and prereaders. I pay artists for custom illustrations for maps and covers. I have hired professional voice actors to make audiobooks and professional layout people to create print editions. Just about every aspect of the process has been outsourced as much as possible. The quality of my product rivals any in the industry now, a far cry from November 2010.
Today’s world of publishing is drastically different than when I started, but one thing still remains constant: It is all about the story. I am a storyteller, and that is where I focus everything. I hire others to do the rest, but the story is all mine, until I release it. I release it to bring joy and escape to those that are looking for a bit of light in this life.
I write for me, but I publish for my tribe.
The problem with writing long books is that when you go back to the beginning of them, you have to remember that what you just lived through has not happened yet. I am sure many of you just read that sentence and are confused. So let me explain.
Say you have two characters in a story, let’s say Reuben and Sue. In chapter one they do not know each other at all. They have never met, but since your book is very long and spans years, by the end of the book they are happily married and expecting a child. That is all good, and if you write romance, even expected.
Now, you have finished the first draft. You have felt all the feels, walked all the paths and been through all the conflicts with Rueben and Sue. You were there at their first kiss. You know every argument they ever had. After all you as the writer were both parties in those events.
Now, you go back to chapter one and they are strangers. You have to make them act like strangers. It is like invalidating a lifetime of memories to start again. It is so hard not to slip up and have them act just a bit too familiar.
This is why I employ a team of pre-readers (aka beta readers) for every book. I send them copies of the book before it goes to my professional editor. Fresh eyes looking at the text can spot these inconsistencies that creep in. Things other than simple typos. For example, I just edited a chapter where two characters swapped names mid-way through. Ops.
And on that topic watch for a future email as I just finished the first draft of book three of the Mantidom series. At 160k words, it is the longest book in the series so far. It may end up being my longest book, but not by much.