From Simon: Inspiration is a funny thing. Seeing a writing peer selling thousands (or even tens of thousands) of books, can be enormously motivating. On the other hand it can be intimidating, and make you feel as if you have not worked hard enough to make it happen for yourself. Personally, I take enormous inspiration from those who are succeeding, but I also sometimes feel that other side of the coin, and that’s something that Amelia Smith explores in todays guest post. Over to Amelia…
The fantasy series I’m working on started with an image of a girl in a temple courtyard. When I first set out on this project, I had the idea that I would finish a draft in a couple of months, revise it, and have it out to agents by the end of the year. I would get a publishing contract and work from there. That was thirteen years ago. I’ve only just now published the first book in the series.
Stage 1 Challenges: Day Jobs and an Exploding Story
My story quickly evolved from a stand-alone to a series. It’s an occupational hazard of writing secondary-world fantasy: by the time you’ve figured out much about the world you’re writing it, you’ve got at least three books on your hands. I went to workshops and got feedback. I paid for a professional manuscript critique. I joined writers’ groups both in real life and online. I also had a day job, or rather, a succession of poorly-paid mostly part-time work. I worked better when I didn’t have so many outside commitments, but I kept going in fits and starts. I wrote and revised a couple of books.
Lessons from this phase were the basic ones I see repeated over and over again. Make time for writing, get feedback, revise. I never settled into a steady routine, but eventually things got done even so.
External obstacles of the pre- “Indie” world:
I finished a manuscript and sent queries off to agents, about fifty queries in 2005 and another seventy in 2007, for a different volume of the series. At the time, the advice was to describe the book as, “a stand-alone with series potential,” because publishers wanted a series, but they didn’t want to commit to multiple books by a new, unknown author. I hated having to describe it that way, but I needed an agent to get past publishers’ slush piles.
Only a few publishers even took direct submissions at that time, and they were supposed to be non-simultaneous, meaning you couldn’t submit to more than one publisher at a time. Response times were a year or more. So, you could wait a year or longer to get rejected by one publisher, then a year to get rejected by the next. I even met an acquisitions editor from Tor. I sent him/her my manuscript, personalized letter and all. After a year, I gave up.
From the agents, I got a mix of no replies, form rejections, and one request for a full manuscript which came back with a “just didn’t grab me.” The more rejections I got, the less they stung. It was a little like dating: you could just stick it in a drawer/stay at home, or keep putting it out there hoping to break through eventually. I came to see those rejections as part of the road to acceptance. I was told not to take it personally, and eventually, I didn’t.
Lesson: Get used to rejection. You can take it!
Around about the beginning of 2007 I got pregnant. I worked on the manuscript through my pregnancy, but there was a lot going on in my non-writing life, a lot of big emotional stuff. In retrospect, I was probably not doing my best work. My daughter was born in November of 2007, and a little less than three years later we had a little boy. We moved back and forth across the Atlantic. Babies suck up way more time and mental energy than day jobs do. There’s no time off, at least there wasn’t enough for me to do anything I considered serious work. I did a little writing here and there, but I knew that the fantasy series was too much to handle. I planned to get back to the Big Fantasy Series as soon as kid #2 got started in preschool, and I followed through (more or less).
Lesson: Family sucks up major amounts of time and energy, and sometimes there just isn’t space for writing. Eventually, when you’re not in a super-intense phase, you’ll be able to “make time” again. (I get a little tired of hearing about moms of twins who work full-time and take care of their aged parents and still manage to publish a book every 3 months. Sorry, most of us just don’t have that kind of energy, and it’s useless to pretend that we should!)
Welcome to the New World:
By the time I returned to the series, six full years had passed. In between 2007 and 2013, self-publishing had become the wave of the future. That line about “a stand-alone with series potential”? Didn’t need it any more. That whole process of sending out queries to agents too busy to reply? Done, over, sayonara. I could do it all myself. There was nothing standing in my way.
What I had instead was a new set of success stories to inspire and depress me, like this kind of thing:
“Hi everyone! I just decided to start writing three months ago and I’m making $10,000 a month! I write erotica/New Adult Romance and I don’t see the point of editors! Revision is for the birds. I got a one-star review, but my readers LOVE my stories! Write more sex! We can all be bazillionaires in the indie revolution and if you’re not, you’re just not working hard enough!”
And here I was on my fifth revision of a story I’d started over a decade ago. These overnight indie success stories were very strange creatures.
More “helpful” advice:
Both pre- and post-indie-revolution I heard over and over again about the “trunk” novels writers had consigned to their desk drawers for all eternity. People suggested that this fantasy project of mine might fall into that category. Like, it might just totally suck, and wouldn’t it be easier and better to start over from scratch? Most writers had juvenile works that would never see the light of day, embarrassing old things too flawed to even bother revising. Shouldn’t I give up on this one?
I never seriously considered that possibility. Even though it’s bad business practice to think about your sunk costs too much, I didn’t want those years of work to go to waste, I didn’t want them to be just a learning experience. Unfinished projects are psychic dead weight. I had to finish this one way or another, and now I could. One of the great beauties of self-publishing is that it is fully within your power to finish your projects and get them out into the world. For me, that was a great motivator. I didn’t even have to make it appeal to an agent.
Almost there… again:
As I went back into the revision on the first two books of the series, I could see how flawed they were. Much of the thinking reflected a very different time in my life, but I could still work with the ideas. I revised and rewrote, sent Book One off to beta readers again, re-worked it one more time, and delivered it to a copy editor.
I was almost done. I put the book up on Amazon for pre-order. I planned to work through the copy edits and fire it out.
A couple of weeks later, the copy editor got back to me. She said she didn’t think it was ready, that the book needed at least another re-write. She’d stopped editing about 1/3 of the way through. She had some great suggestions, as well as some I didn’t agree with, but that idea of doing a whole re-write? No way. I was in a bind. I was almost done, and I knew it, but the copy editor wasn’t playing along with my plans.
Why I love pre-orders:
I had a hard, self-imposed deadline, thanks to that Amazon pre-order. I had to have the book ready to publish by mid-November, preferably sooner if I wanted to get advance reviews, which was a big part of my marketing plan. I had to choose between going along with a fairly well-informed outside opinion and sticking to my own bull-headedness. I went with the later, kind of.
I spent just over a week revising the manuscript and doing another line edit while lining up a new batch of beta readers. I finished revisions on a Monday, and two of my amazing new beta readers had their comments back to me a week later. It was awesome. I going to finish that book come hell or high water, and I was going to finish it as fast as humanly possible. Working fast and with a hard deadline somehow gave my confidence a boost.
Time, Beta readers, and making connections:
Throughout my years of writing, I’d felt like it was hard to get beta readers of any kind, let alone good ones. It was hard to meet other writers at my stage of development, who had finished books but hadn’t broken through commercially. This time, though, I had four beta readers lined up before I knew what hit me. It was as if I’d finally connected with the writing community in a way that worked for me. Making those connections was, for me, a slow process, even though these particular readers were mostly new to me.
The difference between this editor’s rejection and the agents’ rejections in the mid-2000s was that now I felt myself to be in complete control of my project, even if it had just swerved off its planned course. I had more experience and confidence, and I’d gotten some positive feedback on the project. I went ahead, keeping the following things in mind:
- The book was never going to be perfect
- Not everyone will like it. No one particular person who has to approve of it (other than myself).
- It’s good enough that some people will like it.
- If it’s not a big hit, THAT’S OK! I have more books coming. I just have to finish this series before I can move on.
- I can finish and publish it.
That wouldn’t have been true in 2007, when I queried all those agents and collected all those rejections. I don’t need to sell 10,000 copies to make a profit, although of course I’d like to. I can clear my expenses with less than 500 sales. That wouldn’t make it a worthwhile project for any commercial publisher, and it’s a lousy return on my investment of time and money, but at least I’ve finished another book.
Some truths remain constant:
- Rejection paves the road to success… maybe.
- Persistence is more important than talent.
- Imagination is not efficient. I first read Randy Ingermason’s webpage about the snowflake method in 2002 or 2003. I read every book about outlining ever written (only a slight exaggeration). I read a bunch of stuff about everything from world building to self-editing to time management, and each book took just as many drafts as the last one, if not more. And that world-building? 13 years in, I’m still working on it.
- You don’t have to sell books to keep going. It would be nice, but it isn’t mandatory. You can keep writing. If life and/or work is too demanding for a while, you can plan ahead to less all-consuming times.
- Generous advice from well-meaning and more successful people can be helpful, but sometimes it isn’t right for your or your project. Ultimately, you have to make your own decisions about your work, especially if you’re self-publishing.
And now, book 1 of the series I began almost 13 years ago is up on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Scrapplings-Anamat-Book-Amelia-Smith-ebook/dp/B00NJ6DV9E/.
Amelia Smith recently published her first book, Scrapplings, after a decade of false starts. The book is the first in her new fantasy series. You can find Amelia online at AmeliaSmith.net