Joining the Scrum
Last week, my friend Jill Marsh invited me to guest blog on her site. Jill is a UK writer based in Swizerland whom I met at The Bookshed, which you will see below. I thought I’d repost it here. Hi Jillie!
Some of this might sound repetitive to regulars. It’s a story I’ve told before, but honestly, I’m still pinching myself over this whole experience.
Jill asked me to share that part of my journey wherein I decided to ditch my pursuit of the Holy Grail of traditional publication and join the ranks of the Great Unwashed (that’s how Big House editors look at us, I’m told).
First let’s get something straight. I am not a dreamer. I am a cynical, battle-scarred veteran of partisan politics and the trial courtroom. While I briefly entertained a dream of being a novelist back in college, it was quickly squelched by the pressure of parental expectations, economic reality, and the recognition that I had no life experience worth writing about.
So I went off and got some life experiences. The kind worth writing about. But it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that these experiences began to spill out of me in a story. A pal of mine asked back then, “do you have a novel in you?”
“Nah,” I said, and believed it.
Then my father died in August 2007. I’d been helping him with his memoirs when he became too weak to continue. After he left us, I tried to transform the work into a biography. But it was just too painful, and too soon. Still, I needed to find a way to grieve, and I found burying myself in a story was a pretty good way to do it.
One day I found youwriteon.com, where Jill’s pal John Hudspith found something within the rough first chapter I’d put up there that glimmered through the crap. I don’t know what it was, or why he thought so, but he invited me to join him and Jill and a lot of other awesome writers at a place called The Bookshed, and 18 months of merciless flogging later, I typed “the end.”
I did not write a novel to become a novelist. I had no illusions of big advances or Hollywood movie deals. I just wrote a novel, and people seemed to like it. I wrote some short stories and people seemed to like them. And I had a blast doing it, so what the hell, right? You enjoy doing something, why not see how far you can go with it? Surely, somewhere not far down the road, cold reality would slap me silly.
I started two more novels, just in case.
Going 0-for-120 on the query trail didn’t really bother me. This novel must not be as good as people say, I thought. Hell, a lot of folks think the food at Denny’s is pretty good, but we know differently, don’t we? It was the same as cooking. A lot of my friends thought I was a pretty good cook, too; but I’d never thought I was qualified to run the kitchen at a five star restaurant.
Then I went to my first writer’s conference in November of 2009, The New England Crime Bake. The first day, I attended a pitch practice session. Fate’s fickle hand at work, you know. I sat at the first empty seat, next to a lady I’d never met. She happened to be the agent. She went around the table, listening to stumbling and stuttering neophytes who hadn’t known what at all to expect. But I had practiced my elevator pitch. I sure had.
“What have you got,” she said to me, wearily.
“Diary of a Small Fish is about a virtuous man who gets indicted for playing golf.”
A couple of giggles from the others.
“I want to read that,” she said.
Heh, what can I say? She’s married to a trial lawyer. She read it and loved it. He read it and loved it. Dumb luck. Nothing more.
Six months later, I signed on with Christine Witthohn at Book Cents Literary, but not until I’d spoken to a half dozen of her current clients, published and unpublished (at her insistence). The lady had sold practically everything she’d put her hands on. She must know what the hell sells!
Still, I am a cynic, you recall. I do not entertain fanciful dreams.
During the next nine months, I did significant revisions to the manuscript, based upon long conversations with Christine – and her husband, Jeff Mehalic. In that stretch of time, I might have sent Christine a dozen emails. She responded to every one of them within two hours, mostly by phone – except once, when she was stranded in Italy.
I know there are other cynics out there who find this preposterous. An agent responding to an email with a phone call? Within an hour? Like I said. Dumb luck.
These developments occurred, you will note, during the onset of the “ebook revolution.” Self-publishing was developing at light speed, and there were dozens of pioneers blazing the trails. I followed this closely, because many of my Authonomy friends were trailblazers.
In December of 2010, Christine submitted DOSF to editors at 7 publishers – editors she knew. Editors she’d sold stuff to before. But she told me when she did, “I’m not sure I can sell your book.”
You see, it didn’t fit neatly into the mystery/crime/suspense genre. (As Jill’s lovely review begins, “What exactly IS this book? Yes, it’s a political mystery. It’s also a love story. It explores corruption, honour and integrity. And it’s funny. But how to define it?”)
The wait began. That ridiculous, inexplicable, infuriating wait where even your own agent’s inquiries to them go unanswered. Two months, three, four. Okay, that’s to be expected. But more?
In the meantime, Joe Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, Barry Eisler, Amanda Hocking, John Locke and dozens of others filled the internet with dazzling information. Bloggers like Robin Sullivan kept tabs on a growing number of self-published authors making a serious living! Selling ebooks at 99 cents!
Get out of town. Seriously. And I was sitting on my hands waiting for a response, 6 months now.
June arrived. Christine and I had a heart-to-heart.
My novel is Boston-centric. It involves the shadows of personalities still walking, big names in politics being tried and convicted of the very same crimes my poor virtuous protagonist is accused of. At that very time! There was a market for this fiction, right here, right now! I was missing it! I couldn’t wait!
Christine’s response was simple:
- When you want to withdraw DOSF from submission, say the word, and I’ll call them.
- If you want to self-publish, then do these things first: (a) put up a single short story that’s really, really good, for FREE, (b) put up a collection of short stories a month later for 99 cents, (c) bust your ass creating buzz in advance of DOSF release, and (d) keep busting your ass to sell it.
Like a man looking at a break-up with his first true love, I asked, “What about us?”
Seriously! I had snagged one of the hottest agents in the business, and one who not only had a conscience, but a clear one at that. A lady as righteous and morally sound as my own protagonist! How could I take my only property off the market and negate the subject matter of our contract?
“We’ll use DOSF as a platform to sell your next one. And if it does well enough in the meantime, I can still sell it.”
Dumb luck. I’d stumbled upon a literary agent who not only understood the changes that were coming, but embraced them, and encouraged me and several other of her authors to self-publish.
When Amazon announced their genre imprints, she was on the phone to them, grilling them about what they were looking for, and in some cases, delivering it.
When the 9 month anniversary of the DOSF submissions approached, when none of the 7 had even given her the courtesy of a reply, and when Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer took a pass, it was time to go ahead.
[Note: There are now several authors on Christine’s list (some signed to multi-book deals with Big 6 publishers) who have at least one self-published work available. Some shorts, some novellas, some novels.]
I self-published Diary of a Small Fish on October 1st. I worked hard on the launch, had a lot of help from writer friends who delivered some very nice reviews (none nicer than Jill’s), and sold some books. I ordered 100+ paper copies from Createspace, sold most of them in a month, ordered some more. I had a smoking hot launch party in the shadow of the State House, sent out a very smart press kit.
Why did I, the stubborn cynic, the world-weary ex-politician and trial lawyer, decide to go to all this work and trouble to self-publish a first novel? Why didn’t I put it on the shelf and move on to the next, as the Old Guard would have?
Because somewhere in the process – when I’d heard enough feedback from people whose opinions I respect and trust – and when I’d re-read enough of it for the 100th time, I realized how damn much I believe in this novel.
I’m no authority on fiction. I’m just a guy with a little storytelling talent. But I firmly believe that a successful novel is one that touches all of your emotions. Humor, sorrow, anger, hatred, love, hopelessness, panic, fear, elation, etc. I didn’t know that when I started writing.
I think that’s what DOSF does. And I wanted readers to experience it now, today, not in Q4 of 2013.
There is also this:
What is going on in fiction publishing today is truly revolutionary. Seldom is the use of that word so fitting. It was impossible for me to sit idly in the cheap seats, waiting for my prom date, when all that energy was burning on the dance floor below. There are some bad dancers down here, but they’re not stepping on my feet. And there are some really fabulous dancers, too. This is where the action is, here in the scrum. I want to have fun dancing, not compete in a marathon.
Filed under: Craft, Internet, literature, Peter Morin | 10 Comments
Tags: christine witthohn, diary of a small fish, jeff mehalic, jill marsh, joe konrath, pete morin, self-publishing, thomas & mercer