Doing Time on Planet Earth

The Little Novel That Could

When I was a child, I’d heard the story, a parable really, of The Little Engine That Could. Back then, in the dark ages before the technological boom and the internet, it was just a children’s story with bright colorful pictures in a children’s book. Now, it feels endemic to our culture – there’s a television series, toy sets, and songs not to mention various politicians including President Obama that reference it. The original story, in case you’ve never heard it, is about a little switch engine that is asked to pull a long line of trains up a hill. Various freight trains, much larger than it, had been asked but refused – either stating it was too difficult a task or they just couldn’t do it. So in desperation they ask the little blue switch train, who does it – all the while stating , “I think I can, I think I can…” Finally, as he chugs up that last bit of hill, his words become: “yes, I can, yes I can.”

In 2004, I had come off of twenty-three months of unemployment. I’d written a book several years prior that I could not seem to let go of. At one point, I even had an agent who was interested in it, but only if I could turn it into a cozy mystery novel. The novel I’d written was an occult horror tale, taking place in a publishing house and referencing the Celtic mythology that I’d studied in college.   It had been sent to various people, publishers, online friends, who in various ways rejected it. One agent actually called me on the phone – to tell me that she admired my writing, that I clearly wrote beautifully, and did I have anything else in the hopper? Because this story clearly wasn’t the right one and shouldn’t be published.

I gave up finally. And in 2005, began to tinker with a new story idea. I posted a snippet of it online, only to have it be either ignored or ripped apart. The internet had made me feel self-conscious – to the point that I questioned my own ability to write a story. One online critic told me that some people are just better at writing essays than fiction. I had written a lot of weirdly popular media essays at the time and posted them on fan boards. But, at heart, I was not a media essayist nor did I care all that much about it, and this new story would not be ignored. It was in my head constantly. I felt better when I wrote the words down. The characters spoke to me at night and during the day. They lived inside my head. At the time, I’d won a free consultation from a Life Coach, who told me after I explained all of this to her, write for yourself no one else. Ignore the internet.

And into that story I poured everything I was going through at the time. In a way writing that novel, which I called Doing Time on Planet Earth, was a sort of therapy – and the words that I chose, precisely, came from my heart. At one point, my laptop was stolen, and I lost over a hundred pages of the book that I’d been writing. I was devastated and unable to pull them back again. So, I wrote the robbery into the book. Just as I wrote the merger that my company was going through at the time into the book. And those crazy interviews that I’d experienced the year before. I changed the characters and details, of course, the book is not a memoir, it is a work of fiction.

When people state that the hardest part is writing the book…I laugh. Not to someone who is driven to write, it’s not. No, the hardest part is sharing it. Finding a way to put it out there. If you a writer or any type of artist, really, from a belly dancer to a professional blogger or actor, rejection is part of the game. No one gets used to it. Most actors don’t read their reviews. Bob Fosse famously told his dancers never to read their own reviews. But it is really hard to ignore them if you are a writer. And, trust me, you will get negative reviews – if you throw it out there and promote it heavily enough.

I wanted to be traditionally published. All writers do. But in this increasingly marketing driven age – it’s almost impossible. When I sent my novel to publishers – I was not told to work on my writing or style. They actually thought I wrote very well. No, I was told to change my story into something they could sell. Write a murder mystery. Why don’t you write a book about your experiences hunting a job? I remember discussing this with a writer friend, who was struggling himself, and he told me – don’t listen to them. Stay true to your story. If you attempt to twist it to please someone else – it will no longer be your story.

Over time, people began to encourage me to self-publish my novel. My first editor, Robin Smith of Robin Smith, Ink, told me that I was better off self-publishing, since it would be difficult to sell it to a publisher. The book defied genre classification. Self-publishing was hardly new to me. Over the years, I’d watched my father self-publish six books. He had been interviewed in his local paper and public access television station, also got a positive review in the paper. But his books rarely sold, and because he was “self-published”, people felt the need to tell him that there were grammatical errors or typos in his work, or that it was just a vanity project. One traditionally published writer, John Maxium, who writes thrillers, stated in an interview with the local paper – that they shouldn’t waste their time reviewing or interviewing self-published novelists, because if the novelist was any good, they’d obviously be “professionally” published.

So I had my reasons for being afraid. I knew from watching my family members and friends self-publish – that self-publishing was a bit like paying someone to take off your clothes in the middle of Times Square. But after a bit, after watching various little blue engines chug up that steep hill with their own books, I thought if they can do it – so can I. This is my little novel that could. I can get this published. I can make this work. If there is a will, there’s a way. I had watched a six foot tall woman put on a show about her journey to greater health through the art of belly dancing – entitled Blood on the Veil. [It’s marvelous, everyone should go see it.] In the film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly – a paralyzed man dictates a novel to his assistant by blinking one eye. And I read The Most Dangerous Book: The Fight Over James Joyce’s Ulysses – which was about Joyce’s struggle to get his own truth out there. What he’d gone through to get that book published made my own struggles seem relatively minor in comparison. At the time, very few people loved it. He had to fight not just his own government but the government of the United States as well. They not only told him that he couldn’t write but that his writing was obscene and he was evil for writing it.

The year before, I’d managed to find an affordable apartment in an almost impossible market, and prior to that, I’d managed to stop eating sugar, caffeine, all grains, dairy, and soy. My health had improved by about ninety percent as a result. I’d also, for the first time in over twenty years, got up on the stage and performed in a production of The Vagina Monologues. So, I could do this. I could put my little novel out there – I could share it with the world and I could handle whatever the world threw back at me.

I researched the independent publishing platforms, and chose CreateSpace, which of the various platforms was the least Do it Yourself.   It cost a pretty penny, of course. I told them exactly what I wanted for a cover. Chose the paper, the cover, the interior formatting, and fought with them until they got it right. Spending many a lunch hour haggling over the phone. I went through the line edit with fine-tooth comb, three to four times. Often arguing with the line editor in my head. Should suit really be suite? It looks wrong somehow, but okay. (Turns out it depends on which usage book you are referencing.) And how is blond spelled, with an e on the end? (Depends on if you are using the British or American spelling.) Regan or Reagan? It was tedious work – a million and one questions, and the fear of picking the wrong answer at every turn.

When it happened, it happened fast. I expected to have more time – at least six months. My goal was August or early fall, a good time to publish a book, or so I thought. But no, CreateSpace finished their line edit, cover design, formatting, etc. within the space of two months. Oh, we had a few snafus here and there. Sometimes they uploaded the wrong content , but they fixed it quickly and at their own expense. The book was ready by the first week of May. All I had to do was press a button and it would go live. For a moment or two, okay maybe a bit longer than that, I hesitated. My finger hovered above the keys. Do I really want to do this? Do I want to put my baby out there? Both editors, the Create Space editor, Christopher, and Robin Smith loved the book as did a few of my readers and I’d spent all this money. It had to go live. No turning back now. So I pressed that button with my finger and up it went.

I wish I could say it was all downhill from there – but you sort of have to promote it. No one is going to do it for you. I took it on a virtual book tour. Touted it on every social media site I was currently on, and joined two new ones. Touting it on the internet – Live Journal and Good Reads – meant outing myself to the community – letting them know my real name, who I was, and what I did. No longer could I hide behind the identity I’d chosen, in communities where ninety percent of the people did just that. I had in a sense ripped off my clothes and walked naked down Main Street.

I told my co-workers, who surprised me by being wildly supportive. One male coworker , an accomplished writer and wordsmith, read it in a weekend and loved it. I also shared it with the members of my church, with my family, and everyone in my life. And I did two promotions – one a free Kindle giveaway, and the other on Good Reads. Within a month over 100 people had either purchased it or gotten it for free. Most for free on the Kindle. I also made it available on a book reviewing site entitled Story Cartel – which touts itself as being a supportive community for writers. “Readers who form a supportive relationship with Writers is our Goal.” (The fact that they charge $15 per story launch, should have given me pause. You live, you learn, as that old Alainis Morrison ditty goes.)

I was warned that throwing my book out there – would result in a variety of reactions. And for every positive reaction, there would be a negative one waiting in the wings. For life is yin and yang, negative and positive, high and low. You can’t have one without the other. It’s not possible. And sure enough by the second month, that dreaded bad review came. It was everything I feared. It ripped my writing style apart, my story, my characters, it had nothing positive to say and it was by someone who went by a made-up name, with a cartoonish icon, and who had read the book for free via Story Cartel in exchange for an honest review. Although as a friend noted, and a lot of folks on social media do not appear to understand, nasty doesn’t necessarily equal honest. I, in effect, paid them for writing a nasty review and they did it under a fake name.

It hurt. But it’s over. And as my father stated, it’s subjective. James Joyce received similar reviews. As did various controversial best sellers from Donna Tartt’s  The Goldfinch to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. As too did various independent publishers, one of which advised that bad reviews are as useful as good ones, because they bring more eyes to your book. Anything is better than dead silence. It should be noted that besides that review, I received not one, but two glowing ones, 4-5 star ratings, from people who I know are real, that I know are well-read and professional writers themselves. [Why is it that we always seem to obsess over the negative ones? Fearful that they will turn away readers?] And I sold five more books last night, three to a book club. And my little novel that could continues to chug up that darn hill.

James Joyce once stated that he didn’t care if everyone liked his book or read it, as long as just one person did, one person got it. And that has already happened to me, and like Joyce it has been more than one person. Joyce started with six readers, then one hundred, and it is now over one hundred and fifty thousand a year. Long dead, he is still to this day connecting with people. And he still has his detractors.

As various friends and family have stated, success is not measured in sales or accolades despite what we are told by the crazed media drenched society in which we live. The mere fact that you wrote a book and then found the courage to publish it , to put it out there to the world – is a feat in of itself. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Success is risking failure. Being willing to be laughed at and heckled, and still keep chugging along, up that hill, saying yes, I can, yes, I can…until you reach the top and see that next bigger hill to chug up and no matter what, keep on going.

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