A.K.A., a Long-Ass Post on How I Wrote and Published My First Book
I am, right now, putting the finishing touches on FLYING, the fifth and final book in my paranormal series, Girl With Broken Wings. This is kind of a big deal for me. Not just finishing another book – which is awesome – but putting this series to bed. When I started writing the first book in the series, FALLING seven years ago, finishing it felt so hard. That was the beginning of my journey within the world of Girl With Broken Wings and my journey into publishing as well. As I gear up to complete the series, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic about those early days. If you’ve ever been curious about how the GWBW series started or about evolution as a writer and self-published author…well, here are a lot of honest words about it.
FALLING into FALLING
I mostly wrote FALLING by accident. At the time – this was back yonder in 2009 — I was actually struggling to write another book. As a writer, I had floundered for years with trying to complete a full novel. Looking back on it now, my problem was really obvious. I would get inspired by a scene in my head, start writing, and then pray to the universe that the story would just somehow work. This is known as the “seat-of-the-pants” writing method. Some writers (pantsers) do well with this method and somehow manage to cobble together something worth reading. I am not one of them. Too often, my characters would just lurch blindly from one crisis to another or spend scenes just shooting the breeze with each other, because I couldn’t think of what to do with them. My plots would either run out of steam or just hit a wall and combust.
This is exactly what was happening with my novel. I was stuck. So was my plot, my characters, and basically everything related to the book. At the time, I was watching a lot of my favorite show, Supernatural. (The most supernatural thing about the show these days is that it is somehow still on.) One episode in particular captured my attention, and from the seed GWBW would eventually be born. The Supernatural episode that changed my life was Episode Four of Season Four (Metamorphosis). In the episode our hunky heroes Sam and Dean come across a man named Jack. Jack has kind of a big problem. He is a pretty decent normal guy…who (through no fault of his own) just happens to be turning into a Rugaru, a creature who is irresistibly drawn to feeding on human flesh.
Dean, at this point in the series, is the bad ass, straight-up killa’ of the pair. He’s all for blasting Jack’s brains out. Sensitive Sam sees Jack’s humanity and wants to try and find a way to save him. Seeing any similarities between this conundrum and another set of vigilante brothers who have to decide if a certain someone is too dangerous to live? Yeah, that episode really got to me. I wondered what it would be like to be Jack; to try and fight against terrible urges to hurt others. I also liked the difficult choice Sam and Dean had to make. Could Jack be saved, or by sparing him, were they putting other innocent people at risk? Yummy, yummy tension!
Several months after watching that episode of Supernatural, I had one of those wonderful moments when a scene just flashes through my brain. I saw a girl in a hotel room trying desperately to control her urge to drain the life out of her trusting brother who was sleeping in the next bed. (Here’s another Supernatural influence — Sam and Dean travel the country fighting evil and end up sharing a lot of hotel rooms.) I was fixated on this scene, on the girl’s struggle and the brother’s slumbering innocence. Since I was getting absolutely nowhere with my work in progress, my fingers started typing, and what came out ended up being the prologue to FALLING.
FALLING is Born…and Then I Have to Edit A Lot
As soon as that first scene was down in pixels on my computer screen, I had to know how Maya got into that room. (Fun fact: Maya’s original name was Misha before my sister forced me to change it.) How had she been turned into an energy-sucking creature? Writing FALLING became about answering that question. It was rocky. It was messy, but the words kept coming. The scenes piled up. Somehow, I managed to do something I had never done before – I made it to the end.
Because I was a pantser, the book’s plot had more holes than a colander, but I knew I had something special. How? Because I absolutely loved the characters of Maya, Gabe, and Tarren. Each of them felt real to me, and I cared deeply about their mission. Even as I was writing that first book, I started to understand Tarren’s deep internal struggles and Gabe’s desperate optimism. I began to fill out their backstories and discovered that Tarren had quite a few skeletons in his closet (some of which will finally come out in FLYING).
I had to work that book to the bone, scrubbing and scrubbing, to get it into decent shape. It took me over a year just to edit (compared to the roughly three or four months it takes me to edit a full novel now). Looking back on my files, I realize that I eventually went through ten separate drafts of the book! Compare that to the four drafts that will take me through FLYING (first draft, first edit, beta edits, grammar/final polish). This terribly long and arduous process along with the fear of repeating it all over again when I started on LANDING is what finally helped me shift from being a pantser to an outliner.
It’s ALLLLIVE…but Unloved
In 2010, I completed what I considered to be the final draft of FALLING. It was still early days for the Kindle and, more importantly, for Amazon allowing authors to self-publish their works. At the time, self-publishing had an incredibly bad reputation. It was considered by many, including myself, to be the last refuge of the author who wasn’t good enough to get an agent and a traditional publisher. In my view, self-publishing meant epic failure.
So, for over a year, I worked to get an agent. I sent out dozens of carefully crafted query letters and attended writing conferences. The first chapters of FALLING won top pick from an agent at one of the conferences. I got a cool certificate. That agent, along with two others showed a lot of interest in the book. Here’s the problem though, the pitching process is SLOOOOOOW. If an agent likes your query, you might hear back from her in a month or two requesting the first few chapters. Now, wait another two months or so, and she might request the full manuscript. Only a very small percentage of authors get this far. When/if you do, most agents request exclusive rights to consider your work, which means you don’t continue to query other agents. I got to this stage three times. In one instance, the agent declined. In another, the agent informed me that she had taken on as many new authors as she can handle. (I realize that this is basically the agent equivalent of the “I’ve decided that I’m not really ready to date anyone new right now and just want to work on myself,” classic dating rejection.) In one instance, I waited four months until the agent came back and told me she was leaving her job.
It was extremely frustrating and disheartening. Each time an agent requested my full manuscript for consideration, I felt like I was on the brink of achieving my one true dream in life, only to get that terrible NO and have to start all over again. In the year that this process was going on, I felt paralyzed. Should I start on the next book in the series? Maya, Tarren, and Gabe were chattering non-stop in my head wanting me to continue their story. But if no agent loved my book, then wouldn’t it be smarter to write something totally new that I could pitch?
Self-Publishing to the Rescue
At the same time I was bogged down in agent-pitching limbo, something curious was happening in Kindle World. Some of those loser self-published authors were actually selling a few books. Okay, not a few books. A lot of books. Amanda Hocking was one of the first self-published authors to sell a million copies of her books. This was also the time that a handful of brave traditionally published mid-list authors decided to experiment with self-publishing. A lot of authors were writing about their journey, and as I read more about their experiences, my mind began to change.
I realized something really important. I had put my writing on hold for an entire year waiting for an agent to tell me that FALLING was worth publishing. I had given them all of the power just because I was afraid that self-publishing was a cop-out. I asked myself one simple question: Do you believe FALLING is worth reading?
The answer was yes, and so the path forward was obvious. I wasn’t going to wait any longer for someone else’s approval. I was going to put FALLING into the world and let the readers decide if it was worthy. I doubt FALLING will ever top any best-selling lists, but since I published it in 2011, it has been downloaded over 10,000 times, reached the top ten ranking in Amazon’s New Adult book category several times, and generated some amazing and heartwarming fan mail. (Which I love getting and always respond to, by the way!)
The decision to self-publish also meant that I could write LANDING, RISING, LEAPING, and finally now FLYING. I could tell the story of Maya, Tarren, and Gabe.
I had that first epiphany of Maya struggling not to kill Gabe in the hotel room in early 2009. Now, seven years later, I am about to say goodbye to these characters for good. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve grown significantly as a storyteller, as a craftsman, and as a person. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me. Don’t worry, this is only the beginning. Saying goodbye to Maya, Tarren, and Gabe will be hard, but there are many story paths yet to walk, and I hope you will walk them with me.