My Long Road to Getting Published

It started in my early twenties. Before that I had gotten some recognition for my poetry and people had said I should try to get published, but I had almost no control over when I wrote poetry, so getting enough for a book was impossible.

Now I can sit down and just write a poem if I want to, but I also know how hard it is to sell poetry and am far more interested in telling stories. When I was in the latter half of my teens, I was obsessed with world-building. I was making up alien races, nations, cultures, and leaders and writing it all down in erasable pen (I loved erasable pens).

This obsession gave way to me running D&D campaigns that stitched my ideas together and writing histories of the peoples I created. Creating  histories and running campaigns both require storytelling. When I was in my early twenties, I fell head over heels for cyberpunk and started a novel in that vein.

I tinkered with that novel for a few years while I was in college and it just never seemed to come together. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was a physics and chemistry student and I was designing androids and other things from scratch using advanced materials. Calculating the storage capacity of a paper battery, designing miniaturized fusion reactors, and figuring out what artificial muscle technology was most likely to be useful in an android were all things I puzzled over.

Stacked on top of that, I didn’t know how to write a novel. Putting that project on hold, I worked on a different novel, one about an alien race with gender and sexuality quite different from humans. I also started posting stories chapter by chapter online. The feedback I got online caused me to grow as a writer and I became more confident in my skills.

It wasn’t until several years later that I had gotten my writing to a place where I was starting to think seriously about getting published. The problem was that I was fixated on the big publishers at a time when the traditional publishing industry was being disrupted. The stories I heard about so few new authors getting contracts discouraged me.

Deep down, I knew that neither of the two novels I was writing would make it. They were too big of a risk for the publishers and I had been working on them so long that I had no idea how to bring either of them to a conclusion.

I never wanted to self-publish. Partially because I am serious about typography and design and I knew I would be unhappy with what my books looked like at the start, and partially because I’d wanted to be published ever since I was in high school. It was more of an emotional need than a result of logic.

Everyone seems to has different ideas of success and how to tell when one has “broken into the industry” and I set the bar at getting published and not just self-publishing. Looking back on it, it’s a bit silly. It’s 2017 and there’s a multitude of extremely successful self-published authors.

To be successful at self-publishing, one needs connections. People who can help with the typesetting, good editors, cover designers, marketing specialists, etc. I didn’t have the connections or the interest in trying to fill all of those roles myself. I am sure I’ll have more connections as I become more established as a writer, but I think I’ll stick with small presses for the foreseeable future.

The advent of small presses opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me. They were taking on new authors and taking risks and many of them were treating authors incredibly well. By this time I had also realized that I was bisexual (pansexual as well) and that all the characters I had written were queer. Only side characters were straight.

As I looked into who would be interested in stories about LGBT+ characters, I found out that the rise of small presses internet distribution had created a boom in LGBT+ readership and publishing.

A lot of my 2016 summer was spent identifying LGBT+ publishers that I wanted to work with. Less Than Three Press was one of my top choices and they were brought to my attention by a friend who had been published by them.

I decided to start with a small project that I knew I could finish based on a prompt I saw on LT3’s site. Writing for that prompt led to “A Welded Wave,” my first published book. Details about how writing for a prompt helped are in another blog post.

What is your publishing experience? Are you self-published? Did you get lucky with a big publisher? Let me know about that and any other thoughts or comments you have below!

The Anatomy of Bad Writing Advice

About three years ago, I was thinking about being a writer as my career. The book I was working on was quickly becoming one of the best things I had ever written. A friend offered to have his talented writing MFA graduate colleague look at it. I sent the first chapter of that book to, we’ll call him Phil, so Phil could provide feedback.

The feedback I got was confusing, mostly not constructive, and disheartening. These are the exact opposite qualities of good feedback, but because I hadn’t yet met established authors I took his feedback seriously.

What I should have done is weighed what he said against what test readers of that book said. The test readers agreed, he was the outlier.

Instead, I decided that I wasn’t ready to show my stuff to publishers yet.

Elements of his bad feedback:

  • General criticism that suggested I was quite inexperienced
  • Disdain for the genre of fiction I was writing
  • Confusion about things that fantasy readers are not confused by

What ties all of this bad feedback together is that he criticized me through my writing. When I give feedback, I focus on the story itself and how the writer can improve it. I don’t say, “you haven’t learned how to use semicolons yet,” I say, “I would put a semicolon here.”

For instance, he commented that I had not learned how to “set up the rules of the world” at the beginning of a story yet. I admit that I may have been a bit weak on this in that first chapter, but he hadn’t read anything else I had written and was making a generalization.

Later, when I looked at other beginning chapters of fantasy novels, I discovered that the authors don’t try to set up most of the rules of the world in the first chapter because fantasy is often about world building. If one were to set up all the rules of the world in the first chapter, it might be as long as one fourth of the entire book.

Phil was actively trying to be nice about the fact that he was a literary fiction writer and my story wasn’t literary fiction, but he kept acting as though the general quality of genre fiction was lower. He even said that I might succeed just because the bar was lower.

It took me time to realize what he was actually saying, and I didn’t realize it until I met him a second time when I went out to coffee with him to ask about MFA programs. Even though he had left a bad taste in my mouth, he was the only person I knew who had been through a writing one.

This time, my view of him was properly jaded and I noticed that he spoke less favorably about writers that didn’t get an MFA and that I’d be better somehow simply if I got one. He said things like, “Not everyone can make it through an MFA program,” and “It helps you polish your writing to the point it is more marketable.” Those things sound benign, but it was the underlying feeling I got that he had a lot of bile about the fact that he wasn’t a bestselling author.

It wasn’t any one thing he did, but it was a general use of anti-aircraft discourse aimed at my idea about starting with small publishers and working my way up and about being successful by knowing what my readers want. When he took fire at my positivity, he said things like, “Well, you can’t know what will be popular,” and “there are good writers who get no readers at all.”

His tone and facial expression was that of deep frustration. Phil really wants to be a successful writer and he wants to do it the traditional, before small presses, way. It isn’t what he wants to do that’s wrong, it is his lack of compromise. It’s that he seems to think that success as a writer must be directly tied to how “good” of a writer they are and that somehow he knows what a “good” writer is.

That leads to a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately, “What is the point of impressing English majors if that feat has no bearing on one’s success as a writer?”

His suggestion after dishing all this out was that I should take a creative writing class. I talked with the English department at the University of Minnesota and then sat in a creative writing class. In the creative writing class, the professor invited me to join a critique group and participate in class like I was a student in the course.

When I gave feedback to the class, the professor smiled and nodded and would grab onto my points. Some of the points I made about improvements to the stories I read were:

If dialogue is too clean, it comes off as stilted. Dialogue needs to be a little messy to ring true. People interrupting each other and completely missing each other’s points happens sometimes.

Characters are weird, normal characters are weird because they’re normal, eccentric characters are weird because they aren’t. There is no 100% pure generic character that every reader can pick up and relate to. Don’t be afraid to give characters details that some readers might not relate to. Readers are not reading your story to get exactly what they expected.

Every word in a story is from someone’s point of view. The more you can own that, the more life you can breathe into your story.

I had a lot of fun and I made sure to not speak up too often so that everyone had a chance to participate. After class I talked to her for over twenty minutes and she said that I’d be bored in an intro creative writing class and said I should see if I could get into the masters level course. She said she would tell the English department that I could skip the prerequisites, but that I might have trouble getting in because there weren’t many slots.

It turned out that there weren’t any available slots after the masters students picked their classes, but this experience did teach me something. Phil was wrong that I didn’t know the basics. The creative writing part of the English department was convinced that the lower-level creative writing courses would be a waste of time for me, and it wasn’t just one professor who thought so.

Part of what made this bad writing advice stop me in my tracks was that it came from a source I thought I could trust at the worst possible time. My friend vouched for Phil and I didn’t have any reason to be jaded about what Phil was going to say. I didn’t have the proper filters up and I was seriously wondering if I should focus on making a living off of my writing. I now have a schematic for bad writing advice to protect myself from future instances of it.

Bad writing advice:

  1. Comments on the failings of the author instead of the story
  2. Is aimed at the story’s genre, sexuality, religion, etc. and not at the story itself
  3. Comes from people who are frustrated with writing or their lack of influence
  4. Is overly general and does not give you individual things you can act on to improve the story
  5. Makes you want to stop writing because you’re overwhelmed by the idea of fixing your story.

If the advice I get hits on any of these points, I put it off to the side and see if I can salvage anything useful from it. If it is bugging me and interfering with my forward momentum, I jettison it and move on.

What themes are common in bad advice that you’ve received? Let me know in the comments.

Cover reveal for “A Welded Wave”

My First Book!

I don’t have words for this because it’s my first book cover and it’s so gorgeous!

Well, I lied, I do have words. I’m not sure if there’s anything that can render me completely speechless. I’m on of those people that always has something to say.

First, I want to talk about the cover itself, then I want to give Megan Derr and Less Than Three Press credit for being so awesome and provide context for people wondering what it’s like to work with them. I already spoke about my experience with the editor they assigned to my story in a previous post.

Why this cover works so well:

In “A Welded Wave” the main character, Mark, is working on creating a welded bike chain sculpture of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The image in the background is an illustration of that artwork. That’s where a third of the fantasticatude of this image comes from.

The other two-thirds comes from the colors and textures that were used by Aisha Akeju. All the tones come from metal oxidation, some from rust and some from the blue oxide that results if you heat up steel past 590 degrees and then let it cool. All of these colors would exist on bike chain that Mark welds.

Aisha hit upon the mottled appearance that rust has perfectly. The amusing thing is that the original image the dots as part of the spray from the wave. They fit nicely into the appearance of corrosion. The scratches throughout the image look like polishing lines in the metal. It looks as though the image was created upon a sheet of metal.

Below is a comparison between the section of the original image used in the cover and the cover itself:

Great Wave off Kanagawa beside Book Cover

Notice how the mottled texture, the lines, and the colors are all Aisha’s doing. She took a concept and crafted something outstanding with it. She was one of the two artists I requested when I was asked what I wanted for cover art.

Lastly, I want to draw attention to the lettering. The font of the title blends constructively with the textures behind it making a seamless whole. The W of “Welded” and the W of “Wave” make a wave-like line. So des the connection between the A and the V in “Wave.” A nice touch bringing the wave theme into the lettering itself.

My experience with LT3 Press:

Yes, I was asked what I wanted for cover art by Less Than Three Press after I signed the contract to have my book published. It was part of a form they have you fill out where they ask you about what you want for your author bio and other details.

This is how I responded to their question about cover art:
My two favorite cover artists on LT3 are Natasha Snow and Aisha-O. If either of them could incorporate some aspect of “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” that would be awesome since it’s the art piece that the main character is working off of in my story. Whether to include bike chain, the medium the main character works in, or not, I leave up to the artist.

I would never have come up with making the whole image look like it was done on metal to bring in the aspect of Mark’s chosen medium.

Not everything was perfect with the first draft of the cover. I sent it off to people who had helped me edit my book asking for feedback and one problem got a unanimous response from them: the A in “wave” in the title had two lines connecting it to the V so that it looked like the word was “Waave.”

Three of the people thought I should ask to have something incorporated into the cover image that would clue people in to the fact that the story takes place in Minnesota and not Japan. Some people wanted the title font and the author font to match better.

With two of the people, I hatched the idea of putting the Minneapolis skyline in place of Mt. Fuji to make it so that people would understand that this story wasn’t about Japan. I put this suggestion and the other things that were pointed out by my test readers in my response to Megan Derr about the cover.

She was kind and invested in her response saying:

  1. Adding the Minneapolis skyline to the cover would make it too busy and since most people don’t know what the Minneapolis skyline looks like, they’ll just assume its Kyoto or something.
  2. That the blurb and the cover work together to tell the reader what to expect.
  3. The author font being different makes it stand out from the title better and is more readable.
  4. The A V problem was something she would ask the artist to fix.

It is important to note that Megan Derr is a talented cover artist herself and I was careful to think about her points before I responded. I came to the conclusion that she had very good points and asked if we could change the blurb to include the fact that Mark got his MFA from the University of Minnesota so that people would not be as confused.

She said that changing the blurb would be perfect and sent me the proof of the cover. It is then that I noticed the cover still had the “Waave” problem and sent another email asking very nicely for that to be fixed.

The next morning, I got a revised cover from her and the problem was fixed. All of this occurred over the course of two days and I was often the slower to respond.

Initially, when I had to ask for changes, I was stressed. It turns out that my stress was unwarranted and working with Megan to get my cover out there was a positive experience. I got the feeling that she was just as invested in me getting a great cover as I was.

Does this make you want to show Less Than Three Press some love? Go over there and buy their books or get your copy of “A Welded Wave.”

What are your thoughts on this book cover or book covers in general? Put your thoughts together and ship them to me through the comment box.

Misgendering in a Culture with Only Two Boxes

When a guy nudges me with his elbow and says, “You’re such a guy!” my natural tendency is to roll my eyes or agree in a sarcastic tone. It seems I can do fifty-three feminine things vs one masculine thing and one of my non-close male friends or acquaintances will decide I’m a typical guy the moment I do one masculine thing.

The scenario above is much closer to how things were in high school and I didn’t yet know how gender worked or my location on the map/spectrum/collage.

In my recent life, these attempts to toss me in a standardized gender box are much more subtle. I believe that my acceptance of my non-binaryness has led me to be less of a target. I allow myself to act more the way I feel and less the way society expects me to.

I know that no amount of projecting ambiguity on my part will derail the deep-seated need of people steeped in our western gender-deterministic culture to fit every person they meet into one of two boxes. I know that I cannot expect the average joe on the street to look at me and go,”Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t assume this person is like all the other people with this body shape.”

But, I can and do challenge people’s white-knuckled grip on a binary deterministic sense of gender.

(GBI = Gender Binary Initiate)

GBI: Men like body building.

Me:  My best friend doesn’t, he dropped out of basketball because he hated lifting weights so much.

GBI: Women like getting their hair done.

Me:  My wife avoids going to a hair salon at all costs, she even gave herself a bowl cut for a few years.

Doubt is our ever-present ally when culture prescribes truths that everyone’s supposed to believe in. There is no individual that perfectly fits the ideals of man and woman. Even in our own culture. All you need to do to prove this is to ask two friends who is the most perfect example of a man/woman?

This is a great way to start a fight between friends that is distracting enough that you can incorporate it into your next escape plan. There is no answer to that question that everyone can agree on.

I have a friend who believes that stubble is more manly than a beard because it is rougher. So, his ultimate man would be a guy who replaced his cheeks with sheets of coarse silicon carbide sandpaper. (silicon carbide is sharper and harder and therefore more manly according to American cultural presets)

Even if they were able to reach a consensus, the entire rest of the world would have counterarguments about what different genders look and act like. Some cultures even have a third gender, like kathoeys in Thailand. In China and Taiwan, the most desired men are sensitive and compassionate. Mandopop, the leading form of pop music, features male artists that exhibit something called wenrou. Marc L. Moskowitz characterizes wenrou as “a tender androgyny.”

Trying to fit humans into two gender boxes isn’t just wrong, it is objectively wrong. If humans can be in different boxes in different cultures and there is no one person that fits any stereotype perfectly, gender cannot be attached to one’s genitals, their sports preferences, or their relationship with hair salons. The only way to know what gender someone is is to ask them.

I know that anyone reading this is likely already in agreement. Perhaps, what I have above can be used as talking points one can use with people that are not seeing outside their culturally-enforced categories.

What about me? What do I do in my everyday life?

Well, I have long conversations with people when I can and let people have their two-color world when I don’t have time. When I correct misconceptions, I try very hard to own the role of an educator and the patience that comes with that role.

The majority of people call me “him” and I don’t challenge it. What I challenge are the assumptions that people make about what someone you call “him” is or should be like. It is possible that I will make more of a use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future, but I don’t think I will correct people who I pass in the supermarket.

I don’t have the energy that is required to be assertive repeatedly about something like that throughout my entire day. Repetition can cause me to feel very agitated.

I do have the energy to:

  1. Put my hair up in a bun,
  2. Wear women’s jeans even though they have… VERY SMALL POCKETS! AAAAAH! SO FRUSTRATING!
  3. Wear colors and cuts that are less typical for the gender that people think I am.
  4. Get a kilt! I know I could rock a kilt and there are some designs from Utilikilt that look a bit like a pleated skirt.
  5. Let my mannerisms and movements flow the way that feels right regardless of the gender people would associate them with.
  6. Express my emotions honestly regardless of their gender association

I prefer to dissolve the presets people have in their heads subtly. Writing stories about characters that do straddle male/female divide, owning my own gender expression, asking questions that get people thinking about the arbitrariness of culture, and being a likable social deviant.

Yes, I feel annoyed when someone is actively trying to put me in a gendered box, but I have started to see it as an opportunity to teach people about their mental templates and where those templates go wrong.

Have thoughts/comments/book suggestions to share? Put them in the comments!

Footnote:

Who is this Marc L. Moskowitz guy? He wrote the book on Mandopop that I quoted. It is pretty interesting if you’re curious about Chinese pop music. Be warned that my book’s binding was not done right and you may have to be careful with your copy. Might be better to get the ebook.

Moskowitz, Marc L. Cries of joy, songs of sorrow: Chinese pop music and its cultural connotations. University of Hawaii Press, 2010.