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.

How I Was Prompted to Completion

My first professionally published book, “A Welded Wave,” was the result of seeing a writing prompt on Less Than Three Press’s site (LT3). It was a prompt for the “My Dearest Friend” collection that asked for stories about friends making the transition to lovers.

A collection is a bunch of stories with the same theme at their core. The theme of friends to lovers wasn’t all that specific, but a whole story popped into my head that I could write before the deadline, which was one month away! I used note cards in Scrivener to plot out each scene in my 100 page novella.

What’s surprising about this is that I had never succeeded in writing an outline for a story before. I had always gotten stuck trying to make one of those itemized outlines that calls out all the little details and has numbers then letters then i, ii, iii, etc. I am terrible at those! Using notecards (writing a paragraph or two about what would be in each scene) had never occurred to me before and it worked so well that I am still astonished I had never tried it before.

Having notecards did three things:

  1. It caused me to think about plot and characterization problems early on.
  2. It gave me a clear direction throughout my writing of the story.
  3. It helped to constrain my tendency to go on tangents.

This notecard outline wasn’t set in stone and I did diverge from it a bit in writing the story. It actually made it easier to change the plot because I could see how the new plot differed from my original idea and edit successive plot elements accordingly.

For me, these notecards were a map. When I made a change in my route, I didn’t get lost and still knew how to get to my destination. In some of my earlier projects, I would change something and the story would sometimes get lost in the weeds.

The most typical source of this was one of my characters blowing up my plot by deciding to do something I hadn’t even considered when I started the story. The way I write is so character driven that my characters can sometimes take the reigns of a story and go to nowhere chaos tangent land.

As much as I adore nowhere chaos tangent land, it isn’t the place where I want most of my stories to go because it’s like playing slots with the reader’s investment in the story. A character could end up describing how news network consolidation has affected human society or start playing a D&D campaign with the other characters where all of them are taking on the roles of sentient famous kitchen appliances. It’s like cosmic rays. They can give you cancer or superpowers, mostly cancer.

In addition to creating a notecard-based outline having a prompt for my first novella helped immensely.

My muse is very active and gives me too many ideas most of the time. Filtering them can be tough and writing for a prompt was a great way of focusing myself. I had spent years trying to decide which of my many ideas I wanted to write all the way to the end. A new story that was more contained and focused was what I needed to finally get something finished and out to a publisher.

I believe prompts from publishers are a great way to get that first book done if you’re someone who, like me, is trying to decide what book should be finished first. There is a base idea and a deadline. Two things that help constrain the writing process and make sure the project doesn’t grow too big for its container.

With all this going for me, the book started out well and I had 10,000 words by the end of the first week. Then, I slowed down because I couldn’t figure out how to get the story arc of the relationship to work the way I had originally planned and I had some traveling I had to do. I only got 5,000 words done in that time. It wasn’t till just before the third week that I got going again and a week and a day later I had over 20,000 more words that finished the story.

I was so worried that I would miss the deadline that last week that I asked Less Than Three Press for an extension. I still had to hear back from sensitivity readers, my boyfriend (a continuity guru) and my wife (a very talented editor). They happily agreed to give me a bit of extra time, but I heard back from everyone quickly enough to get it in the day before the due date.

About three weeks later, I found out my book, “A Welded Wave,” had been accepted and I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. My first publishing contract, my first published book, my debut novella! I couldn’t stop thinking about how awesome it was that people were going to be able to buy something I wrote and I was going to get royalties!

If I hadn’t seen that prompt on Less Than Three Press’s site, I might have remained unpublished for a long time. I am so thankful that I saw it and had the motivation and confidence to try to make the deadline.

Before I saw that prompt, I wrote tons of stuff that I put up online and paid attention to the critiques I got from all the wonderful energetic people that read it. I had a multitude of different projects, many of which I never finished. Sometimes something didn’t get finished because I found another story I was working on to be more interesting and sometimes it was because I had too many ideas about how the story should go or how it should be told.

Now that I have a book coming out, I am less anxious and more confident in choosing which story to work on next. I also have tried so many things that I have a clearer sense of how I want to tell a story and where I want things to go.

If you’re curious how the book turned out, you can preorder it!

Have you ever written for a prompt? Have thoughts about writing prompts? Leave a comment!

First Time Getting Editor Feedback

The title of this post is slightly misleading, but not entirely misleading. Let me explain: My wife was born to be an editor and has been indispensable for the ten plus years I’ve been married to her. She’s basically the reason I started understanding the crazy prescriptive rules for written English and am now so serious about pursuing a career as an author.

Because she is married to me and loves me, she is not able to read my stuff as critically as an actual editor. There are two reasons for this:

She doesn’t just like me, she like likes me a lot (you could even say loves…) and that affects the perspective from which she reads my stuff. If I go off on a tangent about nuclear physics and it’s not too long of a tangent, she might let it pass even if it is out of place because she knows how much I love nuclear physics.

She knows how I think and what I think about. I can wake up and turn to her saying, “Do you want me to have you a morning?” and she will somehow know that I mean, “Do you want me to make breakfast for you?”

Point is, she already knows what I am getting at because she has observed me long enough to have a spruce goose-load of context. She knows what I think about, she knows what I’m obsessed with and she knows tons of the world-building on any given project because I talked to her about it while I was thinking it all up.

There was no false pretense about her conflict of interest from the very beginning and I knew I needed feedback from people I wasn’t fornicating with. The first feedback that I sought was from people online that read my amateur, but somehow enthralling, writing. I learned a lot from that, but it wasn’t until I sent in “A Welded Wave” that I got feedback from an actual editor at a publisher.

The editor Less Than Three Press assigned to my book was very thorough and caught many things that my wife, my friend, and my boyfriend had all missed. Not that I expected everything to be perfect—I doubt there is a book out there that doesn’t have at least one typo.

There were places where it wasn’t clear which character the story was talking about. I’m oddly sparse with commas; the editor added a plethora of commas. My wife says it made things more clear, and I could see that in some places, but in others I didn’t see the point. I’m sure that I’m not an expert when it comes to punctuation and there are editors called copy editors that know way more than I do. They specialize in sentence-level editing.

One awesome thing my editor did was make little comments about stuff in the book. If there was a detail that was very true to how humans act, for instance when there’s a fire alarm, she would make a little comment like, “I think we’d all do that.” It helped me feel like she was invested in the book and that she was taking care in her editing of it.

My editor was also good at explaining corrections that I might not understand without context or reference to what used to be there. This is essential when editing books. Communication between the author and the editor allows for a open discussion about the book and how it is being changed. Otherwise, the story may retain more errors and hard-to-decipher sections.

Sometimes the editor pointed out things for me to fix because it was too big for a simple sentence edit or something. One time I mentioned a character putting some clothes in a laundry bag twice. The editor pointed it out for me to fix. I liked having some things left to me because I could decide how I wanted the story to flow.

I loved it when the editor gave me choices about what word to use or whether to take out a sentence or how to describe something that was unclear. All of this helped make me a better writer for the next story I write. More learning happened when I was engaged in the editing in this way. It was a majority of the more complex changes that were handled this way.

I learned more and I grew as a writer because of this approach. If the editor had just changed everything without giving me a choice or pointing things out for me to fix myself, I wouldn’t have been as engaged in her feedback. This way, I got to think about the changes and my own writing.

The same goes for all her comments. Without so many comments about various changes, I may have misinterpreted the changes or been unsure as to what made the change necessary. The more I was engaged, the more I was able to get out of the process.

Out of all of the edits she did, two of the most helpful things I learned were:

#1 When there’s a sentence that has something like, “He grabbed his toothbrush and centered the bathroom carpet and jumped in the bathtub,” it can be changed to: “He grabbed his toothbrush, centered the bathroom carpet, and jumped in the bathtub,” because I don’t need to put “and” between each action.

This may seem basic, but when I’m writing I often forget about using commas to list actions even though I use them for other sorts of lists. I think it reads better with the commas and I am going to try and get in the habit of doing that.

#2 The word “pretty” used to lessen the intensity of something is one of my favorite words or a bad habit. I used it over and over and this editor is the first person to notice.

The editor did a good job of changing my uses of “pretty” into different words or deleting them when it was unnecessary, and I want to learn to do the same. I’m going to start searching for the word “pretty” and replacing many of its instances whenever I finish a project.

There were a couple things that I didn’t change fully or changed differently from the way the editor suggested. I explained my reasoning in every case and the editor didn’t see any problem with what I suggested. The result was only one round of edits.

One thing that helped me through all this is that I thought about how both the editor and I wanted my book to be great. So, when I didn’t understand something the editor did or said, I gave myself some time to think about it and was patient with myself. This greatly reduced the stress of going over the corrections.

I know there are times when editors and authors don’t match, when their goals are not aligned or they have two very different writing styles, but I always give people that are correcting my writing the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise.

If I start out angry or nervous, it colors the way I look at everything. This is why I am always patient with myself and the person who is correcting my writing. It is only when I am centered that I see the truth.

My first experience getting feedback from a professional editor was extremely positive and I learned a lot from it. In addition to growing as a writer, I learned that I like getting editorial feedback and that I very much like working with Less Than Three Press. It is so important for publishers to have good editors who give informative and constructive feedback. It not only makes the books better, but the writers as well!

What was your first editing experience like as an editor or an author? Do you have other thoughts to share? I want to hear about them in the comments!

Curious about my first book? Click here to check it out on the publisher’s site!