It has now been just over two years since I became a published author. This was something I aspired to for a long time. I’m proud of my accomplishment and am working on a third book in this little series that has come to be called Traces of Treasure. Will there be a fourth book? Who knows? At the time I wrote THE FEVER I hadn’t even dreamed of a second book.
It wasn’t an easy goal to achieve. I had dabbled in short stories over the years and wrote a pretty mediocre novella in the 90s (unpublished). On my way to my English and History degrees, I had taken quite a bit of creative writing. At first it was an attempt at a “blow off” course but it wasn’t. Sure there weren’t tests, especially no final, but you had to produce and you had to read. And you had to develop a thick skin because your work went on display to the entire class and everything you wrote went under the microscope of peer review. Believe me, in some respects I preferred tests. Oh, and you had to participate so that meant you had to read everybody else’s stories. If you didn’t write and/or didn’t participate in class, you didn’t get a good grade.
A lot of people are drawn to short stories. I was. The prospect of writing a novel is daunting. They’re long and drawn out and detailed and involved. Short stories are, well, uh, um, how can I put this? They’re short. They have to be easier, right?
Allow me to burst your bubble. A good short story is much harder to write than a novel. I mean, to pull it off as a literary work of art. In a novel you can take your time to develop a story, to draw your reader in. To explain things. The aspects of beginning, middle, and end can be fully explored
Understand this: a really good short story is very hard to pull off. Sure, anybody can string a bunch of words together and tell some kind of story. It might even be entertaining. Most are at the high end of mediocre at best. And even if you do manage to pull it off, the financial prospects are minimal at best. There I said it. Financial prospects … and having said it I’ll let you in on a little secret. I shouldn’t disallow short story writing based on financial prospects because the financial prospects of being fabulously successful as any kind of author are pretty dim.
In the long run, we write because we want to write, the same way an artist sketches or a wood worker sands with the grain for long hours to draw out the soul of a piece of timber.
Then there is the fact that being a writer involves a bit more than stringing words together. Sure some people can do it the first time through. Many more think they can. But there is another level of work that is required to produce a viable written work. I can’t speak for now, but creative writing classes when I was in college didn’t address any of the nuts and bolts aspects of being a writer. For one thing, revision. Of course a novel takes a lot of revision. As I said, we wrote short stories back then. Revision is one advantage to short stories. They’re shorter. Revision on a novel is hard. I spent three years on THE FEVER start to finish. That is entirely due to the fact that in the beginning I didn’t really understand how to effectively revise, how to edit myself, in short, how to actually craft the novel.
Oh, I knew the basics of what I needed to do, technically anyway. I had a foundation laid down, but there is an artistry to sit down and actually build something on top of that foundation of words. I changed the ending three times. I changed the beginning four times. Each time I thought it was better, and maybe it was, but as I read through it I would find myself dissatisfied. My first three revisions were pretty much a waste of time, useful only as a starter course in novel revision.
I did hit upon a technique that has served me well since then. AT first I would run through a revision cycle, then pause and regroup my brain a little, and read through the novel start to finish. I noticed that the quality eventually improved through the work and I reasoned that in my revision cycle I was getting better and more insightful as I found my groove. So in the fourth revision, as I reached the end of the book, I went back around and attacked the beginning AGAIN, while I was hot. Eventually, I just began to swing around again and to start again. My revisions were more productive after that.
I did decide to take a short break later, after revision seven. I was burned out. So what did I do? November was coming up … and that meant NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month (where one endeavors to write a 50,000 word rough draft in 30 days). I took a month off, not from writing, but from THE FEVER. I wrote another novel. I still have that one, waiting to be revised. Then I started right back on revision eight of THE FEVER.
About other novels: I wrote two others before THE FEVER. All three are good stories but they need to be revised and crafted. All five, including THE FEVER and A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP were NaNoWriMo projects.
A testament to my learning curve from the first novel revision is the fact that I only spent six months revising A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP.
So, here I am, two years on, with two novels in publication, plus a whimsical promotional cookbook that I spent a lot more time on than I ever thought I would, and I am working on a third book in the series (but working on that one outside of NaNoWriMo.) This one has been slower going, but that is due to the breaks. One long one because of eye surgery then, just as I was starting to roll I got the idea for that cookbook. It was fun, and it also taught me the rudiments of self-publishing. I hoped it would help draw attention to the novels and increase sales. THAT is still a work in progress.
See, that is the other aspect of being a writer they didn’t teach me in school: marketing. Even the lucky few who get picked up by a major traditional publisher have to deal with it; although those publishers do a lot of the marketing, you still have expend a bit of effort to market yourself. With small publishers, or in self-publishing, the lion’s share of the marketing responsibility falls on the author. At just about this exact time two years ago, that reality started to dawn on me. “Okay, I’m HERE … Now What?”
I had no web page, no blog, no Twitter presence, no “book” or “author” page on Facebook, no Instagram account or Pinterest presence. I hadn’t even thought about any of these things. What did I do? I googled “book marketing” and I scrambled to get things in place. As part of my pre-publication work I was presented with the opportunity to provide blubs and key words … huh? I cobbled something together. Remember what I said about short stories? You want to work literary wonders of high art? Learn to write effective 200 word book blurbs. A 95,000 word novel is child’s play compared to that. I’m still learning. Feel free to peruse my blurbs on Amazon and give me pointers.
There is always work to do: I don’t post to this blog enough. I depend a lot on Facebook and Twitter. Sales are still lackluster and sales of my second published book lag far behind the first, which surprises me because I think it is really a much better book. Although a sequel, I feel I did a good job of making it stand on its own. If I had anything to do over, I would have asked the publisher to de-emphasize the “book 2” on the cover. I think it causes people to hesitate. You need that gut level … THIS LOOKS INTERESTING … you don’t want them to hesitate and wonder “what about book 1?” I remember the time I was looking for something to watch on Netflix and saw the series “EARTH 2” and started searching for “EARTH 1” …. Then realized, oh, we live on Earth 1. Anyway, I’m telling you now … you don’t have to read the first book. Sure, it helps … it’s a great story too, but you can read “Curse” all by itself and not be lost at all.
Heck, even The Mossback Café Cookbook helps for both books. And it’s free! Mostly. Still trying to get Amazon to price match.
So, two years on and I find that my status as a novelist is firm … and I’m making just enough money to keep working full-time at my day job, er, probably forever.
I will say this, I have a core of very enthusiastic fans for which I am very thankful. Through them I have found that once people read the books, they really enjoy them. Even my editor kicked back one scene in “Curse” then recanted because she realized she got too invested in the characters. I thought at the time, “my editor got invested in my characters … that can’t be a bad thing.”
So check them out. Don’t forget, I’m Author of the Month at authorshout.com
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina … for information about all his books go to http://thefensk.com