Why you shouldn’t write a novel series backward

For starters, you probably shouldn’t write a single novel backward. Novels are kind of long for that sort of jiggery-pokery. Short stories are fine. I’m all for writing them backward. They are small enough to see from all angles in your mind. A novel series is like a train of trailers hitched behind a truck – tricky to drive backward.

I’ve documented how I got in the awkward spot of writing a series backward, or at least from the inside out, in previous posts. Here’s the back story for those who missed them.

I had a novel that was too long, so I decided to divide it into two books. This seemed like a good idea for a while, until it became clear that my two books would have to be three.  The third book would need to consist of a bulk of new storytelling in between the other two. At the time of my last update, I had finished drafts of the two outside books and was staring at the daunting prospect of building a bridge book that would fit together with the books on either end.

The whole story:    Update1    Update2    Update3

Now that I’ve got the support beams in place, to the tune of about 130 pages of new middle, I’m staring at the prospect (and you may have guessed this if you read the previous updates) of splitting the middle book in two, giving me a total of four books.

This is not what I wanted, and it’s possible that I may be able to hold it to three, but with each passing chapter, four becomes more likely. After 130 pages, I still have lots of ground to cover. If I could do it in another 130, that would wrap things up in three books. I begin to doubt I can.

Make sure the bridge is finished before you drive your series backward over it.

Why is four books bad? In a perfect world, it’s not. But in a perfect world, I would be writing these books in order. In a perfect world, I might even have the resources of a publishing company behind me.

From the writing standpoint, four books is no problem. As I progress, my confidence in my ability to tie four books together into a viable series grows. I can tell the story.

The headache comes after the writing. Taking a single novel from manuscript to book is a difficult task for an independent author. By the time I am done with all my patchwork writing, I could have four books to shepherd through that journey. Because I am not writing them chronologically, they must all be written before any one of them is finished.

Arranging for editing, covers, layout, etc. of four books in quick succession is crazy daunting. True, I would have to eventually do all that, even if I wrote them in order, but in that case the production pieces would be more staggered, with writing time in between.

I know it amounts to the same thing in the end, but it looks like a huge wall to get beyond, rather than four separate, manageable walls.

Nevertheless, I’m the one who put this train into reverse gear, so I ‘m the one who has to bear down and figure out how to keep it on the tracks.

You have been culled

When it comes to book authorship, the stat that matters is sales. There are lots of other stats you can follow, but they don’t mean much if they don’t result in sales. Most of the stats you can watch don’t result in sales.

If you are an Indie/self-published author, and you don’t have lots of time or money to spend on promotion, you might not see much movement in your sales numbers.

There are many reason why you may not have time for promotion: you work a day job; you have multiple family obligations (e.g. children); you need your limited spare time to write more books.

Likewise, there are good reasons you may lack funds for promotion: your day job doesn’t pay well; your family obligations outgrow their shoes every three months; Uber passengers complained because you were typing at a keyboard while you’re driving in your spare time.

Sorry children. Daddy bought a banner ad instead. You’ll just have share the one pair until the sales start rolling in.

Everyone has their crosses to bear, and anemic book sales is one of yours. Compared to keeping your family obligations healthy and in fitting shoes, it’s not even a heavy one.

But it’s the reason you bother to look at other statistics.

Other statistics are less important, but they’re probably more interesting than the drying wall of paint that is your sales total. They can keep you engaged in your own writing career (using career loosely) until that future day when you actually develop a writing career.

Goodreads offers a full menu of ancillary stats. These stats don’t mean much in terms of charting success, but an author can move them without a huge investment of time or money.

It’s kind of an illusion to make you feel better.

If it makes you feel better, it’s a useful illusion.

The easiest feel-good illusion to create on Goodreads is the “to read” line. You can bump this by giving away a single book. When people enter the giveaway, a percentage of them neglect to uncheck the box that puts the book on their “to read” shelf, making it appear as if new readers are getting ready to read your book.

Like all temporary stupors, this Giveaway buzz comes with a hangover. Periodically, Goodreads readers realize their own mortalities, and that no one is likely to read 250,000 books in one lifetime. They turn to their “to read” lists and weed out some of the whims and un-won freebies. This is your book. You have been culled.

Being culled is somewhere below spilled milk on the list of things to cry over. Yes, a number related to your book has gone down, which isn’t good, but it’s a fantasy number. “To read” numbers rarely translate into “currently reading” numbers, which is the only stat in the same neighborhood as sales.

There is no shame in being culled. It means there was a person who at one time was willing to accept your book if it were totally free and delivered directly to their home, and that’s a start. That person has moved on, and so should you, because it’s time to take your family obligations shopping for shoes again.

 

The publishing process made me a better storyteller

Maybe I should have kept up my vigorous regimen of procrastination.

Fortunately, I hadn’t given up procrastination cold turkey, I was gradually easing off it as part of a 112 step program.

While I am waiting for my initial beta reader (wife) to list all the things wrong with the first draft of my latest book, I decided to twiddle my thumbs for a good long while before reworking one of the several unpublished novels I keep tucked away for later.

Incidentally, there are a many things wrong with the first draft of the latest book, so it may take her some time to compile them.

Thanks to the fascinating qualities of my twirling thumbs, combined with confluence of youth spring soccer and baseball seasons, and a big project at work, I have rewritten all of 12 pages in the last two months. The manuscript is more than 400 pages, so those dozen pages seem somewhat measly.

Yet, I am a man who can occasionally find sunshine in little things. (My initial beta reader may disagree with this, but she doesn’t always appreciate the subtlety of my understated sunshine.) I am pleased with what I have accomplished.

There’s a lot in those 12 pages. Mostly, there’s a much more engaging beginning to a story than there used to be.

I finished the draft of this novel about 10 years ago. I didn’t publish it because, though I believed it a good story, it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and I didn’t know why.

Ten years later, I might have figured out why.

My presentation of the story did not measure up to the story itself.

In those 10 years, I could have written 10 novels and still not learned enough about storytelling. As it happens, in those 10 years, I spawned three children, so I may have changed 10,000 diapers but I didn’t write anything near 10 novels.

"How many diapers?"

“How many diapers?”

But it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d written 20. The thing that made me learn most about storytelling was publishing three books.

Publishing wasn’t a financial windfall by any means, but it was a learning experience, and a valuable one. Knowing I would put these stories before the public made me consider them from angles I’d never had to before. It made me focus on readers: how I took hold of them, how I held onto them, and where I led them. It forced me to act like a professional: to analyze my own work and that of competing writers with new attention to detail. It didn’t mean I was going to attempt to copy the successful ones, but it did make me think about the elements that made them a success.

The act of publishing made me more aware of many things about my books, but more than anything else, it made me constantly reevaluate how I present a story. There’s more to learn, but I’m better than I used to be.

If I can keep up this breakneck pace of rewriting, I may actually turn this old novel into a well-presented story to share in about five years or so.

Why I stopped submitting short fiction to literary journals

When I first got serious about sending short fiction to literary magazines, I didn’t realize the difference between getting a story accepted and actually having the story published. Those were callow days.

Before electronic submissions, you printed a copy of your story for each prospective journal. Each copy needed a cover letter. You had to remember to change the journal name on each letter and put the right letter into the right envelope if you didn’t want to embarrass yourself.

Each mailing contained a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the reply letter. You carted off your stack to the post office. If you were productive, the trip could be expensive.

It felt good to get a bundle of stories out. That feeling faded as the waiting game began. Still, walking to the mailbox every day held a little extra drama. There was always a journal that responded quickly, with words that meant: we didn’t bother to read your story; nonetheless, we’re sure we didn’t like it.

Over time, the rejections trickled in. They were terse, rarely requiring a full sheet of paper. Some editors scribbled a note in the margin to make it seem more personal, but rejection was rejection. NO was enough.

I began expecting all SASEs in my mailbox to contain rejections. One day I was opening a rejection when the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find the word NO. The letter said Yes, as in, Yes, we would like to publish your story. It wasn’t a famous magazine, but few literary journals are. I put the letter on the refrigerator to show the world (or the part of it that passed through my kitchen) my success.

I knew it would take several months for the publication of the story, but it would be worth the wait.

I waited, and waited, and waited.

After several months, I emailed the editor. I got no reply.

I sent emails to everyone associated with the journal. Finally, someone replied. The magazine didn’t exist anymore. The non-profit publisher ran out of money. They wouldn’t be publishing my story, no longer having a vehicle for publishing stories.

This disappointment was superseded by other events . I got another story accepted and published by the first journal to which I sent it. They worked quickly and did an excellent job with the presentation.

Then I got a story accepted by the journal of a well-respected university – a name everybody would recognize. The story was published in a timely manner, but the presentation made me hesitant to hand out copies to everyone I knew.

They’d requested an electronic copy. When they converted it to a different format, some punctuation appeared as random symbols. They didn’t catch this, and it was printed with the odd symbols.

Soon after, a story was accepted by another university journal. It wasn’t a big name, but I was still happy to celebrate any success. That story has never been published. It never will be. I can’t tell what happened to that journal. It just sort of disappeared.

I don’t submit to journals anymore. Not because of the uncertainty or the disappointment. I stopped because of the modern ease of self-publishing. In 2011, I gathered my best short fiction: stories published in literary journals; stories accepted but never published; stories never accepted; and stories never submitted. I put them together and self-published the book: A Smile Through a Tear.

The roller coaster ride of journal submission eventually led to this.

The roller coaster ride of journal submission eventually led to this.

It was a great experience. I controlled the content, the timeline, and the appearance. It’s a modest endeavor, but it’s all mine. I hope to add many more books to my little self-publishing catalog. But if my projects fail, at least I won’t have to wait months for somebody to tell me about it.