Patience and Marshmallows

I’d like to talk about the virtue of patience and how it pertains to being a writer.

First things first: who the hell is this guy to give advice? He’s written a few dozen stories, and self-published an anthology. I’m not giving advice. I want to start a discussion about something that has come up a lot in the writing community on the ol’ internet.

Patience, or lack thereof.

I grew up raised by worriers.  My Grams lit candles whenever we traveled from home, and in catechism, I learned that all the tragedies in my past and future were punishments for trespasses that I had thought about committing. I try my best to realize that every bad thing that occurs is not karma for some past or future transgression. It becomes difficult to do anything, with that kind of hang-up.

The other thing I learned in Catholic school was that it was better to be punished for doing something than for something you didn’t do. So if the whole class was going to be punished for goofing around, I made sure I was doing the goofing. This has made me someone who would rather act than stand by. And while I don’t consider myself that busy or prolific, this neurosis has given me the blessing of output. What does this have to do with that poor dog with the treat on his nose?

Patience. I used to be very impatient about writing and being published. I would submit to markets who responded quickly. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to be published right now, dammit! And a few editors could tell you that I wrote stories for them overnight to apologize for not reading the guidelines about simultaneous submissions (Thank you for your understanding, David and Aldo). So, I learned early that impatience only brings embarrassment and tears. And I am thankful for the lesson.

Now, one must strike when the iron is hot. And opportunity knocks but once. But be sure that what you hear is a knock, and not your own belly rumbling with hunger for glory.

I don’t talk much about self-publishing vs. traditional. I think it has become less of a business decision than a personal crusade for some evangelists, and has become as pleasant to discuss as politics. Which is to say I’d rather toast my own danglies in a waffle iron than jump into the discussion, at this point. So I will approach it from the angle of patience, because I’ve seen too many good writers make mistakes due to a lack of it.

I’ve read of a couple short story collections and one self-published novel being pulled and re-released due to copy-editing errors. The writers made effusive apologies, offered the book free, told all their Facebook friends and blogger buddies to download the new copy. But the cat is out of the bag, and the readers they hoped to reach- the ones who don’t follow them on Twitter or read their blog already- have gotten a Shit Sandwich. And even if they do download the new version, they’ll remember this.

Of course, we’ve all read traditionally published books with errors. The e-book of Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE was pulled for egregious mistakes. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Do you want the priceless word of mouth to be, “That book was great,” or “I’m never buying one of his books again”?

There are more examples of impatience: Querying a press with your novel, then self-publishing it a few weeks later. Not submitting to markets who take over 30 days to respond. Self-publishing merely to avoid the grueling process of submitting queries to editors or agents, then waiting up to 18 months or more for your book to be published, if everything goes well.

The real question is: Do you want one marshmallow now, or three marshmallows later?

That link goes to Kristine Rusch writing on the Stanford Delayed Gratification Experiment, where children were offered one marshmallow now, but told if they didn’t eat it, they could have two marshmallows later. I know, I want a marshmallow now, don’t you? Well, wait for it.

Kris Rusch uses this experiment to show why we will take a “big” advance now, vs. the slow steady sales that can be achieved through self-publishing. But I’m going to flip that argument. I think a lot of new writers self-publish because they can’t wait to eat that marshmallow. Not a money marshmallow, but one of gratification at hearing their friends (and hopefully some new readers) tell them how much they liked their book. And I think a lot of the time we should wait, to get more marshmallows.

Ms. Rusch is a pro, and her Business Rusch blog is great reading. I like reading her posts because she is somewhat balanced and shrewd in judging traditional vs. self publishing. She may seem like she isn’t, because she calls out the big boys on their terrible accounting, bullying contracts, and otherwise non-agile business performance, but that is because she has self-respect. She is a professional, and demands to be treated as such. And I can’t think of anything wrong with behaving that way, from the time you submit your first story for publication.

Kris Rusch has self-published, and has many books with traditional publishers. She makes a choice on each book. It is a business decision, not a religion, or changing the world. It is not a knife in the back of bookstores, fighting the gatekeepers, or giving the big bully Amazon the defiant middle finger. It is no more political than choosing a credit union over a multinational bank (though that too, has been politicized).

If you read Ms. Rusch’s post, she lays out a very convincing argument to self-publish, when comparing money made vs. advances paid, on average. If you write, read that post. It will inform your decisions. But keep an open mind, and don’t act out of impatience. If you want to write a series character, you might not want to self-publish, if you are doing so to get the attention of a traditional publisher. They don’t want book #4 in your series. They want book #1, and they’re not going to publish it if it’s… already published.

And… editing is essential. Not just copy-editing. Editing. Find someone who will be honest with you, or pay a pro. They are out there. Check their references. If your stories were all published in well-edited zines, that’s great. Edit them again, you’d be amazed how many typos slip past multiple sets of eyes. Ask Lawrence Block, who found half a sentence repeated in a novel that was published three times and proofread each time.

This is the age of instant gratification. But to quote an old commercial… Make no wine before its time. Remember when writers used to have novels they left in a drawer? Maybe writing this novel was practice, if everything thinks your book stinks on ice. Do you want to send it out there, like an embarrassing childhood photo? That is a serious consideration. A reader is unlikely to forgive you and see if your second book got a whole lot better.

I force myself to sit on a story for a week before I edit it again and send it out. It hurts, like someone is spooling my intestines out on a spindle. But it pays off, when I’m stuffing my face with the marshmallows of acceptance. I rewrote my first novel, gutted over half of it, and this version is being gutted again. I had entire chapters describing the past in great detail, when one sucker punch of a line could do the job… but enough about that.

I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But I have learned some patience, and it has served me very well. I may self-publish a story collection, with a new Jay Corso story, after he debuts in Needle. I am editing my first novel, and will be querying agents and editors this year. If no one asks for edits, and rejects it outright… who knows, I may self-publish. But it won’t be because I can’t wait to see what people think. It will be because that is what I’ve decided is best. And I’ll damn sure be writing my next novel as soon as I’m done editing this one.

From what I can see, it’s like fighting. You need to strike when opportunity presents itself. But you sure as hell don’t throw a punch just to get it over with.

I used to do that, as well. I had a straight nose, once.

You can’t say no to those eyes…

I entered the foray of self-publishing this year, sort of. I published Lost Children: A Charity Anthology, edited with my friends Fiona Johnson and Ron Earl Phillips, with stories by 30 writers. And all the cash is going to two causes: PROTECT and Children 1st. One reason I did it was of course, to raise money for these organizations. Another reason was to learn the ropes and see the results, to decide if self-publishing is for me. To see what kind of sales I could generate, and how much work goes into it.

You have to set goals for yourself. My goals were:

Sell 100 copies in the first month (succeeded)
Sell at least one copy per day after that (succeeded, in the long run)

Now I wanted to sell 100 per month, but it didn’t happen. We’re at 148 sales right now, and I’d be happy to make 150 sales by the end of the year.

According to Dean Wesley Smith, these are excellent sales for a first book. The sales really pile in once you have 4-5 items for sale, because you get repeat business. I never expected this anthology, with a handful of known crime and literary writers and many first-timers, to sell very well. Fiona and I donated $600 of our own cash for the original fiction challenge, and we wanted to generate more for the causes. The project has been a great success in that regard- the royalties aren’t in yet, but we’re looking at around $350 in two months, and the book will be on sale for three years.

But let me tell you, it’s a lot of work. I’m still not sure if self-publishing is the way to go, for me. I don’t want to start that debate. It works for a lot of people. Traditional works for others. Dean Wesley Smith says use both to your advantage, and to me, that seems the wisest choice. Of course, you need to talk softly and carry a big lawyer, if you plan on self-publishing and pursuing a contract with a major publisher. Many contracts include non-compete clauses that would keep you from self-publishing, even if you’ve been doing it prior to the contract. Let the writer beware. But enough about that.

It was an exciting endeavor and now that I’ve learned it, would I do it again? You bet I would.

But I want two more sales. Really bad. The next two buyers- print or e-book- who email me the receipt (use the “contact me” form on the upper right) will get a copy of Heart Transplant by Andrew Vachss donated to the library of their choice.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck