At the end of every year, I look back on the past several months at what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and what I can do better. In honor of that and the new Chris Rock film, Top Five, which opens Friday, here are the top five things I’ve learned from having two indie books published in less than two years.
5) An Agent Won’t Change Your Life, You Will Change Your Life
During her seminar at the 2012 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, literary agent Gail Hochman said, “An agent won’t change your life, you will change your life.” Even though I had an agent, that quote resonated with me. It’s stayed with me because it’s true.
There’s the train of thought that finding Mr. or Ms. Right Agent will change everything for you. Or that your life changes the day your book is published. No. You will change your life. And not just by doing the writing, revising, and editing. By promoting, marketing, and living your work. Remember, you’re the one sharing your story with the world, not your agent, not your publisher. The agent can get you a publisher. The publisher can get you a place on a bookshelf, but it’s your story.
Recently, award-winning record producer Linda Perry asked rock musician Courtney Love to help her mentor a group of up-and-coming musicians. Love, who knows a few things about ups and downs in the recording industry, had this to say, which works for writers as well: “There is no room at the inn. So you’re like Jesus, Joseph, and Mary looking for a spot in the music industry. I don’t care if you’re R&B, Rap, Rock, whatever you are, there’s no room at the inn. You’ve got to make that room for yourself. And the only way you’re going to do that is by being considered a pure artist so that people can say she’s the real thing, he’s the real thing.”
My life has changed, but not because I’ve had a couple of books published. It hasn’t changed because an agent loves my work. It’s changed because I self-published a comic that led to a full-time job writing and editing. That job gave me time, experience, and confidence to turn that comic, Flutter, into a graphic novel series, and to finish my novel, A Boy Like Me. Then I exhibited Flutter at conventions and conferences and met my publisher, friends, and collaborators, which brings me to…
4) Surround Yourself with People Who Make You Better
Surround yourself with people who will push you to elevate your work. Surround yourself not only with people who make your work better, but also with people who make you better. These people are usually one and the same. They don’t settle. When you’re in the final days of revision it is important that you are working with editors and publishers who will kick your ass.
When my first editor, Kelly Ford, strongly suggested I add more scenes with Peyton’s mother in A Boy Like Me, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to look at the novel one more time, much less go through every one of her comments and address them, but I did.
When my second editor, 215 Ink’s Mike Perkins, strongly suggested that I revise the fight scenes in A Boy Like Me because those scenes felt too adult, too violent, again, it was the last thing I wanted to do. The deadline to get it to the printers was approaching. My inner whiny voice said, “Whatever. We don’t have time.”
“Whatever” is right. These editors are taking time away from their work, time away from the work of others to help you elevate your book. Listen to every suggestion and, at the very least, seriously consider it.
3) One Project Doesn’t Define You
It can be difficult to see beyond a massive project like a novel that you’ve just spent years writing. But there is life beyond it, which is why you have to finish it and send it out into the world. There are other novels, other projects waiting for you.
Working on multiple projects is a good way to not let one take over your life. It doesn’t mean you have to work on every project every day. Work on one for a series of days.
Finish a draft and set it aside to marinate while you work on another project for a bit.
Have things in different stages. Work on writing projects of different types and different lengths. Collaborate with someone on something just for variety’s sake. One project informs the other. It enriches your (writing) life. It does not distract. It makes you better, broadens your range. Having multiple projects helps you let go of the one that’s ready to be born into the wild, wide world.
2) Never Ever, Ever, EVER Stop Promoting Your Work
Speaking of multiple projects, don’t give up on the one you published last year. When 2014 began, I questioned the logic of continuing to exhibit Flutter, Volume One at comic conventions while trying to prepare for the publication of A Boy Like Me. After all, Flutter, Volume One was published in 2013, and the second volume wouldn’t come out until 2015. I’d be exhibiting at conventions with a book that was a year old, a book I’d taken to a lot of those conventions in 2013.
However, I’d thrown a Hail Mary pass, applying to exhibit at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2014, the biggest convention on the planet, at the last minute. I didn’t think I’d get in. There’s a rumored years-long waitlist and it was the first time I’d applied. But I did get in. That invitation was too good to pass up so I said yes to that and a mixture of other conventions, some I’d already exhibited Flutter at and some I had not.
Had I not exhibited at conventions in 2014, I would have missed out on many amazing opportunities that have come my way. Furthermore, sales for Flutter increased throughout the year. I sold twice as many copies of Flutter at conventions in 2014 than I did in 2013 when it was brand new. Also, while at those conventions, I got to spread the word about my new book, A Boy Like Me. Most importantly, I got to meet some amazing people.
There’s no experience like being on the front line, meeting and talking to readers face to face. Doing that on such a mega stage like Comic-Con International: San Diego makes all other conventions, conferences, and events easy. Also, internet trolls are nothing compared to someone standing in front of you telling you how your work triggers them or asking you if your comic book could solve their dating problems. Which brings me to…
1) Lorde Is Right: Glory and Gore Go Hand in Hand
For every five-star review you get, there will be someone who would rate it negative five stars if they could. We all don’t have the same taste. I’ve found more than one person who does not like Breaking Bad. (I know, I know.) Try singing “Let It Go” around an elementary school teacher these days and you’ll find out just how Frozen over they are. And somewhere right now a parent is yelling at his or her teenager to turn down that satanic noise otherwise known as Lorde’s Pure Heroine, which has been with me through every glory and gore moment of 2014.
You can’t control who likes your work. You can’t control where, when, or how your work is recognized. The one thing you can control is writing and revising the best book you can, but once it’s there, send it out. You will find your path in the publishing world. Your book will find its spot on the bookshelf. And soon you’ll be on a panel at a conference alongside some amazing people who have become your contemporaries, your tribe. Someone will reach out to you and thank you for writing your book. That alone will make it all worth it. If it doesn’t, why’d you write it in the first place?
The only wrong step is no step. Explore all publishing options. The path that’s best for you and your book will become clear. Just make sure the path you choose is your preferred path and not someone else’s. Amazing things will happen. Some not so amazing things will probably happen, too. But then even more amazing things will happen. Glory and gore.