DIY fiction

Listening to: Madeleine Peyroux. On Spotify.

About a year ago, when I told my friend, Ann, that my agent had declared my first novel “done,” she advised me to self-publish. At the time, I didn’t consider it. I’d been working on my book for 3 years, done a number of substantial rewrites, supervised by my very-successful-with-big-clients agent, and wanted to sell my novel to a traditional publisher so that I’d have an opportunity to work with a top editor. That was my dream: to have my work expertly edited and polished by someone who loved my story and wanted to collaborate on making it great.

I then embarked on a year of frustration with a busy agent who didn’t have time for my book and probably never read it. I do believe that someone at the agency sent my manuscript to a number of editors, but I have no idea what happened after that, if anyone followed up, if anyone pitched my story, if a conversation about my work ever happened. All I know is that my book didn’t find a publisher, and at this point, I doubt another agent would touch it.

If I could, there’s a lot I would do over, but I can’t, and this is where I am: I have a finished novel my friends and the agency readers seem to love that is sitting on my hard drive. So I’m rethinking all my prejudices against self-publishing. Because there is something to be said for knowing what is happening with your work — being the one making the decisions and moving the project forward.

Believe me, as I watch writers I met in college and in my MFA program get book deals and publish their novels with imprints I dreamed of working with, it’s painful and humbling to acknowledge that my novel didn’t make the cut. Maybe it wasn’t good enough, maybe I picked the wrong agent, maybe my story doesn’t fit what mainstream publishers are looking for, or maybe I’m missing a zombie or two.

I don’t have the answers. What I do know is that I believe in all the simple bits of wisdom that Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King have said about writing. That getting published doesn’t make you a writer. That writers write. And that they do so because they have to, and not for any other reason.

If I take my pride out of the equation, these are the facts: (1) I write stories because I want to, because I have to; (2) I want people to have the chance to read them; (3) I have a good job, so (4) I don’t need to write for money. (Well, actually, I do write for money. That is my job. But not fiction.)

I’ve decided to put my novel as an ebook on Smashwords. It’s a big project, one that takes up time that I would otherwise devote to chastising myself for being a failure. And also because the process doesn’t allow for disappointment and self-flagellation, I find I enjoy it. I’ve hired an artist to design my cover, and I’ve done the first pass at ebook formatting. (Smashwords provides a great style guide. But I’ll probably hire someone to add the frosting.)

And while my designer is designing, I am editing. This requires a very different hat from “writer,” and though I didn’t want to wear it, I’ve let go of this last resistance. Because I’m actually a good editor, a brutal editor, one who has learned from years as a speechwriter how to distance myself from my work and see the text only as text, rather than something personal. It’s a long, tedious process, but I should finish about the same time the artist completes the first layout of my cover.

I’ll let you know when the book is ready for download. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from writers who have self-published. Any advice to share?

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Sad songs

Listening to: Elliot Smith. Waltz #2.

I’m working on a new song called We’ll Dance Like We’ve Never Met. It’s a sad song in 3/4 time, kind of inspired by Elliot Smith, who wrote an amazing waltz about his mother and abusive stepfather. (That’s Waltz #2. There’s also a Waltz #1.) It’s on the album XO, which is a brilliant collection of sad songs. The kind of stuff John Lennon would have written if he’d suffered from acute depression.

So I’ve had Elliot Smith on the brain. As well as persistent regrets about “the one I sent away.” You know what I’m talking about. The relationship you completely bungled because you were stupid and selfish and unable to appreciate kindness because you were looking for other stuff that you later discovered wasn’t worth very much.

All of that adds up to the blues. Or even better, I thought, a really sad waltz.

Up to this point, I’ve written a Jerry Lee Lewis -type thing about my dog sleeping in the bed and a show tune -ish song, entitled “Literary Love,” which starts off with a blues intro about Dido and Juliet: “Tragedy, it’s not for me. Heartbreak is not my style. If I’m gonna have a literary love, I want it in the bookstore aisle.” Completely silly songs that I used to learn how to add chords and change keys. But I suddenly felt like writing a real song, a love song. Which for me, these days, means a sad song.

Or maybe it was just Elliot Smith rattling around in my head.

The tune is pretty simple. Built around an A minor triad. What I needed to learn, though, was how to keep a simple tune from being repetitive and boring. L showed me a few things.

First, the unresolved phrase. I like this. Especially in a song about regrets and not being able to go back and fix everything you messed up. So an A minor tune, with phrases that sometimes end on B, fits. Lesson two, make small changes to the tune for a surprise. So for one bar, I take the notes up a whole step. Seems like nothing, but a whole step is a big difference.

Finally, the Big Lesson: Change the chords. This is a magical thing, keeping the tune the same but putting a completely different set of chords underneath. Start sad, inject a little hope, then rip out the heart. All done by changing the chords.

So now I have two simple verses. With no words. (I’m working on that.) Just something that sounds kind of sad. And then my chorus: “What do we do, when there’s no me and you? We’ll just dance like we’ve never met.” Finally, the middle. Which is the part I like best. It’s just a dance. A waltz. Instrumental with a nod to Chopin.

Give me another week to work on it, and then I’ll post something for people to hear.