An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
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This week we have an informative guest post from Bridget Chicoine (@jbchicoine) who shares perspectives on both traditional and self-publishing.
Thank you, Anesa, for inviting me here today! I really love this Drawer No More series. When I first read the phrase, “This one’s for the drawer!” on your blog, that Russian saying resonated with me. I have felt that way so many times with my own writing. My first novel is still ‘in the drawer’ where it rightly belongs—it really was that awful. My second novel and its sequel nearly met the same destiny, but not because they deserved it.
I originally wrote Girl Running as a way to amuse myself while my husband was away on a business trip. Writing it was pure bliss—I didn’t know anything about writing a novel, and the only audience I wrote for was my husband who absolutely loved it! (He didn’t have a clue about good writing either, but he could at least detect a good story somewhere in there!) As unrealistic as it was—and I imagine this is typical of most beginner writers—I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to publish this someday,’ having no idea what was really involved. This was back in 2006 when the internet was relatively new to me—and intimidating. Just the same, I located contact information for a handful of agents (well, more like fifty) and queried them with my unpolished, 150k-word manuscript. Of course, it was rejected—over and over again. In the drawer it went along with my ego. But that was okay because I had this really great idea for a sequel to Girl Running,and I couldn’t wait to get started writing it. I was on a roll!
Around that time, I even learned how to print and hand bind Girl Running, which was great fun. When I was finally brave enough to share the hand-bound volume with a few friends, I could tell by their tentative responses that the story had made them uncomfortable—not with my writing (unpolished as it still was), but the themes of the stories pushed a few boundaries. Portrait of a Girl Running is about two student-teacher relationships—one romantic and one not. With the sequel, Portrait of a Protégé, I took the question of age-appropriateness in a relationship to the next level, hoping I could pull it off, that I could make my reader root for the unconventional. (In fact, even now, readers tend to love or hate Protégé!) All of that made me hesitant about publishing both stories—what if people think these books are in some way semi-autobiographical! I mean, I wrote the main character, Leila, with my husband in mind—that is, I wrote Leila for him and consequently, she looks a lot like I did when I was seventeen, long hair and dimples included, and I didn’t want to change that. And all those words! How was I going to trim at least 50k words? (I didn’t know how to kill little darlings back then—every four-syllable word and run-on sentence was ever so precious!)
I set those books in the drawer with a promise, and I began another novel, Story for a Shipwright. In 2009, I entered it in the ABNA competition—this was where and when I began to meet other writers online, and when I started my writing blog. With the help of the online writing community, I finally learned simple principles, like ‘show, don’t tell,’ and how to cut unnecessary adverbs and the like. I also read up on self-publishing, which, as a do-it-yourselfer, really appealed to me, but I needed the validation and support of a “real” publisher—I wanted an “Authority” to tell me it was good enough.
Next, I acquired a few beta readers who were also writers, and that’s when my prose significantly improved. I queried again. And again. And again. Between 2009 and 2011, I sent out over 200 queries. From the last round, I received a lot of interest and requests—and subsequent rejections—until I finally landed a contract with a small press publisher. Validation! Finally! And the contract included first refusal of my next novel! Great! Because I already had two novels to polish and submit—I was a shoe in! I never thought much about the fact that my publisher was a rather conservative operation, after all, I consider myself on the conservative side, my fascination with unconventional relationships not withstanding. And to be clear, Girl Running and Protégé are not tawdry romances with any sex. They are psychological, emotionally charged, and character-driven.
I spent the next year sending Girl Running and Protégé to my trusted beta readers and found out what I needed to fix and trim, and I got busy. I will admit that I was very pleased with the results, and they met with approval from my broad-minded betas. I was still a little uncomfortable with the themes, but I was psyched to submit it to my publisher after they released Uncharted: Story for a Shipwright in October 2012. I eagerly awaited good news … but, alas, they rejected both stories. ‘They were sorry,’ they said, ‘both books were beautifully written with some vivid, interesting characters. But unfortunately, they couldn’t publish these manuscripts. The books push too many social boundaries …. They were just too small and new as a company. They didn’t have enough clout in the publishing industry…. ’ Additionally, the editor was so uncomfortable that she wanted to stop reading at a certain point—but, she said, my ‘prose was vivid and breathtaking.’ I took the news professionally, with a kind ‘thanks anyway,’ but I was devastated. I felt like some sort of deviant with a sick mind, writing twisted stories. After weeks passed, I began to consider some of the other feedback they offered, and I tried to look at the stories objectively. I implemented what I felt applied, and then set it aside again as I had another novel in mind to write—Spilled Coffee.
Once I completed and spruced up my first draft of Spilled Coffee, I submitted that to my publisher (knowing it probably needed some work and hoping they might provide some helpful criticism). The story was met without enthusiasm and given only general feedback, but I was welcome to resubmit. I pondered it in my disappointment, but in the back of my mind, I couldn’t let go of the idea of self-publishing and decided that I would not resubmit. I would publish Spilled Coffee on my own. After all, I know how to lay out and format a printed book. I am an artist and proficient with my graphics software. I just needed to learn the rest of how to publish independently. And I did! I loved the process and have never regretted it. Incidentally, shortly after that, my publisher closed shop, I received the rights to Uncharted: Story for a Shipwright, and I published that also.
Meanwhile, I cracked the drawer open and remembered my promise to Girl Running and Protégé. But I was still feeling a little queasy about the controversial nature of the books. At one point, I even wrote a ‘shell’ story in which to place Girl Running—Leila submits the story as an English class assignment (no, really, it was clever—at least to begin with!). In reality, it was a sad attempt at somehow distancing myself from it. It was a good exercise, but my adept writing buddies helped me see that it muddied up the story. So, I peeled it off and tidied up both manuscripts. I painted a couple of watercolors to use for the covers, then formatted, and then published them within a week of each other, back in 2013. To date they are my best-selling novels.
It is particularly gratifying that Portrait of a Girl Running placed as a finalist in the General Fiction category of the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards! Meanwhile, I have grown more comfortable about making some people uncomfortable; I love that my stories—my characters—evoke strong feelings. I am so happy that I’ve gone the route of independently publishing. I can honestly say that if an agent or publisher—big or small—approached me, I would say, “No thanks! I’m good!”
Currently, I’m taking a breather after just releasing my fifth novel, Blind Stitches, another psychological drama with a love story, quirky characters, chickens, and an array of mental disorders woven into it.
I must say, Bridget, your multiple talents make for a might pretty blog post with all those lovely covers! The adage that one shouldn’t try to wear all hats as a self-publishing author clearly doesn’t apply to you in this respect! Wish I could figure a way to bring my gardening talents to bear on a book project as nicely as painting serves you…
Levity aside, many thanks for sharing this insightful post with us. Your path sounds smooth in the telling, but I know there were rough times in the actual experience. I’m very grateful that you came through them a stronger artist and writer than you began. Always to happy to hear from you.
Thanks so much for inviting me, Anesa!
Believe it or not, I’ve never actually told my whole publishing story to anyone online, so this is sort of a first. Although it’s kind of cool to be able to wear all hats as a self-publisher, it’s bit harrowing, too. But I have to say, even when I had a publisher, there we aspects of the process that I would have liked a whole lot more control of and was happy to take on when my book fell back to me. So, all in all, it’s a trade-off, but I do feel like I have the better end of the deal.
Oh, and hey, maybe you could use your gardening talents as a backdrop for another psychological family drama. Garden scenes make lovely covers!
Have you solved the dilemma of how to place your books in retail stores? Or maybe that’s a topic for another post….
I don’t think I know enough about distribution to write an entire post! 🙂
Fact is, I guess I don’t really see placement in retail stores as a dilemma. Depending upon where you publish your books (I use CreateSpace and Smashwords), you have access to a wide range of distribution channels. This makes my books accessible to brick and mortar stores should someone want to order a book.
Ebooks far outsell my paperbacks–that might be different if my books were on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, though I suspect not. As far as independent book stores, they can access paperbacks via Indiebound and other channels. Local bookstores can be approached–I’ve done that with success, and if a book has regional appeal, a bookstore might be inclined to carry a copy or two.