Eight Years and Several Books Ago (Or, How I Learned to Love My Unexpected Career)

 

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It wasn’t until we were cleaning up the dinner dishes last Thursday night, and my husband mentioned that there were only three months left until Christmas, that I remembered that September 25th was a special anniversary for me. On September 25th, 2007, Isabella Moon, my debut novel, was published in hardcover.

I took me eight years to write my very first novel–a novel that lives a lonely life in a box somewhere. And then another four to write my second (also a box-dweller). Yet, I spent only a year writing Isabella Moon, and in the eight years since September 2007, I’ve written four more novels, edited several anthologies, written at least a dozen pieces of short fiction, published a whole lot of blogs, and started a small press which has published or re-published six books. Could I have done more? Probably. But when I think about it, it feels a little extraordinary that I am still here, today. Still writing, and still publishing.

It’s been an unexpected, mostly happy journey.

Back in 2007, it was still the good old days of traditional publishing (I had signed a contract way back in May of 2006).  Most writers, after signing a very generous, two-book contract like mine, would never have to worry about publishing ever again. The assumption was that other contracts would definitely follow, their careers would be built–slowly, thoughtfully–by the first publisher with whom they signed. That was the way things worked in the upmarket/hardcover world, especially if your work had a modicum of literary cachet.

I had a grand time. We used a chunk of my advance to buy several acres of land adjoining our house (seriously–invest in land), Isabella Moon was published, and I had an exciting, eventful book tour managed by an energetic publicist. The book sold well for a debut, and was also published in the UK. Later in the year, the paperback was even picked up by Target, my happy place. I got a gorgeous cover for my second book, and some terrific blurbs and reviews. I thought I was all set for a lifetime of publishing a new novel every year.

And then the winter of 2009 happened. Along with the downturn of the economy came a bloodbath in New York publishing. Offices closed or were quickly merged or consumed. Editors, associate editors, marketing and publishing admin professionals were fired. Everyone was downsized, and writers were told they needed to be more accountable for their book sales. Or lack of. Writers–who traditionally did the writing, not the marketing. Sales numbers became a VERY BIG DEAL. As they should be–among the people who sell books. The game changed in a matter of months. Sure, there were a prescient few publishers and writers who saw ebooks thundering toward them on the horizon. They understood that the Big Five (or was it Six or Seven then?) hadn’t heeded the cautionary tale of the record companies’ experience with digital media and changes in publishing technology (i.e. that anyone could now jump into the game). Changes were going to be permanent and significant, and only a very few understood that the change could be incredibly profitable. But large corporations do not turn around on a dime. Or even a quarter.

If you’re not involved in publishing, you probably didn’t know any of this. Why would you? The big, familiar names were still in the stores. Each spring, summer, and fall a handful of new writers were introduced. You could find even mid-list writers with established series still in the game. Things didn’t look so different from the outside. I probably shouldn’t even tell you this about myself–but it’s my journey. I own it, happily, because I’m still here.

Many of the writers I’d become friends with in the 15 months since the publication of my debut found themselves in a scary, new place. Contracts weren’t renewed. They were left with a lot of unfulfilled promises and unexecuted plans. My second novel, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, was published January 1, 2009, in hardcover. But by the time it was time for the paperback to come out…it didn’t. It was not a good sign. Wake-up call #1.

Did I give up? No. Was I shaken? Definitely.

Neither did my publisher choose to pick up the option on the outline and first few chapters of my next novel. Ouch. Wake-up call #2.

I’d like to say that I hung up the phone, and just said, “To heck with them! I’ll forge my own way.” But there were witnesses. I have a couple close writer friends who listened to my worries, my angst, my self-disappointment. We buoyed each other. There were many, many days when I thought I would never try to publish again. Sure, I would write–but I was bruised, and badly disappointed.

A writer has to write, and I had to write the story that was there in front of me. That’s how it works for me. The story that’s ready has to come out first. While I always have lots of ideas, there’s always one that’s up front, that’s more ready than the others. It forces its way to the front of my brain and demands its time. I had an idea for a folktale-based horror novel that took place on a mountain. So I wrote Devil’s Oven.

Devil’s Oven is a singular little book. Part Frankenstein horror, part crime novel, it’s set in Eastern Kentucky, a place that’s close to my heart. It’s about troubled sisters, a magical stripper, and a monster. It’s the book I wrote because nobody told me I couldn’t. It was liberating and fun, yet at the same time sad because all of the characters felt a little doomed to me. There are happy endings in it, yes, but it’s a very dark story. My agent told me not much was selling anywhere–unless one was a debut, or had a strong track record with a long tail. We got a ton of very nice rejections for it–they loved the writing, loved the story, but…they didn’t want to take a chance.

Because I’m often brave, and more often impulsive, I jumped into publishing for myself. Others were doing it quite successfully, and I figured it couldn’t be that hard, and I knew the tools were there. Self-publishing was losing its stigma, but I wasn’t interested in just tossing a book out on Amazon. I wanted a the whole package–a small press, with the potential to do more than just one book. It needed to have an identity. A character. Pinckney, my husband, was all for it. I won’t lie. It was time-consuming and sometimes boring, and often aggravating. Gallowstree Press LLC is a business with a bank account, a tax I.D., tax returns, a logo, and official paperwork. I learned how to publish ebooks as well as paper books. I learned about designs and covers and what comes before page one and what official stuff needs to be on the back cover and spine. In some ways it was a distraction from my sadness. But it was also a heck of an education. You know what I learned? That publishing isn’t rocket science. It has its requirements and traditions and paperwork–but everything can be learned. There are very talented people who are good at artwork, design, and publishing software–and people with experience and marketing smarts who understand things like metadata and logarithms. It’s a process. That’s all.

Not only did we publish Devil’s Oven (and sold a nice number of copies–and will for years to come), but also re-published my first two books after the rights reverted from the publisher back to me. Also Feeding Kate, a charity anthology of which I’m very proud, and Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror–both in paper and ebook format. Our most recent publication is Cold Alone: A Bliss House Story.

That’s six books. Six books that came out of what felt like complete and utter disaster. How can I call that disaster?

I stopped going to writing conferences for a few years, and have been staying home to write. I didn’t know if I would ever be publishing with a traditional publisher again–but in a way, it didn’t matter. I was writing.

The thing is this: I have to write. When I write, the world makes sense to me. The stories I have in my head have a very definite shape, but I can’t see them fully unless they get out of my head and onto paper or bytes or whatever. Writing keeps me sane. It’s both the easiest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Aside from taking care of my family, everything I do outside of writing has a sort of fuzziness about it. I know those things are there, and probably something has to be done about them. So I do them so I can get back to writing. It’s not my only purpose, but it’s one that I wouldn’t want to have to live without.

On October 15th, Charlotte’s Story: A Bliss House Novel comes out with Pegasus Crime. I was over the moon when they bought Bliss House (Pegasus Crime, 2014), the first book in my gothic suspense series, and after Charlotte’s Story there will be The Abandoned Heart, the third–and ostensibly last–Bliss House book. (They don’t have to be read in order, btw.) I have always loved gothic stories, and haunted house tales in particular. There are so many stories in Bliss House. I don’t know if I could ever even tell them all. I wrote Cold Alone: A Bliss House Story as an extra treat for myself and the readers who were anxious for another story set in the house. A little something extra.

So. Eight years and a bunch of books. No, I could not have predicted what happened during those years. Of course, we never can. I wouldn’t trade my journey for anything. Okay–I would definitely have traded it for a NYT bestseller debut novel, and a new, award-winning novel every year since. But, whatever. It is what it is, and I like where I am.

Here’s the thing: Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Keep your journey moving forward, even–especially–if things seem unfamiliar or uncertain or intimidating. It’s the only way to get where you want to be.

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