The following is not an audit on the state of self-publishing. It’s a chronicle of fears that’ve been holding me back from participating. Some are well informed. Others are damn near superstitious. Indulge me in this informal rant and maybe you’ll see some of yourself in some of my concerns.
My Bibliography So Far
I’ve been blogging since 2012. During that time I’ve written 4 Novels, 4 Novellas, 2 screenplays, and countless short stories. As of now I have 2 short stories and 1 novel available on Amazon, and that is it. So what happened to all the fiction I’ve been stockpiling? Did my work get seized as evidence when my search history was flagged by the government? Did I build a bonfire and do what Dickens did to all of his letters? Was my laptop struck by lightning, or are those stories sitting in a folder on my desktop waiting to be discovered by my next of kin?
I’ve kept my stories to myself for a lot of reasons, some dumb, some dressed up to seem smart. Most can be summed up as cowardice, self-sabotage, and perfectionism.
My coffee table is littered with books on finding agency representation, writing treatments, and getting published. I have a ton of short stories out for submission, but I need to forge a better path into the industry than refreshing my mailbox again and again.
And yet… I’m still dragging my heels on self-publishing.
Reason 1: Everyone is Doing It
Social media success stories keep saying there’s room on the hill, but I’m not seeing a space for my niche. It could be industry hasn’t shaken the horror crash of the 1990s, or that the genre is still struggling to shake the stigma of torture porn or that the market is just oversaturated.
On Twitter, I’ve watched authors go from conversation starters to billboards for their Amazon offerings. I’ve watched those same authors burnout, commit social media suicide, and scold their audience for not supporting them more.
I’ve watched virtual vultures pedal false hope, courses on book marketing that sound like pyramid schemes. I’ve watched the Amazon marketplace fill with scamphlets; how-to guides written by people with less than a Wikipedia understanding of the subject they’re writing on. I’ve watched non-writers cultivate literary success on YouTube, and at 37, I really don’t want to try to follow in their footsteps.
Reason 2: Everyone is a Critic
I’ve listened as the conversation around fiction has been dominated by armchair critics who don’t write: plot structure purists who treat storytelling like a math equation and esoteric symbolists who read stories like they’re Rorschach tests. I’ve heard spectators bandy about terms like “plot armor” as if the role of the audience is to outwit the author. “Oh, I see what you did here.”
Analysis has made us all so anal.
I’ve listened as the theorists tell storytellers how to do their jobs. I’ve heard all their points, counterpoints, and rebuttals and now my imagination feels like a minefield.
Reason 3:The Conversation Has turned Toxic
I’ve listened to a lot of guys on YouTube speak in calm measured tones as they argue from emotion. This cadence of calculation peddles a lot personal preferences as logical conclusions.
YouTube keeps recommending video essays on storytelling that turn out to be coded chauvinist rants. A lot of YouTubers have co-opted storytelling terms like “Mary Sue,” as a kind of dog whistle to demean female characters and their authors as “social justice warriors.” Apparently in 2019 if a women in fantasy fiction is too empowered we call her “O.P.” like a player in a fighting game that needs to be rebalanced.
Conversely, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasters dub any characters with any shade of grey as “problematic” and call for better role models in morally complex content made for adults. I’ve listened to one generation call for more diversity in fiction while the next generation chastises authors for representing groups they’re not part of themselves.
Reason 4: I’m Repelled from the Conversation
The culture war has spilled into my medium and made a mess of everything. Since Trump took office I haven’t wanted to engage with anyone on Twitter. Even simple conversations about fiction have taken on new subtle tension.
Everyone has gotten so binary. Both camps are reading off of scripts. Arguments are won by which person can summarize the last think piece they read faster than the other. We copy and paste our deeply held convictions. We call each other out in the name of education, even after we see studies that say doing this only makes the opposition feel more entrenched.
I don’t believe the fallacy that truth resides between two extremes. Objective reality is not the average of our fringe beliefs. That said, I am a godless bleeding heart liberal, but even I find my camp’s calls for moral purity to be soul crushing. We say someone is “over” for daring to think impure thoughts aloud. Our every utterance is given permanence.
So you’ve been publicly shamed? Have you looked into witness protection? Facial reconstruction? Reincarnation?
I’d criticize my camp’s overreaching rules more on this blog if I wasn’t afraid that the wrong people would read that as a backhanded endorsement for a far right platform. As much as I find my camp’s arbitrary correction exhausting I find coded hate speech nauseating. I keep most of my observations to myself.
Which me leads too…
Reason 5: I’ve been Censoring Myself
Sometimes I’m afraid of my audience. Nothing stifles creativity like fearing what other people think.
I’ve had friends prescribe extreme limitations on my writing. Some have told me I shouldn’t write from the perspective of a woman, not because they were offended by something I wrote, just that, as a guy, I shouldn’t try it. As if the one female character whose perspective I’m writing from is somehow a delegate for all women. Where did all these walls around empathy come from?
I don’t write idyllic characters. I write about fuckups struggling to find their place in the world. I write about artists who bet their lives on their success only to find themselves making deals with devils. I don’t write about role models because fully formed characters with nowhere to grow don’t make very compelling leads.
I reject the notion that each of my protagonists should be a proxy for me. I reject the notion that writers shouldn’t put themselves in other people’s shoes. Sure, it takes research, conversations, and lots of life experience, but it should be done. It’s those universal feelings that we all relate to that bring people together, broaden our understanding of one another, and quell hate.
At the top of this post I mentioned this would be a little more informal than usual. It kind of feels like it went off the rails.
I guess I’ve been put off by the commentary culture that’s grown around storytelling online (full well knowing that I’m part of the problem).
I’m tired of seeing non-writers harp on movies and TV shows like they could’ve written them better. I’m tired of seeing my YouTube feed clogged with “Ending Explained” videos like I need the extra analysis to fully apricate my entertainment. I’m tired of theorists proclaiming the rules of writing like they were commandments.
I’m sick and tired of the commentary culture intruding on my thoughts when I sit down to write… and maybe that’s what’s keeping me from sharing more material here.
In his book On Writing Stephen King wrote:
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
I don’t want to right lightly. I don’t want to set out to offend anyone, but I don’t want to write lightly. I want to tell stories rife with conflict, morally gray characters, and dark subjects. I don’t want to write with my audience in the room, but I want there to be an audience when I come out.
I have to summon the courage to put my work in front of people and let them reject it. To reject it until, eventually, it resonates.