If I Had it to Do All Over Again
Now that Found in Translation has come out and Lost in Dreams is set to release in July or August, this year is fast becoming one of the most exciting times in my life. I never expected my 65th year to be so special, and only God knows how much better it can get.
So why think about “if I had it to do all over again” while I’m on such a wonderful high? To borrow one of the sayings President John F. Kennedy was famous for, let me say this about that.
I’ve been a writer all of my life: poetry, songs, dramatic monologs, short plays, articles, user documentation, and technical articles. When I unexpectedly ended up in an hourly, part-time job after three full-time, years-long, professional careers, I decided to take advantage of the extra free time and pursue my post-retirement dream—writing and publishing a novel—a few years earlier than I’d originally anticipated.
The story I had in mind seemed good; romantic, amusing, and full of conflict, it ended with an impromptu parade to celebrate the engagement of two protagonists who’d had the hardest time admitting they loved one another. Basing my characters (very loosely!) on my wife and me was good fun.
The only writing books I owned at the time I wrote I Started a Joke were a dictionary and The Elements of Style, left over from my college English days. Although I loved reading, I’d failed to notice how drastically novels had changed since college. No longer were the wordy James Micheners of the world—I probably have one of the most complete libraries of Michener books in existence—in the forefront of fiction.
But I knew that getting a book published by a royalty publisher could take a lifetime—or at least a number of decades—and I was impatient to get my work out there for the world to see and enjoy. I rationalized that I was too old for that kind of wait. So I self-published with a reputable, online Print on Demand (POD) outfit. Like Frank Sinatra, I was proud to have done it my way—and thrilled with the finished product. I Started a Joke listed on Amazon and several other online bookseller sites, and I thought I had it made.
Although several local bookstores carried copies on consignment—I don’t think my books were responsible for those places going out of business—and invited me to do signings, few of my books sold. And I was too interested in writing the next novel to “waste” time on marketing.
I started going to Christian writers conferences. Learned some things I hadn’t known. Hmm. Bought some writing books—a lot of ‘em, judging by the size of the bookcase beside the computer hutch. Oh? I should do a, b, and c and avoid doing x, y, and z. Gee! Showed sample pages to published authors. Ugh! Everything I’d done in that POD-published book was wrong. No wonder it wasn’t selling.
I probably wouldn’t have bought it, either. Not at the publisher-assigned price, which I understand is a typical problem with Print on Demand.
I eventually concluded I didn’t want that book out there representing me as a novelist. It was an embarrassment. I could do SO much better once I learned how. So I made I Started a Joke unavailable and pretended some other Roger Bruner had written it. I tell the few people who have copies—I gave away most of the 130 or so in existence for promotional purposes—that those books ought to be worth at least a quarter at yard sales if I ever “make it big.” Or perhaps donate them to writing instructors to use as examples of how not to write a novel.
Then I did what I should have done first; I settled down to learn more about the craft of writing fiction. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I learned all about not starting with backstory. Hooking the reader in the first sentence. Deleting unnecessary words. Using beats instead of attributions. Making dialog simulate rather than duplicate real speech. Showing and not telling. More things than I could ever try to, uh, show you here.
But how did it all fit together? Especially when writing authorities couldn’t agree on the rules, effectively converting them into strong suggestions and even stronger opinions. I admired the writing book authors who admitted they were just talking about what worked for them.
The most important lesson I’ve learned over the last five or six years? Learning to write well is a lifelong process. I’ll never stop learning or wanting to write better. I’ll never be satisfied. But I can and should make every new book better than its predecessor. If not, I’m cheating—myself, my readers, God. I especially recommend not cheating Him; He gave me whatever talent I have.
After writing a second novel and not even thinking about self-publishing, I wrote a third, Found in Translation. The short story version had already placed tenth in a competition, and in 2006 the novel version won the first place novel competition at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. An editor from a company that didn’t publish novels loved it; he really hoped his company would start publishing novels. Surely an offer would soon come from somewhere.
At a subsequent conference, I showed the first page to writing expert James Scott Bell. “You didn’t start with a scene.” I hadn’t learned as much as I’d thought. But after I cut the first fifty pages and wrote a new beginning, another acquisitions editor who couldn’t use Found in Translation fell in love with my writing and helped me get Terry Burns as an agent. A year later, I had contracts for two novels with the possibility of more. (Good work, Terry, and thanks!)
So what is this “if I had it to do it all over again”? Just a few musings I’m offering at far beneath retail price. But be wary. YMMV. Your mileage may vary.
Self publishing is fine if you have a platform for selling. Don’t go in debt to do it, though. Be ready to market every one of your published books—even if you don’t want to. Don’t be in too much of a rush to have your manuscript published; you can always improve something you think you’ve finished. Develop a thick skin as you ask the experts for help. But remember they won’t always agree, and story trumps all of the rules. And sometimes you just have to go with your own instincts.
But don’t let being yourself—developing your own voice—serve as an excuse to write less than your best. Always strive to do better next time.
I’ll race you to the bookstore! First one there buys.