Copyright 2006 by David H. Schleicher
The year was 2001. A young upstart company working under the umbrella of Barnes & Noble called iUniverse was ushering in the new fad of print-on-demand self-publishing. I was a just a kid in the midst of my senior year of college at Elon University eagerly anticipating my graduation. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Writing had always been my passion, and I had been working on a novel that summer inspired by things I had studied in my psychology and criminal justice classes. “Publish your book for $99,” iUniverse’s on-line banner ad called to me one lonely night between composing passages. It seemed too good to be true, but I bought into it wholesale. Indeed, I published my novel for $99, and it was available for all to see by January of 2002. The result of this knee-jerk reaction to some savvy marketing was anything but a dream come true.
Crematorium, an unfocused but fast-paced thriller about the mother of a murdered child seeking vigilante justice against the serial killer who took her son’s life and the mysterious writer working on a book about the infamous killer, was a wildly unpolished, unedited manuscript that regurgitated dark thoughts from dreams and crazy ideas from my schooling. The finished product had no right to be out on the market. It was riddled with typos and released to unsuspecting family and friends with little to no revision. I knew nothing of the finer points of publishing my own work, and from the cover that screamed “I published this myself!” to the story that boldly announced, “I’m a punk kid who thinks he can write!” it was an ugly disaster.
Somehow, though, it was exciting to think I could conquer the world without an agent or an editor. My work would be completely mine and I would have no one to answer to. The sky was the limit, and so the very next year, I published yet another novel through iUniverse inexplicably titled, Carabolia. Still reeling from the high of Crematorium and my recently bestowed bachelor’s degree, I unleashed unwittingly into the world a complete debacle on every level. Carabolia was a total vanity project (as if I at the age of 22 deserved to have a vanity project) that was my attempt to create the literary equivalent of a David Lynch movie. This muddled story of a troubled young waitress who may or may not have found a dead body in the woods was stylistically amateur with an incoherent narrative, full of criminally bad dialogue and zero character development that tried the patience of even my kindest readers (sorry Mom and Dad!).
Alone in a new city (the vapid New South Mecca of Charlotte, North Carolina), depressed from the reaction to the second novel (not a single person “got” it), and at a total loss as to how to survive in the post college graduation world, I retreated to my old friend alcohol, convinced on some level that it inspired my purest writing. I decided to make a fresh start with a new publisher, Xlibris, and tackled my next project in a quasi-professional manner that I had not employed before. I had a friend (a graphic artist) work on a cover, and I hired a professional copy editor to ensure that my manuscript was free of the typos and grammatical errors that plagued my first two novels. Story wise, I felt it was the first time I was showing growth as a writer, as I overcame a horrible bout of writer’s block by completely changing the original course of the novel and introducing a new character–a writer writing the very story I was writing of the young man obsessed with solving the mystery of a missing girl. Though it probably isn’t up to snuff with your best-sellers, An Accidental House had a polish that was definitely lacking in my first two attempts. I even had a marketing angle. The idea for the novel was inspired by an actual unsolved missing person’s case from my hometown of Burlington, New Jersey that intrigued me as a child. Again, perhaps at age 24, it was a bit too early to be writing novels that were so self-referential and ironic. This was the first book I was semi-proud of, though as one reviewer put it, “a good editor could be used to trim some of the fat.” An Accidental House was a true time capsule of my life at the time: full of in-jokes that I don’t even think my friends will get any more, riddled with alcohol induced dream sequences, and totally open-ended to interpretation as I, like the lead character Truman Murdoch, had no idea where I was headed next. The only thing I knew was I had spent way too much money, and I was never going to make it back through sales.
Sometimes I look back on this trilogy of books and wonder, “what was I thinking?” I lay awake at night tossing and turning arguing with myself, “I have to cancel the contracts to get these books off the market. No one will ever take me seriously if they ever get a hold of them.” But then I realize, I would’ve never made it to this point if I had not gone through these trials and tribulations. These are a true testament to how wrong-headed publishing your own work can be when you do it without thinking or proper planning or any sense of self-discipline. “Is that what they represent now?” I ask myself before stealing a wink of slumber from pure mental exhaustion.
Reinvigorated by a return to my homeland of South Jersey and Philadelphia in 2004, darkly inspired by some tumultuous personal events, and for the first time in my life financially stable with a decent job, I began work on The Thief Maker. I returned to iUniverse for what will perhaps be my swan song in the self-publishing craze. Sure, they’ve upped their prices, but they’ve also vastly improved their services. Again, I’ve probably spent too much money on The Thief Maker, but it’s the first time I have no shame in selling my work. With a professionally designed cover that would look good facing out on any store shelf and an editorial polish that none of my previous work has enjoyed, the tragically intertwining stories of a con-man, a nurse, a private investigator, and a lesbian couple living in a post-9/11 scarred world is by far my most accomplished work. Although I stayed true to my personal style (some might claim it to be like my first novel, wildly unfocused) I was still able to take some of the editor’s advice to heart: trimming some of the so-called fat and taking the editor’s queues on to how to better construct some of my writing so that it flows for the reader.
I, too, became a better self-editor: revising, reworking, and rewriting to the point of nausea. I’ve learned that if you don’t get close to physical sickness from editing and revising your own work, then you haven’t been editing and revising enough. It’s also the first time I allowed the ideas to gestate properly (waiting almost three years between novels), and also the first time I allowed the story to tell itself. My characters finally became flesh and blood in my mind, and they told me where to go instead of me directing them to do what I thought they should do. I can only hope that this comes across on the page. What is my most stylistically competent work (God-willing) is also my purest most unadulterated vision (the devils I wrestled on its pages be damned). The Thief Maker is the novel closest to my heart and most characteristic of how my mind works. As such, it’s the scariest of my novels for me to consider and examine.
Still, I lay awake in cold sweats thinking of my past self-publishing fiascos. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and check their sales rank on Amazon.com or Barnes Noble. My heart skipped a beat this morning when I saw Crematorium jump up in rank. “My God, what poor fool purchased this?!” I lament. Only out of morbid curiosity, I hope. The Thief Maker is the only thing I will discuss publicly or advertise, but that unholy trilogy from a past life will always be lurking there in the shadows taunting me. Is anyone reading them? Probably not nearly as many as my ego would like to think.
Only time will tell of my future success or failure, but I’ve learned many things through my selfish acts of self-publishing. With new ideas dancing through my mind and stories begging to be told, I wonder if I will finally take the dive and set myself on the path of traditional publishing. Like my dreams of finding a good woman, maybe there’s a good agent out there, too. I look back on my early projects and see them as ghosts. They haunt me. They’re out there. I could take them off the market, but what would be the point? They will always be out there. I can’t change what I’ve written in the past, I can only hope to continue to grow as a story-teller.
The egotist in me hopes that perhaps my mistakes can be a shining example to fellow writers wading through the ocean of options presented to us is this day and age and struggling to find their voice. Edit–we are or own worst critics, but also our best. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek professional services to help polish your writing. Avoid self-indulgent behavior involving drugs and drinking; it leads to self-indulgent writing only you will enjoy. Give your ideas and characters time to breathe. Don’t be afraid to change the course. But most of all, don’t feed off your fears of bad reviews, rejection letters from agents and publishers, or that you might put out more money than you earn and never really make a living doing what you love. Whether you toil away publishing your own writing, land a six figure deal with a major publishing house, or simply share your poetry and stories in blogs and forums across the World Wide Web, it all matters not. Write because it’s who you are, not what you do. I am a writer, and I have sold my soul to you wholesale.