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Books: We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra

I didn’t like it, then I did, then I didn’t again.

The set-up: high school sophomore Jonathan Hopkirk (“Jo,” age 15 at the start of the book but 16 by the end of it) and repeat senior Adam “Kurl” Kurlansky (18) are assigned by their English Lit teacher to write letters to one another. Jo idolizes Walt Whitman, dresses in vintage clothing, plays the mandolin, and is the target of bullies. He’s out, but not particularly proud, just doesn’t see any point in hiding it. Kurl is a beefy football star from a Polish family that doesn’t consider academics all that important. Girls swoon for him, but he’s not interested. And of course they fall in love.

That’s no spoiler, and I won’t detail the secondary family dramas that might be considered spoilers. This is a NO SPOILER review.

For the first 20ish pages, I wasn’t digging it. I didn’t like either character. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe Henstra was demonstrating that each boy was sort of putting on a front or persona in their early letters to one another. That’s reasonable; they’d be likely to do that, given they’ve been tasked with writing to more or less a complete stranger. (Side note: I never had an English Lit teacher that taught both 10th and 12th grade? And none of the teachers at my kids’ high school do either. I had the same English Lit teacher for both 11th and 12th grade, but that’s because he was the AP teacher, so… I dunno. I didn’t completely buy the idea that this teacher taught both 10th and 12th grade Lit.)

Thing is, Jo is presented from the start as someone who is “open.” But maybe the truth was that the “openness” was just part of the persona all along? Or I’m trying to make this book deep when it ain’t.

I’m no big fan of Walt Whitman myself. I love the Romantics and have a healthy respect for the Transcendentalists (which got me ribbed in high school in my own right, but also meant the teacher selected me to be Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, so pffft). Somehow, though, Walt just turns me off. I dunno. And there’s a lot of him in this book, which is pretty gimmicky, but I tolerated it. And there’s plenty else going on, too.

By which I mean sex. And that made me a bit… I don’t want to say uncomfortable because that makes me sound prudish, and I’m not. It was more that Jo is 15? And Kurl is 18. And that doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but it feels like a lot? My oldest is 15, and if he started dating an 18yo (girl or guy), I’d be like: what does an 18yo want with a 15yo? You know? A lot happens between those ages.

I think maybe we’re supposed to believe Jo is mature for his age and Kurl is a bit stunted in some ways. But it’s still weird.

There are some mechanical issues with the book as well. It’s epistolary, of course, but in order to tell the story, Jo and Kurl must write to each other everything that has happened—even when they were both present for any given event. Henstra hangs a lampshade on it by having them say in their letters that, yeah, it’s weird that they feel the need to write it all out, but that admission doesn’t quite excuse the clunkiness of the device. “And you said abc,” one of them will write, “and then I told you xyz.” Yeah, he knows, he was there? Like, I dunno, it just didn’t quite work for me. I think if things were phrased more as, “Remember when you said abc? I know I said xyz, but here’s what I was thinking/feeling…” And there is a bit of that, but too often the letters just rehash events for the benefit of the reader rather than feel authentic and natural.

Also: voice. By the end of the book I could kind of hear the distinction between Jo and Kurl, but it still wasn’t strong enough for my liking. That’s a subjective, nitpicky thing, I know. But I sometimes had to go back to the salutation of the letter to remind myself who was writing, and that tells me that there wasn’t as strong a difference between the characters as there maybe should have been.

In the end I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads (though I mentioned it was maybe a 3.5). I didn’t like the characters at first, then the book got kind of sweet, and then it fell off into pure teen soap melodrama and began to drag. The ending didn’t really do anything for me, either. I saw it going one way, and that felt like the natural progression, but then it U-turned and… Meh. There were some great moments, though, and I think parts of this book will stay with me for sure. So it’s not a total dud.

Realization

I had an epiphany yesterday. About myself and my work and what it means for my future in general.

The bottom line is: I do things for me. And that… works against me in the wider world.

Allow me to explain. I enjoy writing. I enjoy making YouTube videos. I enjoy reading tarot and astrology charts. These are things I’m “passionate” about, but only as much as I’m passionate about anything. Because I think I’m also fundamentally lazy. Which means that I write well enough to satisfy myself, and make videos well enough to satisfy myself, and read tarot and astrology well enough to satisfy myself. But—at least as far as videos go—I’m never going to be the person who, say, buys a fancy camera and lights and editing software. I could, if I felt strongly enough about it? But I don’t, so I won’t. Which means my videos are never going to be slick and professional looking. And that in turn means I probably won’t ever be a big-time YT sensation.

With my writing, it’s not laziness so much as the stories that I tell, and the way I tell them… I like them. But they don’t fit the mold, and I’m never going to contort myself and my work to try and fit the mold. Which means I’ll never have an agent or be a real boy traditionally published author [again].

So when I realized this yesterday, I had to ask myself whether I’m okay with this. Because obviously I can change it. I can go all in on the video stuff, I can put myself out there as a tarot reader, I can change the way I craft stories. (Actually, re that last one, no I can’t. I’ve tried, and I really just cannot. Though maybe with a good editorial agent and solid direction—something I’m never going to get, so…) And the answer is: yeah. I’m satisfied with myself, even if I’m not always happy with the results. For me, the potential ROI on more effort, on trying to conform or whatever, just isn’t worth it. I know I have no one to blame but myself if I fail to become a big YT star or bestselling author, but I’m happy to have found even a few people who like what I do. People who maybe think like me and embrace the off-kilter storytelling.

I’ve been agonizing over this edit of my forthcoming book because I’m trying to do it “right.” And while there are definite fixes to be made, I need to remember that nothing is perfect and no book will be universally loved. So I will edit to the best of my ability. And I will create a final product to my personal satisfaction. Because at the end of the day, I have to live with myself. And be happy with my own efforts. And that’s all that ultimately matters.*

*To me. Everyone must define success for themselves. For some, it’s being the famous YouTuber, or the Instagram influencer, or the traditionally published author. I’m learning that… It’s not that I don’t have what it takes, but that what it takes (by societal standards) isn’t something I’m interested in investing in. That feels like an important self-insight.

Movies: Oculus

This movie is from 2013, and I vaguely remembering hearing the title, but it never really made it onto my radar. I probably thought it was sci-fi, which isn’t my thing. (I don’t hate sci-fi, but I don’t make any special effort to ingest it, either.) As it turns out, however, this is actually a psychological horror movie, and I typically enjoy those. So I decided to give this one a try.

Oculus fits into the same category as, say, The Haunting of Hill House. Except instead of a whole house, it’s a mirror that is haunted. The movie revolves around siblings Kaylie and Tim, who violently lost their parents when Kaylie was 14 (I think?) and Tim 10. Now they’re all grown up and determined to figure out what really happened.

Well, Kaylie is, anyway. And she drags Tim into it. After years of searching, she has located the mirror and arranged to take it to their childhood home. She’s developed a complex system for monitoring the mirror and/or any entity that may dwell within in. But the rule in these movies is that you can’t outwit evil, nor can you kill it. So of course the mirror plays any number of gruesome tricks.

I won’t spoil any of it with details, but I will say this film is well edited. Flashbacks + the general confusion of the present-day characters as the mirror messes with their minds could easily have had Oculus devolving into cinematic gibberish. But on the whole, it stays tense and enjoyable and not too difficult to follow.

I’m not a gore person, which is why I don’t watch more traditional (slasher) horror movies. This one has its fair share of blood but wasn’t too much for me.

One wonders if they maybe hoped to begin a new franchise? The mirror comes with a lengthy history (detailed by Kaylie) that could easily have been used to make more films, either set in the past or going forward. I don’t know how successful Oculus was in its original outing, though, so maybe it didn’t do well enough for them to make more. It stands on its own in any case; to me, it simply seems like they could certainly return to the central evil and spin off from it if they wanted to.

Worth a watch? Sure. If you like The Haunting of Hill House and things of that ilk, you’d probably enjoy this one.

Ableism? Maybe…

I recently was made aware of a publishing conversation that occurred on Twitter last month. (I know, I’m so out of the loop.) It was about ableism in publishing and there not being space for neurodivergent (ND) authors. I don’t know if that’s true; I’ve never really thought about it until now, when it was brought to my attention. I have so many privileges that I seldom think about things working against me. BUT… on at least some level, this idea made sense to me. Because agents tell me that I’m a great writer, but then also sat my books don’t quite fit the mold or formula or whatever they and publishers are looking for. And I think that may be because of my ASD and the weird way my brain is wired. (I did a YT video about my Asperger’s if you’re curious.)

I’ve tried, really tried, to change the way I write to better suit agents and the market, but… I just can’t seem to do it. And to agents it must look like I’m being difficult or intractable, like I’m so set on telling the story “my way,” and refusing to compromise. But that’s truly not the case. If someone were to give me detailed instructions about what to change or how, I think maybe I could do it? But the R&Rs I’ve received have never been that specific. They’ll say something like: “The pacing is off.” And so I flail about a bit, trying to “fix” the manuscript without really understanding what they want from me. Maybe because we literally don’t think the same way?

Agents have suggested I read books on how to outline. Again, I’ve tried. I can’t write any other way than the way I do. That’s a flaw in me, I guess, but it does kind of irritate me that it’s being used against me. In that sense, publishing really doesn’t accommodate ND authors. If we can’t write a certain way, or our workflow is odd… Too bad. There’s no place for us.

As for the books themselves… I know my books are a little bit wonky. Again, I never thought about it until now, but maybe my ideal readers are the ones whose thought processes are a little wonky. Like mine. Maybe my books aren’t for the NT. Which, I suppose, is one more reason for agents and publishers to reject me and my work. I can’t seem to appeal to the masses, but I’ve come to terms with that.

I’ve quit trying to find an agent. I’ve decided my time and energy are better spent devoted to the actual writing and publishing and [sigh] marketing. Also, it’s just better for my mental health not to set myself up for repeated rejection and heartbreak. I’m not giving them what they want, and they can’t seem to help me get to where I want to be either, so it’s a bad fit all around.

Maybe someday the industry will adjust, but I think we all know that publishing moves very slowly. It doesn’t change in an instant, even when it swears it wants to do better. Lucky for people like me, independent [self-] publishing is an option. We don’t have to wait for things within the industry to get better; we can work outside the system. Don’t get me wrong, we shouldn’t have to, but… For now, it’s the best I can do and the most I can hope for.

Why I Don’t Read Reviews*

*Of my books, anyway

Once, while at a writing conference, I heard author Charlene Harris say: “Never read your reviews. That is a poisonous pit.” And I agree. Over time I’ve learned that, if I read a good review of one of my books, I’m happy for a little while. But if I read a bad one, it stays with me forever. It saps me of my motivation and can spiral me into depression. So for my own mental well-being, and also in order to keep writing (which is something I also need to be able to do for my mental well-being), I don’t read reviews of my books.

Always forward, never back, right?

I can hear howls of protest like wolves in the wild:

“If you can’t take criticism, you shouldn’t be a writer.”

This is probably true. But I also prefer to be judicious about who I listen to. I get feedback from fellow writers before I publish. I use beta readers. And then I decide how much of that feedback to implement when I edit. At the end of the day, I have no one to blame but myself if my book is no good. But at the end of the day—to my way of thinking at least—I also only have to satisfy myself with the final product. If others enjoy it, so much the better! If they do not, then it may be that I did not get good advice, or that I didn’t accept good advice, or simply that I don’t write things that many people enjoy. Any and/or all of these things may be true simultaneously! But there is little benefit in weeping and gnashing my teeth over it after the fact. And taking criticism from every person who might feel the need to leave a review is not helpful either.

“But even if it’s too late to fix that book, reviews might help you with the next one!”

They might. But again, it’s a matter of being selective in who to listen to. Everyone has a right to an opinion. But, when it comes to any art, opinions are subjective. (Mostly. If readers are pointing out grammatical errors or some other objective problem, well, I’ll surely hear about it from other channels outside of reviews.) In fact, many reviews will contradict one another. One reader will love Character X and another will hate Character X. One will think the story is slow, another will think the pacing is too fast. In the end, readers have to decide whether I am a writer whose style and work they want to read. I cannot be all things or suit all tastes. Instead of my trying to write to, well, everyone… It’s up to readers to filter themselves and choose whether to read more of my work or not.

“Writers who aren’t willing to read critical reviews of their works aren’t willing to learn from their mistakes and/or get better at their craft.”

This is similar to the above. I am absolutely willing to learn and hone. I don’t find reading reviews to be a useful way to do that. I will clarify that what I’m talking about here are reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. I do sometimes read reviews of my work on book blogs, online literary magazines, etc. Once again, it’s all about selecting who to listen to.

“If you don’t want to read reviews, you must not respect the people who read your books and take time to write reviews of them.”

I absolutely respect my readers and am grateful for them! But I also don’t want them to feel like they need to be performative for my sake. Some reviewers, if they think an author may read the reviews, will curb their honest opinions. And I do really believe reviews are for other readers, not the author. Reviews are meant to tell other readers whether a book is good (in that reviewer’s opinion), whether others should read it, and why or why not. If a reader really, truly believes I, the author, need to hear how they feel about my book, my contact information is available on this site, and I’m active on Twitter as well. (@sh8kspeare)

“You’re one to talk! You also review books!”

Yes, I do. And I try always to remain courteous and thoughtful when I post a written or YouTube review. Nor do I assume the author will see or read said review (but if they do, I want to be sure it’s not traumatizing for them). I actually have a formula for reviewing any text:

  • Position myself in relation to the subject – I explain why I chose the book (or movie, or whatever), whether I’m familiar with the author or genre, etc.
  • Summarize the text – ideally without spoilers, though I try to put a warning if I do need to spoil anything
  • Talk about what I liked and why
  • Talk about what didn’t work for me and why (including any possibly problematic elements)
  • Say whether I recommend the book and/or who I think would be the primary audience for the text (if not me, then who might like it even if I didn’t)

I’ve found this to be a pretty solid format that, I think, is fair to both the text itself and anyone considering reading or watching or what have you.

Another issue, of course, is the inconsistency of star ratings on many sites. Because reviews are subjective, each reviewer has their own personal way of applying stars. Goodreads suggest what the five stars should mean, but it’s different for everyone. Many authors become upset if their books go below 4 stars, and I used to feel the same, but… I’ve come to realize there is just so much fluctuation in how people rank things that the stars matter far less than the content of the reviews (I say this in regards to browsing other authors’ books and trying to decide whether to read them—what I’m saying is, the star ratings are not reliable for that). If you ever look at how I rate things on Goodreads, you’ll see that I give many manga 5 stars. This is because I find most manga very enjoyable, and I also have a lower personal standard for manga than for, say, literary fiction. In general, for prose my rule of thumb for star ratings is:

  • 5 stars – one of the best things I’ve ever read OR an all-time favorite; something that impacted me
  • 4 stars – an enjoyable read with few to no problems or things that bothered me
  • 3 stars – average; good but not great
  • 2 stars – below average; this may be a good story poorly written or vice versa
  • 1 star – something very wrong with this book, either in content or execution, possibly both (grammatical errors, poor editing, problematic subject matter, etc.)

I will admit that even I sometimes do not follow my own rules for ratings. Sometimes I’ll finish a book and feel like I love it, then go straight to Goodreads and give it five stars, only to look back later and wonder… Which only goes to show that reviews, while helpful and even important, shouldn’t be given too much weight in the big scheme of things.

In screenwriting we had another rule: If one person doesn’t like something, that’s just one opinion. If two people don’t like it, you should probably take another look at it. And if three or more people point out the same problem, it really IS a problem. In reviews, you’ll also sometimes find a running theme in which many readers like or dislike the same thing(s) about a book. That’s when your own discernment needs to kick in. You have to decide for yourself whether that thing they’re all angry about is something that will bother you, too. Or do you risk it and read the book anyway?

The great thing about reading books is that you can always stop if you discover you don’t like the book. (Unless you have to read it for school… In which case, get vocal in class discussions! That always makes class way more fun.) You don’t even have to write a review for a book you don’t like, though if you feel strongly about “warning” other potential readers, that’s up to you.

And if you’re warning readers about my books, well… That’s also your right. And it’s my right as the author to never read your review.

Okay, but…

This is about to be random, but I feel like I need to write about it somewhere, and since this is my blog, here it is.

I’m re-reading The Once and Future King by T. H. White. I first read it when I was 13 or 14 years old because I loved, loved, loved all things Arthurian (and Robin Hood—The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood are my favorite Disney animated features). Anyway, back then I didn’t really enjoy the book. I think this is because I didn’t understand that it was meant to be funny, and I also didn’t understand that, even though The Sword in the Stone used TOaFK as source material, it wasn’t a direct adaptation. Like, I didn’t really know that the book-to-film process wasn’t a one-to-one kind of thing.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that my daughter asked to start watching Merlin, and we’re enjoying it for the most part. (We’re only about four episodes into Season 4; that goblin episode was infuriating.) So I decided I’d try TOaFK again as well. I’m not very far in, but Arthur (aka Wart, but I’ve always hated that name) and Kay have… Hang on, because if you haven’t read the book but you want to this might be considered a spoiler, so this is your chance to stop reading… Okay, for those of you still here: Arthur and Kay have just met Robin Hood. And while on the one hand this delights me because, hey, two of my favorites together in one place! On the other hand, I’m like: NO. There’s about 1,000 years difference between the time of Arthur and Robin Hood. (I’m rounding.) There is also quite a distance between them, as one was in Wales/Cornwall and the other was in Nottinghamshire.

I was about to chalk it up to Merlyn (that’s how his name is spelled in White) and his magic and living backwards and whatnot, but Arthur and Kay knew who Robin was, so that wouldn’t make sense. I do suppose Merlyn could have managed the distance in some magical way, though. And, I mean, this is not a serious issue. The book is a bit silly anyway, so who cares if Robin Hood (or Wood) is there, and Marian, and Little John? I should just be able to enjoy it. But it’s a case of a little knowledge being dangerous, or at least in it being detrimental to my pleasure. I usually like knowing things, but sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

Maybe I’m wrong? If so, please set me right! Maybe my understanding of the times and places involved is, er, a misunderstanding. I haven’t studied this kind of history in a very long time, so maybe I’m misremembering something vital.

I used to, as a [lonely only] child choose a topic each summer to research. It was usually history or mythology of some kind (or a combination of the two). I would check out as many books as I could get my hands on at the library, and I would make extensive notes in piles of notebooks all summer long. And then, at the end of the summer, I would compile all of that into a long essay. Yes, that really was my idea of fun. It still is to some extent… But all this is to say that I did Arthurian legends one summer, and tales of Robin Hood some other summer, but that was a long time ago, and while I’ve certainly read a few stories about them since, I don’t have all that information on total recall. I guess that’s what Wikipedia is for, but I prefer to delve, and I still find books the best sources for those kinds of deep dives. Maybe I should hit up the library (ours just recently re-opened) and do a fresh round of research…

Television: Merlin (Seasons 1 & 2)

Very late to this party, but my daughter requested to watch this series. She’d seen an episode of it at a friend’s house once, had immediately pinpointed Merlin and Arthur as a couple, and had been curious ever since. So we started watching it as part of our regular girl time.

For those unfamiliar: Merlin is a BBC television series consisting of five 13-episode seasons that ran from 2008 to 2012. It stars Colin Morgan as the titular Merlin, though rather than being the bearded old man of legend, we see him as a teen (or maybe early 20s?) as he arrives in Camelot to become both an apprentice to the court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) and, more importantly, manservant to Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Merlin must hide his magical abilities because King Uther Pendragon has outlawed sorcery and has anyone with magic executed. Rounding out the core cast are Katie McGrath as Uther’s ward Morgana and Angel Coulby as Morgana’s handmaiden Gwen.

The show has the production values one might expect for the time and target audience, but it is still fun to watch. There are definitely moments when I can see how and why viewers might ship Merlin and Arthur (the ship name is, my daughter has told me, “Merthur”), but after two seasons, I have to say the show seems to be actively fighting that interpretation. In particular, the second season—possibly in response to the audience support of Merthur?—works hard to “no homo” the pair by forcing the Arthur/Gwen romance and giving Merlin a girl to crush on pretty strongly in at least one episode. Honestly, there is much better chemistry between Gwen and Lancelot (maybe that’s the point), or even Gwen and Morgana, than there is between Gwen and Arthur.

In short, thus far the show isn’t as gay as I’d like it to be. Even if one takes into account “magic” = “homosexuality” in this world… While the underlying statement that homosexuality is (a) a genetic trait, not something one chooses, and (b) not in and of itself good or evil, there are no actual homosexual relationships on display here. The show goes to great lengths to make that clear. In fact, the only strongly queer-coded characters I can think of (from the episode “Sweet Dreams”) were absolute villains. So there is something of a mixed message there.

That said, there is a lot to like about the show. I wasn’t sold on the first few episodes, but I am glad I stuck with it. As with many shows, it takes the cast (and the writers) a while to find the characters and settle in, but once they do, it’s largely fun and still also manages to have a strong emotional core.

Current Projects

Recently, I finished a fan fiction piece I’d been working on. I enjoyed writing it, but it was something of a relief to be done because I have so many other things going on. Still, I chose to focus on and finish that particular project first because 1. it was close to finished anyway, so it was the fastest way to get at least one thing off my plate, and 2. the readers were encouraging, which kept me motivated. (If you’re curious, it was “Because Hate is a Kind of Passion,” which is a Kuroshitsuji [Black Butler] fic on AO3.)

What else am I working on? Well, I’m still plugging away at “The King’s Consort” (a SnowBaz fic being posted here on my site, though I haven’t seen much traffic for it, which is why I haven’t been focusing on it as much). It’s getting really long, too, and might be nearly novel length by the time it’s done… I’m also writing a new YA novel and a new Regency romance and prepping The Ghosts of Marshley Park for a fall pub date.

So I have plenty of writing projects to keep me occupied, never mind all the day-to-day stuff at home: three kids getting ready to go back to school, which means a new routine; three kids with various activities such as fencing, horseback riding, and Taekwondo; the usual slate of appointments for various family members; a seat on two school committees (one of which I’m president)… My house is very dirty, and I would not want anyone to see it, so I guess it’s just as well that we’re not having visitors these days. I just don’t have time to keep it a decent level of clean. It’s all I can do to make sure we have fresh laundry.

I looked at my planner for the next week and almost wept. After a year of barely going out, suddenly there are multiple things each day. No slow build at all; we’re going from pause to fast forward. I suppose jumping in is one way to get back into the pool…

Not a Failure

I recently decided to move ahead with self-publishing The Ghosts of Marshley Park. And almost immediately was met by two differing responses online: people cheering me on and people who wished me well in a way that absolutely suggested the passive-aggressive tone of, “You weren’t good enough for ‘real’ publishing, eh?”

To be fair, tone is super difficult to discern online. And I could be projecting a bit, too, because it’s not uncommon for writers to feel like they aren’t good enough, no matter how successful they actually are. It’s easy for a writer to walk away from a fruitless round of querying and see self-publishing as the signal of their failure.

But here is what I’ve learned after querying many manuscripts and receiving pretty much variations of the same feedback: 1. I’m a good writer. 2. The stuff I write is not what agents are looking for. Even if it’s well written, if they don’t think they can sell it (usually due to my odd plots and blending of genres), they have no reason to sign me. And I get it. This is a business. Lots of good and great work will not land agents or publishers. Some stuff that isn’t that great will because, despite quality, it will sell anyway. That’s just how it is.

So my options have always been to stuff my stories away or publish them myself. And in order to feel complete—for my own personal satisfaction—I’ve chosen to self-publish.

Some will tell you this is a bad idea and means no agent will ever touch you because, unless you self-publish to thousands of sales, you’ve proven yourself unmarketable. I used to worry about this, but now… I’m fine with it. Agents weren’t going to sign me anyway, right? I can “fail” privately or out in the open, but for me to have the closure I really want and need, putting my work out there is necessary for me.

The tipping point came at the most recent PitMad* last week. Though I got no nibbles from agents or publishers (and I’ll admit I wonder whether agents or publishers frequent PitMad and the like as much anymore, but that’s another post for another day), I received so much enthusiasm from potential readers. People telling me they absolutely want to read my book. And I want them to be able to read it! So… I’ll publish it. I’m in the editing process now and have begun the cover design by commissioning original art (SO exciting!).

And I know this is the right decision because, after I made it, I felt so much happier and lighter than before. That tells me querying was a strain on my mental and emotional health.

To sum up, though I know many [snobs] in the industry might see self-publishing as failure (or a “consolation prize” as I heard an author put it the other day), I see it as freeing. I think an author’s expectations have to be different when self-publishing, but the truth is, having worked in publishing myself, I know that many authors who do publish in the “traditional” way often also have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations. Who’s to say one would be any happier or better off one way or the other? Every writer is different, every book is different, there is no one path or journey. I’m entering into this with my eyes open and my heart buoyant, and that feels like a good way to start.

Timeline/Perspective

Years ago, when I was feeling bad about my lack of success as a writer, I made a timeline of my writing history to remind myself of how far I’d come. I don’t know where that timeline is now, or even what software I used to make it, but I do still find looking back at my journey gives me solid perspective on my success. Which is to say, even if I’m not where I want to be, I’ve come a long way down the road.

I’ve been writing for a long time, but my first “success” came as a fan fiction author. This was back when you had to submit stories to fanzines in the mail or (for the more advanced zines/editors) by computer disk. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that my work was popular; I even won a fan award. At the same time, I’m a little sad to think that my fan fiction is probably still my best known and most successful work.

In 2000, I had my first original works (two short stories) published in an anthology put out by my grad school. In 2004, I had a short story published in a magazine and a poem published in a fairly respected literary journal. But it wouldn’t be until 2012 that my writing career really got rolling. That was the year I had a short play produced (twice) and began self-publishing my first works.

From there and then, it’s been up and down. I’ve won a screenwriting award. I’ve had a few stories and books published by online journals and small publishers, and I’ve self-published a few more of my own. My short play was turned into a short film that was shown at a film festival in San Diego. I’ve been a guest author at a conference, and I’ve given a talk on writing at my local library. I try to remind myself that there are writers who wish they could be even this far in their careers. That, to many, I’m “successful.”

Success, after all, is a personal metric. For some, it’s marked by making a certain amount of money. For others, it’s about awards and recognition. For still others, it’s about selling x number of books and/or making it onto a list. The benchmark is different for everyone, and it can change, too. It seems like the goal posts are always moving, and that once we reach one level, we’re never happy with that—we always want more.

And that’s fine. It’s okay not to settle, and it’s okay to want it all, so long as we take a moment to 1. recognize how far we’ve come, and 2. realize we may never have everything we want. Keep writing and pursuing those dreams, but don’t pin all your worth and happiness on achieving them. That’s a sure way to go through life feeling like a failure, and that’s just depressing.

I’m fortunate in that I have kids who are very proud of me and like to announce that their mom “is a published author.” It does help to have a built-in cheering section. Be sure to get the support you need, if not from family, then from friends and fellow writers. And from readers and fans once you have them! They can see you through the down days and remind you of just how far you’ve come and how successful you actually are.