Three Lessons from My First Publication Experience

Just over a year ago, I received an Email from a writing acquaintance of mine, inviting me to apply for a unique sci-fi collaboration run by a new indie press. I’d met this woman in a casual writer’s group in my hometown and had kept in touch with her over the past couple of years. At the same time, I had on and off thought about shopping my first novel around to agents.

This seemed to be a fairly good opportunity for me to submit my work for a paid gig, so I pitched a couple of stories. One was accepted, and I quickly found myself involved in a close collaboration with a diverse set of people, most of whom had been published before. For a musician/martial artist/engineer-in-design/essayist whose greatest writing accomplishment had been having her work featured in a company blog, it was more than a little intimidating.

Fast forward a number of months, and we’re only a couple of days from our launch. I’ve been reflecting on the lessons that I’ve learned through this first publication experience, most of which I think are applicable to other creative disciplines.

Lesson 1: You don’t have to be passionate about something to do great work.

As a part of the application process, I pitched three concepts to the people in charge of the press. The one they chose, quite honestly, was the one that I had the least emotional investment in. Surprisingly enough, this worked in my favor. In telling this story and remaining emotionally neutral to the characters, I was able to edit dispassionately and ruthlessly, and in turn really shape the story into what it needed it to be, not what I felt it had to be in order to stay emotionally true to my own heart.

Similarly, I think one of the great fallacies of the modern world is the thought of pursuing our passions as being of greater value than of being faithful to the job that we’re hired to do. While I’m all about pursuing your aspirations, I’m also a big fan of getting a job done and doing it well. Sometimes not being attached to what you’re doing allows you to do it better.

Of course, in the midst of all of this, I did manage to fall in love with my characters, so I guess I did a good enough job of creating a relatable story.

Lesson 2: Stay true to your artistic vision.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” goes the old adage, and I felt this somewhere between drafts 2 and 3. The entire team had a stab at reviewing each one of the stories, and what it left me was a document full of hundreds of line edits, some of which contradicted each other, often expressing personal opinions about phrasing, story arc, and word choice. At the time, I was in full-on people pleasing mode and, as a result, made a number of significant edits. After all, all of these people had an outsider’s eye, and a number of them had been published before.

Fast forward to draft 5, when our editor, Ally Bishop, asked to talk with two of us about our stories. At this point, I had come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t have taken a lot of the feedback I received and confessed to her what had happened. The advice she gave me in that session stuck with me: I needed to stick to my artistic vision. I had control over my story, and I had a responsibility to make sure it came out of revisions stronger, not weaker. I completely trashed what I had, spent a week not thinking about it, and rewrote it from scratch.

Similarly, anyone working as a creative has similar challenges. Whether it’s a producer that tells you that you need to rewrite your screenplay or a design review that has fifteen people in it (all giving conflicting advice), you can often receive advice that will tear you away from the nature and intent of your product. Check to see if it has any validity, and then feel free to discard the advice if it doesn’t coincide with your larger vision or is simply wrong. I tossed out a number of incorrect grammatical suggestions in one revision and consequently had less to fix in the next round.

Lesson 3: You bring more to the table than you think.

I thought that I, as someone who hadn’t been published before, brought very little to the table. Surprisingly enough, I found that I brought myself to the collaboration, and that the experience I’d had in other fields was invaluable to bringing deeper insight into the production process.

For instance:

  • As an engineer, I’ve been working in highly collaborative, global teams with highly opinionated people for well over a decade. I’ve learned the art of clear digital communication, negotiation, project management, iterative development, and compromise.
  • Over the past couple of years, I’ve been learning a lot about using social media to promote a brand and a product, both with the Adobe brand and with the product I’m working on right now, Adobe Experience Design CC.
  • I bring a significant amount of self-reflection and personal maturity, which leads to more productive conversations.
  • I bring my skills at time management to meet deadlines despite difficult personal circumstances (like that little thing called “work”).

All of these things (and more, some of which I’ll blog about in the near future) added value to a collaborative process that spanned multiple months.

This brings me to my newest project: Interspecies, the first in a series of post-apocalyptic epics that detail the conflict between human and an alien race, the inlari. My story, “Underground Intelligence,” tells the story of a not-so-chance encounter between a young human and an old inlari, and details how one’s entire world can get rocked by one long conversation. It’s one of four amazing stories in this shared universe, each of which covers a different aspect of a larger, global conflict.

We’re releasing the book in a couple of days (May 27) digitally, with a print book to follow soon afterward. As a part of the launch activities, Kōsa Press, the publisher, is running a $100 USD gift card giveaway. Get on that before June 3, 2016 to be eligible.

Oh, and before I get too distracted, one of my sci-fi/fantasy author heroes, Piers Anthony, reviewed the book and said: “These are generally hard-hitting stories about a grim future world…. I found the exploration mind-stretching…” When someone you read when you were in your formative years favorably reviews your work, it’s something particularly special.

I’m excited, guys. I’m really excited.

I’m hoping that these few reflections on my experience with Interspecies challenges you, my fellow creatives, to do your own great work. Let me know when you do so, and I’ll be there to cheer you on.

Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.