Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

Write a Better Book

I actually know the guy who won the 2016 Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-Book Contest. We both work for a pretty big company, and the company has an internal social network, so of course the writers created a group to connect with one another. One day, this guy posts that he won the 2016 Writer’s Digest Self-Published e-Book Contest. Like the grand prize. They sent him to the conference in New York for free. Interviewed him in the magazine.

We ended up in a meeting together not long after. He introduced himself, said he was Christopher Stollar and I might have said, “I know!”

I realized then that I viewed that contest like the PowerBall. I mean, you’ve bought a ticket, but do you know someone who won? Like is that shit contagious, man?

Christopher encouraged me to enter the contest the next year. I didn’t think it would be possible — the last e-book I published was Iced Out in 2014 — but that fell within the date range for the contest. I paid the not-early-bird entry fee of more than a hundred bucks and…

I’m not going to New York next year. I mean, I could be going to New York next year, but I will have to pay for it. I actually wasn’t that surprised. I’ve never won the PowerBall either.

The Writer’s Digest judge who read your book sends you a short review, speaking to all the categories they rate on — cover design, plot and story appeal, spelling. I’m a great speller.

The final category is Voice and Writing Style:

“The voice is delightful. The wry sense of humor and Henry’s observations create the kind of voice that makes fans out of readers.”
–Judge, 5th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published eBook Awards

I probably wouldn’t have given Judge a hundred dollars in exchange for those two sentences, but since I had already handed over the hundred, it was nice to see that opinion.

That job I talked about earlier has made it really difficult to write. I have to get up every day (every day!) and leave almost immediately after I get up, spend all day answering emails and writing things that people don’t always read (which is not unlike my previous writing, I just get paid for it) and then I come home and try to figure out how to do all the other things that need to be done. I know this is regular life, and people do this all the time, but I didn’t for a long time. I raised kids and worked part-time, and wrote while they were at school or after they went to bed. Middle brother says that he used to fall asleep listening to me typing from the living room.

Of course that luxurious life-style can only be financed with another income, and the marriage was not good and then it was much worse, and then it was mercifully over. And I had to get a full-time job and go to work so early that I left before the kids went to school. I learned later I was the only person who made it on time. They start telling you this stuff after they’re all twenty. Like how middle brother would take younger sister and her best friend to breakfast because they were already so late for first period, they might as well eat first. My kids never put much effort into making grades, but they are kick-ass at making memories.

I realized that between 2008 and 2013, I hadn’t written anything. Bandwidth, I figured. Writing was where I escaped how bad my marriage was and it probably saved my sanity, but then I just didn’t have the space for it as things got worse and then ended. And a year later, younger sister and I went to Chicago and sat down in a now-defunct coffee shop and I thought: This is where they met.

Younger sister has read everything I’ve written, even Nobody’s Hero when I said she was too young (she told me after she was twenty). She would go into my room and check the notes I wrote on the old vinyl wallpaper in vis-à-vis markers, to see if anything else had happened to the people in the stories. So when I bought a pack of index cards at the CVS on Southport in Chicago and started sketching out this novel on my buddy’s coffee table, younger sister was almost as happy as I was.

That was 2013. I paid someone to tear down the wallpaper, and I repainted the room to cover over the memories. Then I started working on other things, researching domestic abuse issues, and eventually started a support group. I was promoted, so my job got more complicated. Intermittently, I tried to become a person who “works out”. I’d work on this novel for stretches and then not for longer and longer stretches. And then I just stopped.

A couple weeks ago, the mailman dropped a postcard in my box. It was the Writer’s Digest 26th Annual Self-Published Book Contest. The early-bird-deadline was April 2, 2018. A physical book this time. The first e-book I self-published was in 2010. Then in 2013, I self-published a paperback of that book, and 2013 happened to be the very earliest publication year permissible for this year’s contest. In other words, now or never.

I missed the deadline. Not by accident, although I did forget and I would have had to drive over to the main post office to get the postmark. Maybe. I’m never really sure how postmarks work.

I’m not doing the later deadline. I love Nobody’s Hero though, I really do. I had ordered copies so I could send one in for this contest. I was flipping through it for a few minutes when the box arrived. I know every word in this story and sometimes I will get this random thought in my head, and I’ll be trying to figure out who said that, and then I’ll realize that Rick Raniere said it.

I wrote this book and it healed me, because it gave me something to focus on besides my destructive marriage, and that separated me enough from the problems to start doing something about them. To set some boundaries, to ask for some truth and to live honestly, because I no longer had nothing, I had a novel that someone amazing loved and encouraged and supported me on. And then after that someone taught me how to cut half of it away, more than 80 people who didn’t even know me reviewed it, and very few of them accused me of smoking crack when I was writing it.

Most of them blew me away. People who read it even though they didn’t know me, and then they read it again. And wrote reviews about my book that made me think that is exactly what I meant for it to be.

But nobody wanted to publish it. So ten years after my final rejection letter came in the mail (because that’s how long ago that was, they were snail-mailing them), I’m looking at the contest entry form and the hundred dollar entry fee and the distance to the post office and thinking: maybe if I won this lottery, then someone who had some pull would realize that it’s as good as me and Shaunta and seventy other random people think so. And all that time wouldn’t just disappear.

Write a better book.

I don’t know where that memory came from, but I knew what it meant. What the context was. Something about how if you can’t get an agent or get a novel published, then what do you do? You put that book in the closet and you write a better book.

Felt like a gut punch. I have a better book. I know I do. It’s just only three-fourths of the way finished.

A month ago I saw this book in the library at work (yes, we have a library at work, it’s like the best place ever). The book is called Stick With It, and I picked it up because I was trying to figure out how to be better organized, but that’s actually not as complicated as I thought and really I only cared about being organized at work. Once I started using, that pretty much solved my organization problems completely. So I couldn’t figure out what else to do with all these great strategies. For example, joining a community is part of this program, and there’s no community around organizing stuff, unless you count people who are really into bullet journaling and I’m going to take a hard pass on that.

So I went back through the Stick With It chapters and exercises at the end, re-doing my exercises with the big dream of Become a Traditionally Published Writer. All right, my note says “Best-Selling” but whatevs. And then the “Small Goal” of finishing the book.

Which brings me here. Writing this Medium post. Because “Stepladders” are things to get you to the goal, and one of my stepladders is writing every day for 25 minutes. Done all week. I fail at word count goals, because often they involve getting out of bed before six a.m., but time goals work for me. Not much word progress, but progress nonetheless. And the other stepladder is this. Write two Medium posts a month. Halfway there for this month. (No one has to read them, I just have to write them. But if you are, cool!)

I’ve read a lot of books about writing, so stuff about writing floats around in my head all the time, with no sources or context attached. Once I read a writer who said that she thought if you could stop writing, you should do it. That fits with writers, we all seem to talk a lot about how we hate writing.

I thought that seemed like decent advice, but I had always been writing, so I didn’t think that would work for me. Obviously I hadn’t been terribly successful at it, so maybe that was when you should quit. And then for the past three years, I pretty much stopped. I have so many other more important things to work on than creating another novel. I mean that seriously. I spend time with people who have real problems — does the world need another novel?

And as one of my favorite characters once said: “I ain’t quitting … But even if I did, what difference would it make? … There’s another one right behind me, and a shitload in front of me…”*

I was explaining my new plan to younger sister the other night. She was thrilled as always. Keep in mind, she’s read half of this incomplete novel in several drafts, and I suppose if I were her, I would hate me because there is no ending to it. Like getting to the middle of the movie and the director cutting off the projector, saying she’d call you when it was done, k? And then she never calls.

I said, by way of explanation to younger sister, or maybe justification to myself: “I’m just miserable when I’m not writing.”

She gave me the 20-year-old look. “I know that, Mom.”

I was overstating, of course. I’m not miserable. It’s just a low-level empty thing that I try to fill up with reading or knitting while I’m watching Empire episodes. Of course the reading or the Empire episodes or a really great movie remind me that the writing is so good, and then I’m analyzing how did they do that, and pretty soon you’re just acting like a writer again, and then you feel sad about not writing.

I didn’t write down my reason for this Medium posting stepladder. I love Medium, and I’ve wanted to contribute to it. It’s part of the “community” step in my Stick With It plan.

Maybe it’s a way of reminding myself, doing the “introspection thing” which is on the list of things I do great, right after “cleaning up stuff”.

This is what I am, this is what I do. I’m a writer. And I’m writing a better book.

*Hell yeah, Rick Raniere said that. He’s awesome. I’m just saying.