3 Lessons I Learned from Self-publishing a Debut Novel

ITYOT_Front_Cover_6_Feb_20163Four boulders blocking access to a logging road. Having visited my mother in Connecticut, we were driving through forests of Maine when I saw the four boulders and I thought, now, there’s a place to hide a body. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to tell you this: the month was October and earlier my daughter had lent me No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty. Subtitle: A Low-stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. The book appealed to me because I had written thousands of words comprising the beginnings of three novels. My problem was that my interest and energy fizzled and my books were orphans without proper endings.

You need to know this as well: Chris Baty is the founder of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Each year hundreds of thousands of would-be novelists sign up committing themselves to the task of generating at least 50,000 words and a story with a beginning, middle and an end within the month of November. (In 2014 more than 325,000 people registered, and over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published.) Successful NaNoWriMo authors don’t start writing before November 1st, and verify a word count of at least 50,000 by November 30th. I had read the Baty’s book and I had gone online and registered with NaNoWriMo. We were driving through the state of Maine and I was stressed. It was the last week of October and I didn’t know what I was going to write about. Didn’t have a clue, until I saw the four boulders. Later we stopped at Wal-Mart in Calais before crossing the border. I sat in the car while Alanna went in and I heard the voice of a character. And then another. I wrote down their words in a memo pad I keep in my shirt pocket. Now I had something with which to begin.

On November 1st I awoke at 5 a.m. got up, made coffee, opened my laptop on the kitchen table and for the next 5 hours I typed. Alanna was very supportive enabling me to free myself of daily commitments, and each day I rose before dawn breakfasting with my keyboard averaging more than 4000 words a day. I was exhausted by noon each day, and I completed my 50,000 plus draft, titled Accidental Accomplice, for lack of a better title, on November 11—a novel in 10 days.

That was 2013. I blogged “A Novel in Ten Days: Bragging Rights & Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2013,” https://artsconflicted.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/a-novel-in-ten-days-bragging-rights-lessons-learned-from-nanowrimo-2013/ in which I wrote:

Experience tells me that for every hour of generative writing, I need to spend four in editing. Having drafted my NaNoWriMo novel in ten days, I will let it sleep awhile. And when I pick it up again, I will have to stock up on coffee beans and wood for the stove and be prepared to retreat into its wilderness for forty days.

That’s a laugh. The novel slept in the proverbial desk drawer for a year, then, in 2015 I started to edit. By no means a 40 day job, it’s taken more than a year. This was the real work. The characters cried out for development, the timeline was tangled and confused and typographical errors and inconsistencies needed to be rooted out. I hired editors and invited the members of my writers’ group to read the manuscript.

Here are the lessons learned from editing a NaNoWriMo novel.


# 1. The draft was written using a word processor. I saved each day’s work with different file names. When I began to edit, I pulled all the smaller files into one large file that I found difficult to work with it, especially since my time line was complicated. I purchased Scrivener, a product that enhanced my productivity substantially. For a free trial try https://www.literatureandlatte.com/ The Scrivener folks write on their web page:

Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.

I found that to be true. It enabled me to break up my smaller files into manageable scenes and to manipulate and move them so as to straighten out my time-lines. Furthermore I could make notations about scene. I had tried other products, but Scrivener, while not perfect, carries my endorsement.

Later, I decided to layout my novel myself. Scrivener was no help here, and although I knew I could do the job with Word, I opted for Adobe’s InDesign. (http://www.adobe.com/products/indesign.html) Self-publishing a novel is a three step procedure: generating the draft, editing the draft, and laying out the finished product. My experience informs me that there is no software that adequately meets all the start-to-finish needs.

# 2. The editors I hired read my manuscript three times, each with a different focus. They raised a multiplicity of questions. What helped them, and me, was the development of a personal style sheet. The style sheet answered questions such as: Was I going to use American or Canadian spellings? How do I treat the titles of songs, movies, and pieces of art? There is more than one school of comma placement. Which did I belong to? Where should I use em dashes and where should I use ellipses? The answers to these questions enabled me to be consistent and enabled the editors to move on to more weightier recommendations. The personal style sheet put us all on the same page.

# 3. I’ll Tell You One Thing’s timeline was a particular challenge and while Scrivener helped me to sort it out, I needed another timeline document. I used Wendy Clark’s spreadsheet template (http://wendyswritingnow.blogspot.ca/2012/12/wendys-story-timeline-here-it-is.html) and eventually I used MSWord to date-stamp scenes and events. Like the personal style sheet, this document helped me as much as it helped my editors.

#4 I uploaded the pdf generated by InDesign to Createspace (owned by Amazon) on March 1st. I’d like to say there is another lesson learned here, but I can’t put that in past tense. I’m still learning about this aspect of marketing and distribution. One thing I can say is that while I had hoped to print the book in Canada, Amazon produces the books in the US and shipping costs to Canada need to be considered. Perhaps there will be another blog posting about it.


3 thoughts on “3 Lessons I Learned from Self-publishing a Debut Novel

  1. Nice! Thanks for your insight. My first (and only completed) novel has been in a drawer for 10 years. I’m considering dusting it off… It’s nice to hear your experiences.

  2. On the matter of different software doing different jobs, I recently spoke with John Wesley of Selkirk Stories Ipublishing). I talked with him about the problem of exporting epubs from InDesign. His answer is to maintain two finalized copies of the manuscript. One in InDesign, and another in Scrivener. He uses Scrivener to export to epub. But, as he says, “You have to be very organized.” Oh dear, yet another discipline.

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