About a Book

Posted: July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

I couldn’t have been more thrilled, two and a half years ago, when a couple of writers whose work I admire asked if I would consider joining them in producing an anthology of short stories. Would I? I nearly bit their virtual hands off.

Avery Mathers, Lee Williams and I met on youwriteon.com, a peer review website aimed primarily at writers who are new to putting their work up for external scrutiny. Over a relatively short period, we had seen our work improve and climb high in the YWO charts and we had overcome our initial indignation at strangers slapping our babies in public. We were all ready for a new challenge.

It was amazing how the proposal boosted our productivity over the next few months. We wrote many new stories and sent them to each other for comment and, although our writing styles and subject matter differed, we managed to look objectively at each others’ work. When any of us hit a barrier, there was always help to get us through. It was a tremendously useful and constructive process and I can honestly say, even when we were disappointed by the feedback, there was never a cross word. We trusted each other’s judgment and, increasingly, we learned to trust our own and only gave way on suggestions we knew in our guts constituted real improvements. We gave the anthology a name – Triclops – and Avery wrote a prologue/epilogue to draw the collection together.

Within a year we had enough material and were ready to go. So why did it take two and a half years to produce the finished, printed product?

It was my fault – I got cold feet. I had been watching discussions develop on all three writing sites to which I belonged and the consensus was becoming clear. Self-publishing was vanity publishing, no more, no less. The general opinion of such books – and their authors – was poor. These were deluded individuals who couldn’t make it through traditional channels but their egos were so great, they concluded that agents and publishers wouldn’t know a hot prospect if it spontaneously combusted on the desk in front of them. I knew that wasn’t us because we had never submitted – but it still made me twitchy.

I carried on writing, editing and putting my stories up for criticism and, in an attempt to see how my work rated with professionals, began submitting to anthologies and competitions. To my astonishment I was shortlisted several times, placed on four occasions and had some stories published. This gave me the lift I needed to carry on writing but it didn’t help me decide what to do about Triclops.

Meanwhile Avery and Lee were still keen and were having some publishing success themselves. So although we had previously agreed that the short story market was dead, we were all getting published. What did this mean? Predictably enough, my next worry was the difference between our styles, subjects and approaches. Would I be better off joining up with writers whose stories were more like mine, in subject if not style? Should I go it alone? I must have bored everyone senseless by asking for their opinions, over and over again, and I thank them now for their patience. But the more I asked, the less I trusted my own judgement, and the boys, not surprisingly, were growing impatient.

By way of a diversion and in the hope it would accelerate my decision, I designed a cover. Soon we had something we all liked and was relevant to one of the stories inside, jointly written by Lee and Avery. But not to any of mine. Far from solving a dilemma, having a cover had merely added to my feelings about the distance between us and I began to develop a phobia about the whole project. At one stage I couldn’t even think about it without panic setting in. I decided to come clean.

I expressed my doubts to my collaborators who were incredibly kind and understanding, if disappointed. Avery asked me to give them a decision within the following couple of weeks so that they could set about finding a replacement. Grateful for the lack of recrimination, I offered the cover as compensation should I drop out. It was all extremely civilised.

At the very moment I might have walked away with my virtual ‘friendships’ intact, a published author, whose opinion I respect, urged me to go ahead. She could see that I was getting stuck in a groove that was making it impossible to move on and write new material. I kept going back, cutting and editing, until my stories were in danger of becoming micro-shorts. At the same time I imagined taking my own name off the cover and inserting someone else’s. The very idea made me feel sick.

And that was it. I made the commitment to publish and be damned. Avery sent the completed file to two highly respected authors – Andrew Taylor and Gillian Philip – asking if they would be kind enough to write recommendations for the back cover and, to our delight, they agreed. Both wrote very warmly about the collection and mentioned the diversity in the most positive terms! Forty stories, forty new beginnings. Who wants them all the same?

I had mixed feelings about the finished book. I was pleased – thrilled, in fact – with the quality and the reactions from family and friends. On the other hand, I couldn’t help wondering if this would represent the sum-total of my writing achievements. For a few days I felt proud and anxious in equal measure.

Then people began to buy the book from Rossiters after an interview in the Ross Gazette gave me some great publicity (see below) and the feedback began to roll in. Everyone liked it! They were surprised and excited by the diversity and someone even likened it to a box of chocolates, which can’t be bad.

I can’t say I’m enjoying the promotional side of things and that’s the downside of self-publishing, although I believe many authors published through traditional channels are now also expected to do the endless blogging, tweeting and networking to support their product. I don’t want to put anyone off by overdoing it (as I have been by others) but there doesn’t seem any point in producing a book if no one knows about it. Let me know, please, if it gets on your nerves or you have any bright ideas for taking it forward.

Time will tell whether or not I/we have done the right thing. Perhaps I will have my answer next year at the village fete, if pristine copies of Triclops outweigh the ubiquitous Dan Browns on the secondhand book stall. Luckily, homemade cake is never far away!

  1. jilljmarsh says:

    That makes for a fascinating and truthful journey. Thanks for sharing, Sue.

  2. Lorraine says:

    Sue, you approached this for all the right reasons and all three of you deserve success with this book. Good luck with your sales – and stay away from the cake stall!

  3. Tricia Gilbey says:

    I had no idea about any of this – I think the stories behind books are fascinating. Thanks for posting, Sue – and best of luck with it – sounds like the book’s had a great reception. Congratulations.

  4. Jo Reed says:

    I think this will strike a chord with every writer who reads it, Sue! Whatt really comes through is that you all thought long and hard about the decision to self publish. As a result you have come up with a product of the highest quality and you’re getting some great writing out there for people to read! Here’s wishing Triclops good luck and the sales figures it deserves!

  5. Jane says:

    Just ordered a copy and looking forward to reading it – especially after hearing about the thought that went into the idea of publishing it. She who dares wins, I’m sure!

  6. I’m glad you decided to go ahead – it’s a difficult decision but definitely worth doing. Good luck with it!

  7. Avery Mathers says:

    Hi Sue – It was fascinating to read your perspective on the Triclops project. If anyone else is considering doing something similar, here’s my tuppence-worth:

    We would have loved Triclops to be taken on by an established publishing company. They would have provided professional editors, overseen the production of the book and used their knowledge and power to promote and market it. But, as any aspiring writer knows (or should know), there are many factors that influence whether or not a book is published, only some of which are to do with the quality of the writing. The bottom line for us was that a collection of short stories by unknown writers was unlikely to be commercially viable and publishers (quite understandably) weren’t going to waste their time even considering it. That is why we turned to self-publishing.

    As Sue has pointed out, there is a widespread view that self-publishing equates to vanity-publishing. Vanity-published books are considered largely worthless because they are not subjected to any objective filters or controls. But what if a self-published book were subjected to filter and controls? By having three writers for Triclops, not only did we vary the stories but, more importantly, we acted as editors and publishers for each other. Okay, we were not professionals in those roles, but we were highly motivated and none of us would willingly be associated with a story that we thought was poorly written.

    Of course, you have to strike a balance. If all the writers give ‘unconditional love’ to each others’ stories then you’re back in the vanity-publishing situation, just with multiple authors. You must be prepared to give well-considered and constructive criticism and you must be prepared to consider and act upon the constructive criticism of your co-writers. I expect that the situation is little different to working with professional editors and publishers. Accordingly, (without surrendering ‘ownership’ of your stories) you have to respect each others’ judgement and you have to trust each other. That’s easy to say but it may be far from easy to achieve. All three of us took a very mature approach to the project and… we were lucky.

    Without the support of a professional publishing set-up we also had to deal with the tedious mechanics of producing the physical book. We were particularly lucky in that Sue is a graphic designer with professional knowledge of many of the issues involved. The cover picture for Triclops was an apt example of our co-operative approach: it was realised by Sue, based on an idea by me that was inspired by a story by Lee.

  8. Lee Williams says:

    Hi Sue,

    Yes, we were very lucky! I can’t in good conscience deny any possibility of my being an ego and/or nutcase, but if I am then I’m a harmless one!

    I’d recommend a collaboration like ours to any writer keen to improve their craft. As you’ve already both pointed out, the process of critiquing one another’s stories was tremendously useful. When I received advice from you or Avery, I knew to take it very seriously because you yourselves had a vested interest in the strength of my stories. The whole process generated a lot of mutual trust and respect and I am absolutely certain that I improved a great deal as a writer because of it.

    So many thanks to you both, and thanks to anyone who has bought a copy of Triclops.

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