How to Publish a Book in 4,367 Easy Steps (Part II: Steps 1146 - 2679)
After I graduated from high school, every decision I made was focused on becoming a published author. My original plan for post-graduation was to move into a cabin in the woods, write novels, and eventually die fighting a bear over a dead squirrel before I was 30.
My parents did not support me in this endeavor.
I would learn later that living life is the best way to write about it.
I had no interest in going to college, but, since I was intelligent, middle-class, and white, that was where I was going. I insisted on majoring in Creative Writing so that narrowed my choice of colleges. During my visit to Lycoming College in Williamsport, the fiction professor asked me to bring along a sample of my writing. He offered a critique and gave me some tips on improving my writing and told me he saw potential in my novel. I thought that was the coolest thing so I abandoned my plans to go to a more interesting or scenic college and pledged to attend Lycoming College in dreary Williamsport, Pennsylvania where winter lasts nine out of the 12 months.
It was a huge mistake.
I hated college. I assumed the people I would meet in college would be creative and intelligent and fun. Nope. I found myself surrounded by people who were dumb and dull and boring and who had to drink themselves stupid every weekend to forget how dumb and dull and boring they were. It was a terrible environment for an aspiring writer. Williamsport was a soul-sucking town that had all the charm of a mausoleum. The writing professor who had seemed so encouraging during my visit hated EVERYTHING I ever wrote for him. Even worse, he was the ONLY fiction professor at the college. Granted, he was right to do so as what I was writing at the time wasn’t very good, but he was one of those teachers who could only tell you what was wrong with your work. He had no tips or advice on how to improve. We learned very little about the actual craft of writing and not once was writing ever discussed as a business or how to break into that business. It was just writing stories for four years and having them ripped apart in front of one's fellow classmates. I earned my English degree with honors, but if it wasn’t for meeting my wife, I would view the four years I spent at Lyco as a complete waste of time.
Lesson learned: A degree doesn't make you a writer (or anything else).
Fortunately, my parents encouraged/forced me to get a teaching certificate in addition to my Creative Writing degree so I was able to make money and buy food after graduation. While I was starting my teaching career, I made it my mission to improve my writing. I read craft books and taught myself how to write. I joined an online critique group (Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, even critiqued one of my stories! And he liked it!) I read books on the business of writing. Most importantly, I read good books by great authors. I made it my mission to read every work of classic literature I had missed in college to see what I could learn from the literary masters. I found teachers in Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and J.D. Salinger. Slowly, I got better. I wrote another novel and dozens of short stories, but I still hadn’t had anything published yet. That was the next step. I needed validation.
When my teaching job forced me to go back to school for my Master’s degree, I could have done what most educators do and pursued a degree in something generic like English or Education. Instead, I wanted it to mean something. I joined the Wilkes MFA low residency program to get my Masters in Creative Writing. My mission was simple: I wanted to get my novel published. It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by other writers who were serious about their craft. I learned from some amazing writers who were encouraging and passionate and actually tried to make me a better writer. I had to complete the program while I was still teaching, but I knew the work would be worth it. Many other writers in the program were still trying to find their voice or finish their first novel. I had already written two novels and had a distinct writing style. I was ready for the next step.
Inspired by my time in the program, I started sending my work out to online and print literary magazines. I had my first short story accepted for publication in October of 2010. Another followed a few weeks later. My first published stories were for recognition only, but eventually I started to sell my short stories for actual money. To me, the short story publications were validation that my work was worthy of publication, but what I really wanted was what every serious writer wants: I wanted to publish a novel.
I’ve never classified myself as a naturally gifted writer. What I’ve been able to accomplish has come from hard work and perseverance and my willingness to learn. My ultimate goal was to get published by the end of my time at Wilkes. The program offered connections to literary agents and small publishing houses so those opportunities were there. Most students are lucky to leave the program with a half decent manuscript. By the end of the program, I had written TWO complete manuscripts that my mentors labeled as "publication ready." To my knowledge, I’m the only student to ever do that in the program’s history. I worked my ass off to finish those two novels in a little less than three years. One of the manuscripts was an early draft of what would eventually evolve into Trumptopia.
I assumed I would get published through my contacts at Wilkes. There was an agent I was introduced to that was "absolutely going to love my work" and some of the mentors in the program ran their own small indie publishers and would "definitely be interested in publishing my novels." My dream was going to come true! Then … it didn’t. It just didn’t happen. I had done everything right, taken every opportunity thrust my way, contacted every lead, and still … nothing. Eventually, all my leads dried up, the opportunities faded, and when I finally left the program, I was no closer to being published than I was before I started. My dream had brushed up against me and kept right on walking, leaving me for dead.