Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chapter 1: A Novelist’s Journey to Self-Publication

Writing In A Changing World
By Mark Young
February, 2011
Editor’s Note: Like my current novel, this story I am sharing is a work in progress. It is about a journey toward self-publication, a path I thought I’d never tread. I want to share bits and pieces of this journey as it unfolds in hopes of helping other writers make up their minds. This blog will continue to offer a wide variety of cop and author interviews, and other interesting features related to mystery fiction. 

Starting today, however, I will be writing some articles on self-publishing to specifically boost the spirits of all those struggling novelists who might find themselves caught on the same fence I straddled for many years. These articles are for the benefit of  writers still trying to decide which direction their career should head. I finally made a choice. For me, everything changes this month. My journey into self-publishing will begin shortly. I don’t know where it will lead. I don’t know how it will end. Come with me as we find out what the future holds. But first, a little backstory:

“I am no stranger to humiliation.” My lovely wife used that line the other day as we took a break from preparing my novel, Revenge, for publication. Her words—said in jest—got me thinking about this writing journey I embarked upon a long time ago. To be humiliated, one must possess a certain amount of pride.

Now, some types of pride—like the feeling you have when your kids excel in something—can be healthy. Some forms of pride—like vanity—can be ugly. When pride is involved, even good intentions can sometimes go awry.  Some time ago I began to understand how pride enslaved me as a writer. Other words and expressions—fear, for example— are closely related to pride. Have you ever asked yourself, “Is my writing good enough to be published?” (pride, fear); or, “What if I don’t succeed?” (fear). Worse yet, have you ever asked yourself: “What if I find out—after all these years—I never had it in me to be a publishable novelist?” (again, fear). And finally, “Have I wasted my time all these years to improve my craft—for nothing?” (Blend of fear and anger).

This month everything changes in my writing world. I am embarking down a new path, a journey that began forty years ago when I started writing. It began with small, pathetic attempts toward fiction: short story here, first chapter of a novel there. At the time, I chose to edit  my creativity to death until each writing piece landed up in my own rejection pile. Out of frustration, I stuck with non-fiction for the next thirty-five years.

I never lost the desire to write fiction, only the confidence that I might write fiction that someone else might like to read. Five years ago, I decided to return to fiction. I sat down and began writing my first complete novel, Broken Allegiance. A year later, I proudly began to market that novel while starting on my second novel, Shadows. Persistence always paid off for me in previous careers, and I saw no reason why it could not help me now. I decide I would be as persistent as a pit bull, latching onto agents, editors and publishers until I finally achieved writing Nirvana. That point where my novel finally reached the shelves of book stores around the world, or at least my local bookstore.

It never happened.

Three novels later, I found myself still looking for a home for my babies. As years passed, I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Like many writers, I wrestled with that paralyzing idea that maybe my writing would never be good enough. Many people knew I was trying to break into the publishing world—how do I hide the fact that I write every day to those who know me. Family, friends, and acquaintances always asking, "So, how is the book coming along." Translation: "Does anyone think your writing is worth enough to publish?"

Pride, frustration and humiliation began to set in. I just seemed unable to connect with the right people to make things happen. As I mailed each manuscript toward the publishing world, my carefully-written, carefully-edited novels seemed to bounce along the rim of acceptance, never swishing through the basket of approval. At times, my hopes were raised when an acquisition editor liked my latest novel and passed it onto their review committee—a faceless body of people searching for reasons to shatter every writer's hope. Unanswered query letter and requested manuscripts disappeared into the publishing abyss. A few editors and agents took the time to send back  rejection notices, or emails with the proverbial thumbs down line that begins, "Thank you ... but after careful review we have decided ..." to dash my dreams. Some editors and agents did take the time to email small notes of encouragement or advice. I latched onto these like a drowning swimmer. I continued to write, while growing angrier, frustrated and—yes—humiliated.

Granted, economic times have been tough. Even authors, who’ve landed on the New York Times bestseller list in the past, seemed to be experiencing great difficulty trying to get their manuscripts past the gatekeepers. Publishers seemed to pulling back, going with fewer and fewer authors, settling for the sure bets rather than those long shots. And for new authors—well, just forget it. Some squeak through, but the vast majority slip away into the black hole of oblivion. I did not want to slip into that void.

John Verdon
One of those fortunate new authors —John Verdon, author of that fabulous debut novel, Think Of A NumberTess Gerritsen, John Lescroart and Dean Koontz—all appeared on this blog last year, telling us their stories, giving us insight into their latest work. It was exciting to interview them, and each of these authors—with major publishing house  backing—seem to be doing very well. Great writing. Great name recognition. Each of these writers paid their dues and deserve to reap the rewards of their efforts. I tip my hat to them.

However, I believed these are the exceptions—not the rule. For every author who makes it into a major publishing house, there are many more writers—good writers—out there whose novels never break the surface. Never get noticed. Their works fail to reach the attention of readers desiring a well-written story. Now, I know there is many poorly written novels piling up on the desks of agents and acquisition editors. However, good writers—those who continually strive toward excellence, pushing themselves to their writing limits on every WIP—deserve a chance to get their work before readers. To let the market decide whether these writers deserve a reader’s trust. Until now, those chances for new authors getting published seems about as slim as BP getting new oil drilling rights in the Gulf.

But the winds are shifting in the publishing world. Let us return to backstory:

I love to read. That love started the first time I learned about words. When I was young I would be allowed to go to the library on Saturday afternoons if I did all my chores. I’d slip into the book stacks amidst medieval nights and ladies-in-waiting, reading about war, adventure and even romance—if it had a few knife fights or knuckles involved. I traveled the high seas with swash-buckling pirates, wielded weapons of war alongside other brave warriors. I rode horses with cowboys on the vast plains beneath open sky. It was a wonderful, exciting world in which to live. Never once did I give a thought about writing.

Then I grew up fast and hard at the age seventeen. I went off to a real war—Vietnam—where I saw the dark side of human nature. That experience changed my life forever. When I returned, I read writers like Ernest Hemingway with a different perspective, those writers whose works spoke to my soul because we both shared the experiences of war. It was about this time I begin to develop a need to write, a cathartic need to get words down on paper. Using the GI bill and working night jobs, I earned my BA degree in journalism and worked for several newspapers in the of San Francisco bay area for six years. It was a grand time. I slipped into Wounded Knee during the takeover and interviewed AIM  leaders Dennis Banks and Russel Means. I wrote about cops, crooks, and politics. I covered shootings, forest fires, and floods. I wrote about people struggling to make ends meet and about kids who made it to the state fair competitions. I wrote about the ecstasies and tragedies of human life. It was a great job, but I soon realized that I could not support my family on the peanuts I made as a reporter. Without getting into the particulars, I went to the dark side as my journalism friends called it. I became a cop.

For the next twenty-six years I lived a life that I found very challenging, in a career that provided very well for my family. Many of the skills that I had developed in journalism bade me well in law enforcement—report writing, interviews, seeking out facts and the truth. It was a great ride while it lasted. Through most of the eighties, I served on the federal Organize Crime and Enforcement Task Force, traveling throughout our nation hunting down major drug traffickers. From 1997 to 2002, I provided supervisory support for another federal organize crime task in San Francisco, targeting prison gang leaders throughout California. All this time, I was storing up reflections and information about people and human behavior, almost subconsciously. I never thought that I’d become another Joseph Wambaugh, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind stories and ideas started to gather like water seeping into dry soil.

That ride in law enforcement ended in 2005. I handed in my badge and moved my family to the Pacific Northwest, settling  in a little town far from the world I once lived and worked in.  This gave me a chance to return to one of my first loves—writing.

And so began the journey that led to these articles. I worked to become a published novelist like many other writers. As I struggled toward this goal, I thought if I was persistent enough, eventually I could make things happen. It worked for me as a journalist and a cop—why not as a novelist?

I attended writing conferences, read everything I could get my hands on about the craft, and began my first forays into social networking. Created a web site ( , currently down for construction) and started this blog “where mystery readers, writers and law enforcement connect.” Upon the advice and invitation of other writers, I became involved with several online writers forums and writing organizations like Mystery Writers of American and the International Thriller Writers. I began to make friends and contacts in the publishing world  as I continued to learn the craft. I never stopped reading fiction, but now I began to read with an eye toward how these successful writers worked their craft—molding sentences, paragraphs, and chapters into published and successful novels.

All the time I continued to write: Broken Allegiance, my first novel, followed by Shadows, and finally Revenge. Currently, I am working on my fourth novel, Off The Grid, expecting to be completed later this year. Now, I know some authors wrote many more novels and spent many more years in obscurity before they finally broke through publishing obstacle courses.  I read or spoke to other published authors who had given themselves a certain amount of time to be publishied before calling it quits. Five years seemed the common denominator. This seemed like a reasonable amount of time, so I gave myself a five-year goal.

James Scott Bell
After my first novel, Broken Allegiance, was soundly rejected (and looking back, I can see justification for these rejections), I put it on the shelf and began working on Shadows, using everything I learned from my first failure. I attended a writer’s clinic and met a fabulous author/teacher, James Scott Bell, who provided expert advice and encouragement to me as I struggled to get published. (Quick promo: Check out Jim’s books, Try Dying, Try Darkness, and Try Fear. Very entertaining novels for readers looking for LA noir legal thrillers). I met Jim while trying to get traction in the CBA market. Later I began to move toward the ABA market, following the path of Jim and other writers.

I finished Shadow, and began working on Revenge, still trying to find that open gateway into the publishing world. Everything remained locked up tight. Self-publishing still did not factor into my game plan. I thought that if I went that route—self-publishing—I would be caving in, admitting that I was just not good enough to snag the attention of an agent or a publisher. Like a true Marine, I could not accept defeat.

Other authors around me began to succumb to the allure of self-publishing as they faced repeated rejections from traditional publishers. Not me. I would never give in. I kept plodding along, believing that one day my dream would come true. Meanwhile, my five-year-goal loomed ahead while rejection slips for Revenge and the other novels kept piling up. Then I began to take note of what other authors, editors and publishers were blogging and writing about in the publishing world. I read a number of articles on changing trends, of the eBook revolution, of refined POD publishing opportunities, and of the economic struggles of brick-and-mortar book stores and publishers fighting to stay in the black. It seemed as soon as I made an acquaintance at a publishing house, that person vanished, never to be seen again. I saw a number of really good editors leaving publishing house—some leaving under duress, some voluntarily—to become free lance editors and writers. Agents seemed to be leaving literary agencies in droves. Writing contracts seemed to be drying up. Bad winds were blowing.

One day I sat back and began to take stock of my career and where it seemed to be headed in light of all these changes going on around me. I finally began to see these changes in a completely different light, as opportunities for writers like myself trying to get published. I began to see a glimmer of hope for writers. That hope made me realize I must cast my pride aside. I had come to a fork in the road and knew I must make a choice.
Join me next week as we begin Chapter Two: One Novelist’s Journey to Self-Publication. I want to share with you some of the good news that is happening out there in the writing world. I want to give other writers a sense of hope. Thanks for joining me. I appreciate the company. Feel free to leave comments along the way. And writers: Take heart and keep writing.


  1. Mark, I'm interested in this road you're taking. I realize that a great deal of what happens to a writer depends on being at the right--or wrong--place at the right--or wrong--time, and know I'm fortunate to have gotten my foot in the door when I did. I'll be following your own journey and wishing you the best at every step.

  2. Mark- I'm a little ahead of you on this same road. My book came out in December and reader response has been excellent. I published with Mindstir Media. You might check them out. I've enjoyed getting to know you through your blog and wish you all the best!

  3. Mark, thanks for the kind words. From the start I saw in you the talent and work ethic to make it as a writer. You just kept getting better. And this is absolutely the right move for you. I'll be pulling for you and watching your continuing journey.

  4. Richard: Thank you for your kind words. Congrats on your Amazon ranking.Now I can call you a "bestseller."

    Paula: Best wishes own your own journey. Thanks for your support. Coming articles will explain who I used to get my novel out there.

    Jim: Your support means the world to me. I have learned many things from you about writing and surviving. Your kind words touch my writer's heart. See you on the shelves.

  5. I'm following your journey, mark. I'm about to self-publish my own first crime novel, having got tired of waiting 3-4 months for agents who can't even find the time to tell you 'no'. I hope you have the kind of success you deserve, and look forward to seeing your books.

  6. Mike:I wish you well on your novel. I hope these article will be a source of encouragement to you and other writers. It is tough out there ... so let's hang together.

  7. Mark, thank you for this post. I have had a similar, tortuous road to self-pubbing and could appreciate every line. I am in the final polish with a professional editor and the cover design is ready and waiting. I will be looking forward to following the rest of your journey and reading your book.

  8. Eloise: Thanks for joining us. You must be very excited about your writing future. Let us know about your own journey sometime. Best wishes on your success.

  9. I totally agree - publishers have their own tastes and preferences and what they like isn't necessarily what everybody else wants to read. Eg in the library or bookstore I can start reading 'bestsellers' with umpteen testimonials and the characters are all wrong - they've come out of cookie cutters or they don't understand cultural issues/differences.
    I think with all your personal life experiences, you will write a great novel because you've gained insight. Cheers! and read my short stories sometime :)

  10. M.L.: Thanks for your observations. Your Ocean Blue Press web site looks great.I look forward to reading your short stories.Welcome to the journey.

  11. Mark - This is a brave post that will touch the hearts of many of us traveling this road with you. While my journey to self publishing was not as long as yours, I've shared so many of the same feelings of anger, pride, embarrassment, confusion...
    I’m convinced that self-publishing is the way to go for many of us. I’ll be taking the journey with you. Wishing you smooth travels!
    My Wonderfully Dysfunctional Blog

  12. Buffi: Your words are an encouragement other writers reading this post. Thanks for joining us. I wish you well on your own journey. Don't be a stranger.

  13. Enjoyed reading about you and your journey, Mark. I too have gone down the self-publishing route (paperback and e-book)and have no regrets. I tried for many years to find a traditional publisher willing to take a risk on a middle-aged unknown writier - to no avail. I had the book professionally edited twice and the cover professionally designed. Yes, it's cost me more than it's earned but it was never about the money.

    I'm in my mid-fifties, have survived cancer and therefore have much more of a 'seize the day' and 'follow your dreams' mentality than I had when younger.

    I look forward to your future posts and all the best with your writing.


  14. Thanks, Anne. Indie authors need to stick together. I just published REVENGE on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords last weekend. The ride is just starting. I hope to come out with Chpter 2 of these posts in the next few days. I hope it will encourage other writers. Thanks for sharing.