Sunday, July 13, 2014

Quitting the Day Job: My Journey as an Indie Author

From TV news director to author to blogger and now on to something entirely new:  It's been more than a year since I set out to reinvent myself, and boy has my life changed.  Here's what I've done, what I've learned, and where I'm going next. 

It was a little more than a year ago that I did what they tell you not to do:  I “quit the day job”—which in my case meant leaving a pretty good gig running a TV newsroom—in order to pursue a lifelong dream of writing fiction.  The decision seemed precipitous and a little unwise to some, I'm sure.  But I didn't do it rashly or on a whim; the move was planned.  I had decided long ago, in consultation with my spouse, that when the time was right, and when we had a sufficient financial cushion in place, I would do this at least for a while.

Of course, when it comes to financial resources, enough is never enough.  I might have been tempted to wait and pad the nest egg further if not for a couple of developments that convinced me the hour was getting late.  For one, I began to have premonitions that my health was about to take a turn for the worse.  (Premonitions have served me well in the past.  I’ll be blogging much more about those).  Second, I was becoming increasingly aware that all too many of those who toil away in TV newsrooms never make it to the finish line.  It seemed that not a week went by without me reading about someone in the business, roughly my age, dying too soon.  

The industry is particularly hard on its news directors.  Three of them who died in recent years well short of retirement age were friends or close acquaintances of mine—and believe me, statistically speaking, the number of TV news directors with whom I've worked personally constitutes a very small sample.  I have two journalist friends who’ve had to be carried out of their newsrooms on a gurney because of on-the-job stress—thankfully, both lived.  In February of last year an Alabama news director collapsed at work, and he did not live.  I didn't know him personally, but he was just one year older than me—and keeling over in a TV newsroom office chair was my nightmare scenario, one that had been playing out in my mind with increasing frequency (usually featuring an imagined face-plant into my office keyboard, after which my monitor types out endless rows of Z's while my spirit joins the Choir Eternal).  Then less than a month later I learned that a friend of mine, a former TV anchor with whom I had just been corresponding and who owed me an email, had died in his sleep without warning.  He was 5 years younger than me.

That did it.  The lesson was clear:  a dream delayed could become a dream denied.  With the full support of my wonderful wife (who has her own day job with a great public service organization) by mid April of 2013 I had closed the door, at least for the time being, on a 33-year career in TV news.  In May, I sat down to write my novel Messages

The book was roughly 25 years plus five months in the making.  I began the project in the late 80's.  But then I made the mistake of moving from newscast producing into mid-level newsroom management.  I began finding it more and more difficult to cobble together enough consecutive hours on the side to get a decent train of thought going, and the progress of my writing slowed considerably.  And then I became a news director, at which point I had to forget about spending time on anything else, forcing me to shelve the project entirely.  When I took the book down again and dusted it off last year, I found a massive re-write looming ahead of me.  The final draft that emerged after 5 months of continuous, more-than-full-time research, writing and editing was very different.  But I was thrilled with it.   

I didn't even try to seek an agent or publisher at that time, for two reasons.  First, I knew that it could take years to land a contract with a traditional publishing house, if such a thing were even possible at all for an unknown like me.  And I was not convinced that I had years of time left at my disposal in which to try.  I certainly wasn't guaranteed to get them.  Second, having been inspired by many real-life newsroom incidents, Messages was very personal to me.  I had some things I wanted to say, and I did not want to wrestle with a book editor—who I'm sure would want to make cuts, adjust the flavor, change things around, etc.—for permission to say them.  So I decided to proceed immediately on my own, publishing Messages on for the Kindle.  I've since learned that similar thinking motivates many other independent writers.  And there's a rising tide of non-indie authors who decide to leave their traditional publishers and go rogue.

Having put the novel out there, I then faced a new challenge I wasn't sure how to tackle:  finding an audience.  Based on what I've read, even with traditional publishers, first-time authors sometimes have to do a great deal of marketing on their own.  Independent authors always have to do all of it by themselves.  And I didn't know a thing about how to market my book.

Fortunately, the indie publishing movement is growing all the time, is becoming increasingly respected, and has spawned a vast support network.  I tied into it, reading a copious number of how-to articles, contacting bloggers and newsletter publishers, joining writer and fan forums, corresponding with fellow indies, creating a Facebook author page, establishing my own website, creating an account on Goodreads, joining Google Plus, hitting Twitter hard, and many other things.  Fellow authors were kind enough to show me the ropes (people, when they are at their best, are so incredibly wonderful).  I began moving books and getting reviews.  The locomotive was nowhere near having a full head of steam, but at least the train had left the station. 

After a few weeks of stoking the marketing engine, I turned to my next project, a science fiction idea that had been banging around in my head for more years than I'd care to admit.  By autumn I was ready to go with A Journal of the Crazy Year.  Yes, forgive me, it is a zombie apocalypse novel.  But I found a way to inject some new ideas into a shopworn genre.  Among other things, the disease at the heart of the novel really could happen (honest—if you allow me the leeway of suggesting that a forgotten real-life pandemic that has struck twice before in human history could come back again in a much more virulent form).  The novel contains an intensely researched role-reversal concept related to mental health that has not, to my knowledge, been done before.  And I think the ending will take readers by surprise; it certainly had that effect on some of my reviewers.  I published the novel on Kindle, shoveled more coal into the marketing boiler's firebox, and then hit the keyboard to start my next project, novel #3.

Both books have drawn good reviews from critics.  One praised Messages as a "masterful exposé of TV news."  The widely respected Kirkus Reviews called it an "accomplished debut novel" written with "smooth skill" and filled with "considerable comic energy."  In describing A Journal of the Crazy Year, the sci-fi fan site used the word "impressive,” called it a “thrilling narrative,” and compared it favorably to World War Z and Stephen King's Cell.  Reader reviews for both novels also have been very good overall.  All of that served as a tonic for my spirits and confidence.

In December I published Messages in print via CreateSpace—and then, very suddenly, events proved my health forebodings valid.  I was diagnosed with, among other things, kidney cancer.  My writing and marketing stopped cold while my wife and I dealt with that.  There was an eight week period during which I did not know whether the length of time I had left on this planet would be measured in weeks, months, or years.  I underwent some painful procedures culminating in the removal of my left kidney.  One very long, anxious week after that final operation, a biopsy of surrounding tissues finally came back, and it was clean.  It appears the cancer has not spread.  So, although no one is ever completely out of the woods with this sort of thing, I won't die of cancer today.  Of course, I'll have to be monitored from now on, and I still have to watch out for city buses, lightning, and whatnot, just like anyone else.

Once I recovered from surgery, I spent a few weeks doubling down on the marketing efforts.  I’m proud to say that in its last Kindle Countdown promotion, Messages cracked the Top 100 on Amazon in three of its categories (including humor, general humor, and crime fiction).  More tonic for the spirit!  

That done, I took another step they tell authors to do—I started a blog (this one).  I had been reluctant to do it, because it takes time away from my novel writing.  But I found that I really enjoy it.  I tackle a wide range of topics, but the thrust of it is satire and politics.  My recent illness has provided plenty of fodder for that.  After my insurance was canceled out from underneath me in the middle of a health crisis, I was forced to embark on a four-month long struggle to find new insurance that would allow me to keep my doctors.  It’s given me plenty to write about, and you can find those snark-filled entries on my blog, labeled “Adventures in the Toilet Zone.”  All in all, writing the blog has been a blast and has made some new friends for me.  (And enemies too.  Hint to those who may be tempted to do what I’m doing:  say negative things about Obamacare strictly at your own risk!)

I was ready to resume work on my third novel when a new opportunity arose.   As I announced earlier this week, I’ll be joining Tucson’s PowerTalk 1210.   See how one step can sometimes lead to another?  I start Monday, July 14, holding down the 10:00 AM to Noon shift (which this time of year corresponds to 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM Eastern).  Now I’ll be bloviating on two platforms—radio and the web!  How cool is that?  

This will still leave me time to write.  I’m putting the finishing touches now on the print version of A Journal of the Crazy Year, which will include a new and hopefully more exciting cover.  I’ll be announcing that publication soon.  Then I’ll resume my third novel project.  I'm excited about it.  It'll be a sci-fi horror novel set in very deep space—think Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke meeting Stephen King.  While on a unique space voyage—of a kind you've never before seen written about in a novel, portrayed in a movie, or showcased on television—a group of astronauts, scientists and observers will encounter some of the worst and most personal horrors imaginable.  In the course of dealing with that, some will find God in a way they didn't expect.  If any of them survive the ordeal (I hope some will, but my characters haven't finished the story yet so I'm not sure of the outcome) they will come back permanently changed; for them, the ultimate terror will have become a faith-affirming experience.  I used to write teases for a living, so I hope that one piques your interest.  I expect to finish within about three months, but I haven't decided whether I'll publish right away on my own again, or spend some time shopping it around.

You may be wondering what I meant by "my characters finishing the story."  One thing I've learned from my social media networking is that many authors (I'm one of them) don't write so much as they take dictation.  It's the only way we can cope with the voices in our heads.  If you think that sounds crazy, I won't argue with you.  I don't really believe my characters are alive.  But they certainly do.  And they proceed accordingly.

Coping with vocal, sometimes unruly characters is not the only reason to write.  We do it because that's what writers do.  We didn't ask to be born this way.  Oh, sure, in deciding how to cope with our natures, personal choice certainly is involved.  And yes, most of us hope to become famous at it.  When we're starting out none of us can say whether fame, glory and riches lie ahead.  But those are not the prime motivators.  We practice the art, as Kurt Vonnegut once urged, to grow our souls.  Anything else that comes from it is gravy.

That said, who's not in the market for a little gravy?  Support Your Local Author!  If, having read an appealing description, you buy a book and like it, the absolute greatest kindness you can bestow is to go to the listing page where you bought it (Goodreads also helps) and give that author a good review.  Not only are sales dependent on positive reader reviews, but the overall review score can determine what kind of advertising we authors can access (some Kindle newsletters are very selective about what books they list).  Your review could spell the difference between an author you like having the opportunity to write for you again.  Or not.

At this juncture, more than a year into it, I can't say whether my writing ever will be a huge hit.  Thanks to my reviews, I'm encouraged, and I now know I can write.  But I also know there's a big difference between being able to play the guitar competently and becoming a rock star.  I am selling books—not enough to pay the rent, but it would be sufficient to keep me in hamburgers were I not plowing every penny and then some back into marketing.  But that is my investment in myself, as is the time I am spending on these projects.  

And I'm having a ball doing it.  This is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life.  And if I were to kick off today from an encounter with that aforementioned city bus, or lightning, or whatever else, my wife could, with a perfectly straight face, write an obit describing me as a respected former journalist, father figure to two mischievous housecats, co-author of a journalism textbook, and author of two novels.  The latter couldn't have been said one year ago.  I'll take it.


Those living outside Tucson who'd like to sample my radio program, which will feature a mix of politics, commentary, analysis, satire and good old fashioned silly-*ss comedy can find our stream on the Internet here.)  

I also invite you to check out my author web site, which  you can find at this link.  There you can find out more about my novels and download free sample chapters.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment