Friday, July 26, 2019

The story of Gray

This is the tale of how Gray was written, and when, and how it came to be in your hands.

I had ceased teaching university in 2004 partly because teaching writing was messing up my ability to write. Or, let's back up 10 years before that: after a moderately successful decade in publishing stories, poetry, and slick magazine articles, teaching had slowed me down for the following decade. But I missed writing, so very much. Teaching was also becoming boring after a decade of it (most jobs get boring after 2 years, so this was actually a win!), and it was always far too much work (I often only worked ¾ time, yet I worked 60-hour weeks and made far too little money and often had no health insurance), so I said "My house is paid off. I have some money saved. Let's go back to writing, Lou, which is still the only real passion that's lasted you a lifetime."

I wrote three books in my first year off. A pen name book (no longer for sale) was one of them. A non-fiction book (which I never published or marketed) was one. And Gray was one. I'd been reading about the topic of the type of disaster itself, as reading NF science is one of my hobbies. I'd always thought that disaster novels and movies had gotten something wrong. Often, in real life, disasters come without warning, and if there is no more electricity, no more communications, the people suffering in the midst of it don't have the slightest idea what was going on. Before the year 1900, no human would have ever known about the when of an impending disaster or the how or why of it!  (Read the terrific books Isaac's Storm or Krakatoa to get an idea of how disasters played out before 1900.) I wanted to write about that—a limited viewpoint of one person, a confused person who didn't know anything about the disaster, and whose struggle for survival was so demanding that she could seldom spare a thought to wonder over it.

Gray was a single long book, complete by the end of 2005. I tried to get a agents interested in it and in the pen name book, but I got no nibbles at all on either. The few who bothered writing back said of Gray, in their professional wisdom (cough, cough), "No one reads post-apocalyptic books any more."

I was mightily confused at that comment, for I certainly still loved the genre, but I moved on in my writing. I outlined a book I still like the idea of, a mainstream novel about a woman whose husband died young, who with her insurance payout decides to foster troubled teen girls on a small farm/homestead she had always wanted (or at least thought she wanted). It's funny at points as things go wrong, and poignant at points. I did write a lot of it, but then I thought, "They won't want this one either," and let it sit unfinished. (I think I still have it somewhere, but I couldn't swear to that.)

After my three and a half books were written, I didn't go back to work teaching. I liked being away from it too much. I found a way to live on the cheap (and I do mean cheap—it cost me $4000 US/year to survive, and that was without food stamps or any other assistance) by selling my house, and while I wrote some short stories and poems for the next seven years, and even some outlines for novels, I burned it all in campfires. Wasn't worth the trouble of marketing it, I figured. Agents didn't find my work appealing, and agents were the barrier to my communicating with publishers. And short work simply doesn't pay much, so you may as well burn it in the campfire as send it out into the world. Financially, you'll come out ahead by using your lighter.

Then I settled down to a life you'd call more "normal." More settled, certainly. More electricity to run the computer, and daily internet access after years without. So I started writing novels again, first a draft of my family history novel, and then my disaster novels. Again, I ran into the agent brick wall with all that. I was beyond frustrated. I had great publishing credentials. I'd had stories in top fiction magazines. I had writing awards, so I knew I couldn't totally suck as a writer in everyone's opinion. Good magazines had written me once upon a time, asking if I had any stories for them, so I was sure I wasn't deluded about my skill as a teller of fictional tales. I'm still not sure why agents didn't like my stuff. (Had you still been able to approach publishers directly, as you could when I was young, I suspect I would have sold my books, but those days were long gone by 2012).

But by this time, I didn't have to burn my work and give up writing again, or give it up for good. Now there was the Kindle, and my dear friend Shelley said, "You can do this. Self publishing can work." There was Howey and Konrath and Hocking and others proving it would work danged well, in fact. Still, I hesitated (in retrospect, too long!) But I took the plunge with my old pen name book and with the disaster novels, planning to follow up with whichever genre of book sold best. And very quickly, total strangers around the world started buying my disaster ebooks. So cool! I wanted to hug every one of them. :D I even got a few pieces of fan mail! Lifelong writing dreams were finally coming true, and nobody was in my way. I was my own publisher, reaching readers directly, and learning how to run a business.

People in the know said, "Good start, but you need a series now." I didn't have a series idea, but I'd been re-reading Gray with thoughts of publishing it next, and I thought, "I have a lot more to say about these characters." So I took the long novel—which was somewhat different, and ended soon after Coral finding Benjamin and them deciding to leave his house when something bad happened there—and I rewrote what I had and then continued the tale, making sure each book had a climax and came to a resting place that completed a section in a satisfying way. One of the books of the series gave me a bit of trouble and took seven months to complete, but I worked at it to get it just how I wanted it. 

And the series found its readers. Fans wrote me daily. I got offers for traditional publication of it and for audio publication. It was great—and overwhelming some days, for my email inbox was stuffed full every morning, needed to be combed through, the offers needing to be vetted, and at times I despaired of carving out more time to write!

Gray continues to be my most popular work. Podium Publishing picked it up as audio book, with a professional approach to me when I'd gotten past those overly busy days. They did a great job with it, and I was given a wonderful narrator, Lauren Fortgang. I've moved on from Gray, to other books and series, but it continues to excite and move readers all around the world, and I'm still as grateful as I was in 2015 to every single one of you who bought, read and enjoyed it.

And while Amazon has its problems sometimes managing its self-publishing platform, I'm also grateful to them, for had they not taken the risk of developing the e-reader, losing money hand over fist on it initially, and had they not opened up publishing in ways that didn't demand that writers schmooze agents to get through to publishers (who all live in the same place and all look and think alike, which is not necessarily how most readers think), you'd have never read Gray. I'd have never been a full-time writer. We wouldn't have countless numbers of wonderful novels by other people were it not for Amazon leading the way with the Kindle and letting novelists be their own publishers, be their own agents, and free themselves of the NYC system that wasn't working for most writers or many readers.

Mostly, though, the gratitude I have—and which I never forget, not for a day—is aimed at my readers. Without you, I'm still a frustrated person living well below the poverty line and burning my stories in campfires.  So thank you for reading.

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