Since mid-June, I’ve been earnestly at work on the third Dakota Stevens mystery novel, but it wasn’t until last week that I felt the fetus that is the new book begin to kick.
I’ve heard mothers, some of them friends of mine, describe the thrill of feeling the gestating baby kick for the first time. Many of them have told me that as soon as that happens, the fact that they’re bringing another life into the world becomes very real for them.
The literary equivalent of a baby kicking in its mother’s womb is when a writer is in the middle of a second or subsequent draft of a work, and the writer is startled by something that comes out on the page. By startled I don’t mean that what comes out is necessarily shocking, but it’s surprising in some way. The characters do something unexpected. A scene the writer hadn’t imagined before suddenly unfolds in front of him. Or a line in the narration or in the dialogue knocks the writer on her heels and makes her say, “Damn…this is really becoming a book.”
Over the past two months, I’ve had several of these moments, but a few stand out as true surprises that made me laugh or smile inwardly in aesthetic pleasure.
Mind you, some of these lines might not affect you the way they have me, but that’s because I’m the one carrying this baby, not you. :)
Following are just a few of these moments from Dakota 3. (By the way, I had a title for the new novel but didn’t like it, so I’m working on a new one.) I hope you enjoy these little kicks as much as I have.
And don’t worry—there are a lot more where these came from.
From the New Dakota Stevens Mystery Novel by Chris Orcutt:
In all, since our last case a couple of months ago, Svetlana had managed to win four chess tournaments and write a second chess book. Meanwhile, I hadn’t even dropped off my dry-cleaning yet.
A pair of Italian men in their 20s who could have been models for Armani walked in wearing belted black leather coats and ribbed black turtlenecks. They had that fashionably unshaven look and enough styling product in their hair to be a fire hazard.
For a fat guy, he moved lightly and fast, and before I could react he got off a decent punch. It only grazed my ribs, but it still felt as if I’d been hit by an 80 mph fastball. In reply I thrust from my legs and put a hard convincer into his gut—a blow that would have buckled a smaller man and heaved him off the ground—but in this case my fist felt as though it was sucked into Swedish memory foam.
Sherilyn was that rarest of redheads—a wavy auburn red—and all it took was one toss, one quiver, of that hair to make me shove Reason into an oncoming bus.
From the moment my headlights swung into a rutted gravel parking lot and raked across a building with faded clapboard siding, I knew the kind of restaurant we were in for: the kind that serves dispirited coffee in brown, hourglass-shaped mugs and that spells plurals on the menu using apostrophes (e.g., “burger’s”). Regrettably, I was right on both counts.
A young woman sat at a barstool behind the desk. She had butter blonde hair pulled back in a smart updo, and the sheen of it was almost blinding. In contrast to the hair—as if she were deliberately “de-prettyifying” herself—she wore large black-framed glasses. I think the look was called “hipster,” and I didn’t care for it.
The two Asians sat bolt upright in separate double beds. They wore nothing but tighty-whities and were eating Kentucky Fried Chicken from buckets between their legs. Their hands froze with drumsticks on the way to their mouths, and they gaped at me as I held the gun on them.
I hope you enjoyed these baby kicks, these “previews” of the new novel. I plan to release the novel this Christmas, and it will be available for pre-order in late November. Please check back here for updates. Thank you for visiting.
This evening, I did my first-ever LIVE radio interview, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Host Pam Stack asked me some thought-provoking questions and gave me the opportunity to give detailed answers.
There was also a wonderful, unexpected call-in—my friend and colleague Hillary Leftwich, who praised my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, and asked me, “If you could have dinner with only one of the characters in the novel, which one would it be?” It took me a good minute to think of my answer. To hear it, you’ll have to listen to the podcast below. :)
I really enjoyed Pam’s conversational style; after the first 10 minutes, I relaxed and felt as if we were having a conversation in her living room.
Anyway, I think I did a good job on this, my first LIVE radio interview. I hope you enjoy it as well.
Well, as a corollary to that interview, Pam’s co-host, Lucie Dunn, does a written interview with authors appearing on Pam’s show and publishes them to her Authors in the Spotlight page on Facebook. I thought Lucie asked some terrific questions, so I wanted readers of this blog and the internet at large to have access to this interview.
Lucie’s questions are presented in the bolded text, and my answers appear below each question. I hope you enjoy it.
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of doing a written Q&A interview with a very articulate and intelligent man. His most recent novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, was released at the end of March, 2014. He has the first two novels in his acclaimed Dakota Stevens Mystery Series published and I am told he has enough ideas stored for quite a few more. He comes to us from New York but is a true New Englander having been born in Maine. I present to you Chris Orcutt!
OK, first question: Were you always a reader?
Absolutely. This is going to sound apocryphal, but I taught myself to read at age 3. The story is that I walked into the living room and started reading out loud from Time magazine. My parents were dumbfounded. So, yes, I’ve always been a reader, and I enjoy reading the very best writing. I’ve also read my fair share of junk over the years, but over time I learned that life is short and you can’t waste your time reading the junk when there are so many masterpieces to read.
Very true! How old were you when your first manuscript idea came to you?
Well, if by “manuscript” you mean stories, then I began writing them at about age 12 and would read them aloud to my friends on the school bus. I serialized the stories so every day, or every other day, there would be a new installment. I still remember some of the characters I created. One was a James Bond-esque spy, another was a detective.
Is this the detective that went on to become Dakota Stevens?
No, not at all. Dakota came much later. I got the first name of my detective, Dakota Stevens, when I learned that a girl I went to middle school with had named her boy Dakota. I filed that away. “Cool,” I said to myself. Then I wrote a humorous story with a PI named Dakota Perez—a story that mirrors the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Anyway, the first glimmers of what would become Dakota arrived on the scene in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I decided I wanted to start a PI series. I was laid up for weeks with a back injury and did nothing but read Chandler and Parker novels, and that’s when I said, “Hell, Chris—you can do this.”
And you did!!! Are you working on book three, assuming there will be a few more?
Yes, I’ve already written the first drafts of what I think will be books 3 and 4, and I’ve been taking notes for book 5. Honestly, I have more than enough ideas for a dozen Dakota titles. To me the ideas have always been easy; it’s the execution that’s hard. The writing and polishing of the work takes the most time. If I were content to simply publish my first drafts, I could have a dozen titles out in no time, but I’m not content with that. I want everything I write and publish to be the very best work I’m capable of.
That just means you take total pride in your craft. And there is nothing bad about that.
Writing is my life. It’s ALL I do.
You have a great resume though. A High School History teacher for instance. Are you a history buff?
I do enjoy U.S. history and am fairly knowledgeable on the Civil War and WWII—especially D-Day. I’ve been to Normandy, stood on Omaha Beach, and I’m in total awe of what those men did. I’ve walked the long walk up to Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg and been in awe of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. I enjoyed teaching history for a couple of years—the students I had were wonderful, talented, bright kids (and I stay in touch with some of them!)—but other opportunities came along and I pursued them.
Well as a reader, I’m glad you did.
Thanks! I especially enjoy going to historical sites, because I’ve always believed that there are certain things you can’t know about an event unless you’ve been there. For example, when I went to Omaha Beach, I got there at low tide, just when the U.S. soldiers landed, and let me tell you, it’s a LONG way from the water to any kind of shelter from the withering fire they endured.
It’s at least 300–400 yards. At least.
So tell me about reading The Great Gatsby. You have read that several dozen times. They say that you never really read the same book twice. After reading The Great Gatsby that many times were you able to walk away with a different perspective than you came away with the prior reads?
The Great Gatsby, in my opinion, is an absolute gem. I have a framed version of the book from this terrific little company Litographs, which prints the entire text of the novel (and many other novels) on a poster, in a nice pattern. It hangs in the hall outside my bathroom. Let’s put it this way: Every time I come out of the shower, I stop and point at a random place on the Gatsby print, and every time I see something new: some new metaphor, some delicious use of an adverb, some joining together of words that you’ve never seen before. Original.
When I was first publishing the Dakota books on Kindle, I weighed epublishing vs. traditional publishing, and the touchstone I used was Gatsby.
The question I asked myself was this: Are the words of The Great Gatsby any less poetic and utterly perfect presented in e-ink than they are in print? No. In fact, I submit that you could paint those words on a dark cave wall and they would still be as great. Great writing is great writing, regardless of the medium in which it’s published or who decided to publish it.
One point to add to that: Each time you reread a book (and we writers do a lot of re-reading), you see different things—and you especially begin to understand how the writer does what he does. I wrote a [loving] spoof of Gatsby titled “The Magnificent Murphy,” which I’m very proud of. It’s in my [short story] collection The Man, The Myth, The Legend.
How did you come up with the ten men and their professions for The Man, The Myth, The Legend? I particularly enjoyed the homicidal violinist.
What can I say? I didn’t come up with them. These characters just arrive on the doorstep of your brain and insist that you write about them. They start talking to you. You ask “What if this? What if that?” a lot.
The African big-game hunter, Buck Remington came from reading some armchair safari books. The road sign engineer came from speculating about what such a man (and woman) would be like. As for the homicidal violinist, that came out of a summer when I had been fantasizing a lot about finding a bully from my past and confronting him. Not killing him, obviously, but confronting him. Instead I saved that energy for the story. I had been listening to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” over and over all summer long, along with eating a watermelon a day and hacking into the watermelon with a big Henckel’s chef’s knife. It’s the “bits of string” idea that Nabokov talks about—these stories and novels come from the collecting of these little bits of string and fluff.
I loved Buck Remington’s name, being a hunter and having Remington as your last name is just so apropos for a hunter.
That was exactly why I gave him that name.
It was a great read and I am not generally one for short stories.
Thanks! One of the things I try to do in my short stories is to actually give the reader what I call a “distilled novel” experience. Finish the thing and feel like you’ve experienced a novel, but it didn’t take you days to read.
I like that, “distilled novel.” Tell me about your first two books, Nick Chase’s Great Escape and I Hope You Boys Know What You’re Doing. I am thinking I would definitely love to read the latter.
I wrote Nick Chase and I Hope You Boys back in my mid–late 20s, and they were the best I was capable of at the time. They’re well-written, humorous stories—Nick Chase is a comic novel; I Hope You Boys is a collection of mainly humorous stories—but not only has my writing advanced profoundly since then, I as a person have evolved and deepened. When you’re young, Life hasn’t beaten you down very much, but as you get older and have some bad things happen to you (and some good things), you gain perspective.
What I would say about those first two books is that I’m glad they’re out there in limited quantities (they’re no longer published) as a record of my early work, but if readers want to read fully matured work, read my latest four books.
I think the I Hope You Boys appealed to me because I am a Mom, and I could just picture saying that to my older son and his friends…MANY TIMES!
Let me tell you where that title came from…
My friend Carl and I were “landscaping” for a very old woman (her son hired us), and our idea of landscaping was this: When in doubt, cut it out. Every so often the old woman would come out on the porch and yell at us, “I HOPE YOU BOYS KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOIN’!”
Ok, last question. I think I know what one part of the answer will be, let’s see if I’m right. Every writer has a “toolbox.” You know, things that you must have or must do when you sit down to do some writing on your work in progress. What is in your toolbox?
For me, it’s a thorough knowledge of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and storytelling principles. Because you don’t want a lack of knowledge of these things to slow you down. And when you know them, when you know the rules, you know when you can break the rules.
Also in my toolbox is desire. Desire not merely to become a good writer. There are plenty of good writers. I want to become a great writer. My heroes are Chekhov, and Fitzgerald, and Cheever, and Hemingway, and Chandler, and Fleming, and Nabokov. The desire is a major tool because it gives me something to strive for. Sure, I’d love to be selling my books by the bushel, but it’s more important to me to write work that will last.
Oh, and COFFEE and REALLY GOOD PENCILS!
I would like to thank Chris Orcutt for his generosity and time! It was definitely a tremendous pleasure chatting with him! I invite you all to go and check out his website at www.orcutt.net and if you would like to pick up any of his awesome books you can find the links on his website. If you would like to pick up his latest novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, here is a direct link to the Kindle book: http://amzn.to/1fo9hdY, or if you prefer a paperback: http://goo.gl/RqQkxy.
Besides my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, we’ll be discussing my other fiction, the craft of writing, and anything else she decides to ask me. (I’m sure there will be surprises.)
Some of you might recall that I did my first radio interview back in December of 2013 with “Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem” host Stephen Campbell. That interview was recorded and edited, however, and my thanks go out to Stephen for making me sound as good as I did.
Although Pam is a surpassingly pleasant person, because of the “LIVE” aspect of our interview, I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about it.
Pam Stack is a voracious reader, a compelling interviewer, and an indefatigable promoter of writers. I’m truly honored to be on her program, which has featured a wide variety of prestigious and bestselling authors in all genres—from mysteries and thrillers, to romance, to literary fiction, to select nonfiction titles.
If you’re available on April 30 at 8:00 p.m., go to the link at the top and listen in. There’s a call-in number on the show webpage, and I’d be delighted if you called in with your questions about my work. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.
Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.
Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.
I haven’t heard the completed, edited version yet, so you can bet I’m going to tune in to hear how I did.
If you’re interested in hearing about the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, my fiction, and writing in general, tune in today (Thursday, Dec. 19) at 6:30 pm (Eastern time) to the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell.
I hope you’ll tune in, or if you can’t hear it live, that you’ll check it out afterwards, when it becomes available for streaming. Thank you.
Thanks to the thousands of readers of my Dakota Stevens mysteries, in the past 18 months I’ve been able to fulfill two lifelong dreams.
The first was going to Paris, spending two solid weeks exploring every inch of that gorgeous city, and walking in the footsteps of my literary idols—including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Flaubert and Maupassant. (You can read about that trip here.)
The second, which I fulfilled only two months ago, was driving through all of England and Scotland, seeing the castles of my ancestors in the Scottish Highlands, and visiting the iconic locations associated with my favorite works of English literature: the Chatsworth estate (the basis for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and 221B Baker Street in London.
This last location, of course, is the residence of the most famous detective ever—Sherlock Holmes. A detective so famous that some people don’t realize that he and his partner, Dr. John Watson, were entirely fictional—the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor himself.
From the time I was 10 years old, well into my late teens, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I read all 56 short stories and four novels multiple times. I collected Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias and books about Victorian London. I read biographies of Doyle. I read textbooks about criminalistics and forensic science (this was many years before the CSI TV shows). And I went to college to study forensic science, with the original intent of graduating and working at the FBI crime lab.
My plan to get a degree in forensics and work for the FBI lasted two semesters. Through one of my courses—Criminalistics and Crime Scene Investigation—I met a forensic scientist from the state crime laboratory and shadowed him. I visited his lab, interned for a few hours a week, and accompanied him when he testified in court. Doing these things, I began to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the largely tedious work involved in forensic testing, nor would I enjoy being grilled on the witness stand by needling lawyers second-guessing every test I performed.
By then I knew that I didn’t want to become a forensic scientist, and I had decided that the sciences were boring; ultimately the answers (or at least some of them) were in the back of the book. Besides, I had discovered that I was more interested in questions than answers, and I enjoyed literature and storytelling too much to give it up for what I perceived would be a humdrum life of science. So I changed my major to philosophy, expanded my reading of the classics, and began doing seriously something that I had done since I was 11 years old—writing stories.
But it all went back to Sherlock Holmes. Even though I didn’t write a mystery of my own for many years, the richness of the Holmes character, and the verisimilitude of his world (as described by Watson) had made a deep impression on me. I knew that whatever the subject or genre, my goal was to write stories as entertaining and compelling as Doyle’s, with characters that were equally strong and larger-than-life.
As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was creating the Dakota Stevens series, Sherlock Holmes and Watson couldn’t help but be literary touchstones for me. I wanted a Holmes–Watson dynamic, but I wanted such a duo to reflect modern sensibilities, and I knew that I wanted the counterpoint, the yin and yang, of having my “Watson” be a woman. And so I asked myself, “What would the dynamic of a modern Holmes and Watson—a man and woman detective team—look like?”
And that’s where Dakota Stevens and his “Watson”—the brilliant and beautiful Svetlana Krüsh—came from.
I didn’t get a chance to visit 221B Baker Street until the morning of my last day in the UK. Alexas and I had specifically chosen our hotel because it was in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, relatively close to Holmes’s address, and when we exited the hotel early that Sunday morning, we were unsure whether to try and walk there, or take the Underground.
We were fumbling with the map when I glanced down the sidewalk and saw a cabbie buffing his freshly-washed black cab. One of my other, smaller, dreams was to ride in a London black cab, and so I got the idea of fulfilling two dreams at once. I would take a London black cab to 221B Baker Street.
I asked the cabbie if he was taking passengers yet (it was barely seven-thirty), and when he replied, “Absolutely,” Alexas and I climbed eagerly in.
“To 221B Baker Street, my good man,” I said. “And hurry!”
Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there was considerable traffic on the streets, and it took a good fifteen minutes to reach 221B. During the ride, the cabbie asked me why I wanted to go there, and I gave him an abridged version of everything you’ve read so far. I also told him some of the history of Sherlock Holmes, and how Doyle had based the character in part on a medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. I mentioned that I was a mystery novelist from the States (“Not famous—yet,” I added), and the cabbie said he would buy my books on Kindle (Dakota Stevens #1 & #2). Finally he dropped us off, and I gave him an extravagant tip. I wanted him to remember me as generous so he’d be more likely to buy my books and tell others about them.
With the exception of a few construction workers gathering in front of a building a few doors down, Baker Street was empty and quiet. A single door, marked 221B, sat next to a closed Sherlock Holmes collectibles store. I knew from my reading ahead of time that Holmes and Watson’s apartment on the second floor was decorated and staged as though they still lived there and had just stepped out. I also knew that admission to the apartment was ridiculously expensive, and was sure to be a disappointment—what with having to share the experience with a mob of people who were merely going there so they could check one more item off of a “bucket list.” It was unlikely that the true Holmes lovers, the serious aficionados, would be part of any tour group. They’d all know it was a Barnum sideshow.
Besides, the building, with a Victorian façade on it, didn’t fit with the other buildings on the street. Not only were the other buildings of more modern architecture, the building numbers were out of sync. It was clear that 221B used to be farther down the street, but that building had been torn down and rebuilt, so they created a new 221B Baker Street (in Victorian style) and wedged it in a few doors down.
But it wasn’t about the actual, physical address anyway. It’s not as though Holmes and Watson had really lived, and I was seeing the exact building and apartment where they’d resided. No, it was about the idea of 221B Baker Street. It was about what 221B represented.
As I stared up at the windows, the stories came flooding back to me: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (a great TV version here). “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” “The Final Problem.” “The Musgrave Ritual.” “A Scandal in Bohemia.” A Study in Scarlet.The Hound of the Baskervilles.
It was about all of the pleasure these stories had given me since I was a boy, and how Sherlock Holmes had been a constant companion to me through my difficult and awkward teenage years. It was about how these stories had launched me in a certain direction in life, and how they had inspired me to write the best detective novels I possibly could.
Alexas took some photos of me standing proudly in front of 221B Baker Street, and then we took a few of a young Japanese woman who knew that 221B was famous for something, but famous for what, she had no idea.
So often in life, the moment of actually realizing a goal, fulfilling a dream, is a letdown compared to how we imagine it will be. But not this time. Not for me. Seeing 221B Baker Street—the home of my childhood hero—affected me much more deeply than I thought it would. As I stared at it for the last time, I realized then how much I had dreamed of being there, how important the place was to me. And I told Alexas so, and began to cry.
This is just a quick entry to let readers know that my books—The Man, The Myth, The Legend; The Rich Are Different; and A Real Piece of Work—are back on the Amazon Kindle platform exclusively.
For Amazon Prime members, this means that you can “borrow” any of my books for free. (And I get paid for the borrow!)
I offered my books on the Nook platform for a couple of months, but in all that time I had only a handful of sales. Moreover, Barnes & Noble, as far as I can see, does nothing to promote books by indie authors. People can say what they will about Amazon, but the company has done very well by me.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know that I began writing the third installment in the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series last Monday, and that I’ve written about 18,000 words so far.
What you don’t know, because I haven’t spoken about it at all, is what a bitch this first draft has been.
The tension of not knowing exactly where the story is going is killing me.
It’s been a while, you see, since I had to write a Dakota novel from scratch. The last time I sat down and started a first draft was seven years ago.
Obviously, I’ve written first drafts of other work since then—stories, essays and speeches mostly—but nothing compares to the intricacy of a novel.
Which is why I’ve recently taken great solace in two quotes on writing by two masters: E.L. Doctorow and Bernard Malamud.
Doctorow compared writing—particularly writing a novel—to driving at night through fog. “You can only see as far as your headlights,” he said, “but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Whenever I’ve found myself getting frustrated with not being able to see the story more than a chapter or so ahead, I’ve thought of Doctorow’s quote: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The second quote, by Bernard Malamud, was directed to writers in general: “Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.”
This is especially apropos to the writing of a first draft—the very definition of uncertainty.
Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty is imperative for a writer. Uncertainty about where the story is going. Uncertainty about how it will be received. Uncertainty about finances. Uncertainty of all kinds.
These two ideas—uncertainty, and seeing as far as your headlights—are getting me through the first draft, and they’ll get you through, too.
IndieReader, the popular and informative web-zine about self-published books, reviewed A Real Piece of Work back in February and gave the novel 5 stars.
So when I published The Rich Are Different over the summer, I submitted the novel to them for a possible review. They were swamped at the time, but I followed up with them last week, and today, less than a week later, they published a review of the second book.
The reviewer of both books, Maya Fleischmann, creates some nice turns of phrase in her reviews. She writes, “Action, lust, danger, style and witty repartee, Orcutt’s A Real Piece of Work is a work of art.” And of The Rich Are Different she writes, “Dakota Stevens is thoroughly likeable and appealing with his rich mix of chivalry and clever mischief.” There are several other examples, but I’ll let you read them for yourself.
Besides promoting the reviews, there is no larger point of this blog entry, except perhaps to acknowledge that like all writers, I want my work to be liked and accepted. Certainly reviews from regular readers mean just as much to me as IndieReader’s, but there is something especially nice about having a professional stamp of approval. They even sent me a “sticker,” shown here.
Thank you for putting up with this rambling, gloating entry. Sometimes, though, you have to stop and savor the small successes, and this is one of them.
While writing the first two books in the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series—A Real Piece of Work and The Rich Are Different—I kept notebooks of other plot ideas, titles, scenes, characters and anything else that occurred to me for future installments.
As a result of these notebooks, I had begun two more Dakota novels and created outlines for 3–4 others.
However, when I opened these notebooks recently with the intent of continuing one of the stories I’d started, I didn’t like what I found.
I’d written this material (including the first hundred pages of a Dakota & Svetlana prequel) between 5 and 7 years ago, and I’d matured as a writer since then.
I no longer liked the direction I’d sketched out for the character and the series.
A realization soon followed that made me sick to my stomach:
I needed to dump all of that work and start over.
When you’ve created a series character, starting from scratch is a scary thought. For the first time since I invented Dakota & Svetlana, I won’t have drafts of work to build on. I’ll be facing a blank Page One and all of the paralyzing dread that accompanies it.
But I’m doing it. I’m starting from scratch, mainly because a novel is a hell of a lot of work, and you have to start with a story, a vision, that you really want to tell. It’s the only thing that carries you through.
Ultimately, the task before me now is to figure out what excites me about Dakota & Svetlana, and to ask myself, “What is the Dakota story I would most like to read?”
I know that’s the question I need to be asking because it’s the same one I asked myself before writing the first two novels, and I’m pleased with the results.
Allegedly, J.R.R. Tolkien was partly inspired to write his Lord of the Rings series for this very reason. He thought about the books that he would most like to read, realized they didn’t exist yet, and set out to write them.
He wrote the books he most wanted to read. This is a great lesson for all of us writers.
Over the coming months, I’ll be writing the first draft of Dakota 3. I have no idea what kind of story it will be or where it will take me; all I know is, I want it to be a fresh take on my vision for the series, and I want it to be as well written as I can possibly make it. We’ll see if I can pull it off.
Although I have some web design experience and am relatively comfortable with HTML and XML, and although the final product turned out great, it took me a solid month of 16-hour days to get the ebook formatting correct.
That’s a month that I wasn’t writing, wasn’t doing anything creative.
I drove myself to exhaustion and lost all of that time. Time I could have used to hone my craft. Time during which I could have written at least 30,000 words.
That’s a third of a novel.
Fortunately I didn’t try to design the book cover myself. Working from a sketch of mine, a graphic designer friend, Elisabeth Pinio, designed a beautiful cover, saving me countless hours and headaches. (Contact me to get in touch with her.)
Fast forward to June of this year, when I was publishing the second novel in the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, The Rich Are Different. Just thinking about all of the work involved made me anxious and irritable.
I did a test-run of formatting the book by myself, but I couldn’t get it to come out right. The software tools had changed, and I had forgotten a number of steps in the process. Meanwhile, I had promised my readers that I would release the book at the end of the month.
Yet, despite all of this, I was reluctant to hand over this crucial part of the process to someone else.
Bottom line: I didn’t trust. I didn’t trust somebody else to handle this task for me. I didn’t trust that somebody else would do as good a job, or that my project would mean as much to them as it did to me.
One night I was up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep with all of the worries I was carrying around, and I found myself going to Google and searching for ebook formatting and converting companies. There were several—too many, in fact—but they all looked too slick, too impersonal. I wanted to work with a person, someone who would allay my fears, address all of my concerns.
And then I happened upon Ebookconverting.com, run by a woman named Lisa Despain. She offered a lot of free information on her blog, and she had a friendly video about the process. My instincts told me that she was the right one for me.
I decided to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. I contacted her.
Besides communicating via email, she took the time to speak to me on the phone for a good forty minutes. She answered all of my questions, addressed all of my concerns. As for the result, well…it was excellent, and I’ll let you read my testimonial to learn more.
Now, Lisa and Elisabeth are terrific professionals in their fields, and while I highly recommend both of them, you might have other people in mind. That’s fine. Because this piece isn’t about specific vendors; it’s about trusting other people to be a part of publishing your ebook.
Consider the opportunity costs of doing everything yourself. Time spent on formatting and converting your book into ePub and Mobi files is writing time lost. Also, how much is your time worth? Because it’s going to take a lot of time—especially if you’re a newbie.
You’re the writer. Make your focus the writing—producing as great a book as you possibly can. That’s a hard enough job.
To that end, I strongly recommend hiring an editor and/or proofreader for your book. The number one complaint by readers about many indie-published ebooks is that they’re poorly written. If you’re a writer asking people to pay for your work with their time and money, you can’t be dismissive about this.
You want your work to be as well-written and as error-free as possible. Not only because you want every reader to have a great experience, but also because you know that the quality of your work determines your long-term reputation as a writer.
Do you want a reputation for readable and well-written, or convoluted and sloppy? As the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade remarks, “Choose wisely.”
In his book The War of Art, an inspiring look at what it takes to be an artist (especially a writer), Steven Pressfield argues that a pro asks for help and recognizes his or her limitations. Pros hire other pros to handle aspects of their work so they can be freed up to focus on what they do best: the writing.
As writers, by nature we’re independent creatures. Most of us are suspicious of “communities,” which is understandable. But if you want your writing to thrive as an indie-published author, it’s imperative that you interact with other writers and people involved in indie publishing. Reach out to them for help, and be willing to help others who come to you. Promote their books or services to the extent that you feel comfortable.
Finally, help bolster the reputation of indie-published books by turning out a quality product. Hire others or barter services in order to do that.
In other words, when it comes to publishing your ebook, don’t go it alone.