ATTN, ISBN, and Other Abbreviations — Thoughts on an Author’s Road to Self-Publication

Earlier this year I set my sights on June for the release of my debut novel Leaving Sadie. That, it turns out, was a tad ambitious.

From last-minute rewrites and cover alterations, to figuring out where to publish and getting an ISBN (a barcode) – there’s a lot more to self-publishing than I had initially thought. And, apart from all these boxes that need to be ticked before publication, I’m learning that most of the hard work comes after the novel is launched.

Self-promotion nightmares

Anyone who knows me personally knows that a) I’m quite modest, b) I can’t dance, and c) the idea of self-promotion makes me shudder and wake up screaming in the middle of the night covered in sweat and clenching the bed sheets. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but other than writing “ATTN Readers” on my book or website, I’m not crazy about discussing myself or my work.

But self-promotion is an unavoidable necessity in the age of the internet (that’s why I’m keeping this blog). People do it on a daily basis with the likes of Facebook and Instagram, and they may not be pushing a novel, releasing an album, or even selling a product. For some – as you definitely know – they are the product. Many of these types are known as influencers – but I won’t get into that.

I read a comment from an aspiring writer on how Dickens would handle social media – they suggested that he would be all over it; he’d be a self-promoting machine. I do wonder how some of the greats would get on today, when the entire nature of the publishing industry has changed with the advent of eBooks, Kindles and the beast that is Amazon. Or is it more of same-same, but different? Bret Easton Ellis and others have in the past talked about grueling book tours – so yes, self-promotion has always been a part of the deal. However, in the age of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads, and Tumblr (to name a few), aspiring authors are now expected to have a presence on each platform. For some readers, they care as much about the life of the writer as they do the writer’s work. And again, maybe that’s a case of same-same, but different: before the prevalence of social media, public appearances during those book tours gave fans a chance to get to know the name behind the novel; it offered them a glimpse into the life of the person who’s words wooed and wowed readers.

Jonathan Franzen despises social media

In a piece I wrote for writing.ie a couple of years back, I described myself as someone who had a Franzen-esque aversion to social media. For those of you who don’t know who Jonathan Franzen is, he’s an American novelist who has written five novels, three of them being well-known and widely celebrated (and hotly debated) — The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity.

Mr. Franzen is someone who has been severe in his criticisms of social media, to say the least, and has thus been ridiculed across the web for his failure to embrace the likes of Twitter (his true bête noire), and see the positives in social media, not just the clear – and sometimes not so clear – negatives. One could argue that Franzen – who has produced exquisitely written and enjoyable articles on climate change – could use his status to help promote the causes about which he cares so deeply. How many of his readers – devout or casual – may be open to discussions on climate change following a 140-character tweet by Mr. Franzen, as opposed to being presented with a four-thousand word essay to fit into their already hectic schedules?

Anyhow, I digress…

My nod to Mr. Franzen is because, yes – as I’ve already suggested – I did have a strong disliking for social media. In all honesty, I’m still not crazy about it. But it’s part of the industry today. Until I become successful enough to not need it, I need it. Although that’s not to say my Instagram or Twitter pages are overflowing with followers. Quite the opposite, in fact. But a presence at the party is necessary, even if you find these gatherings a little awkward (although was I even invited?).

What’s Leaving Sadie about anyway?

For all my talk of putting out a novel (let’s be honest, I’ve probably mentioned it less than a dozen times on social media), I haven’t really gone into detail on what the story is about. If I’m on a night out and it happens to come up that I write, and that I’ve recently completed a novel, the question “So, what’s it about?” is almost unavoidable. I’ve heard that many writers hate this question; what, exactly, are you supposed to say in response? “Oh, you know, it’s about the crippling and depressing realities of life… the unbearable company of certain types… the unavoidable failures and suffering we all face… the subtleties of relationships and how they impact on us day after day… a postmodern critique of corporate capitalism told through the eyes of an earthworm… the depressing knowledge that we are – all of us – doomed to death, and we know it, and how the hell do you cope with that, man?!… And yes, you can order a copy here… It’s really, really good. Trust me…”

For the record, that’s not me talking about Leaving Sadie.

It’s hard to summarise your novel in a quick sentence, let alone in a blurb on the back page. I even found it difficult when people would ask me what my debut feature film, A Day Like Today, was about… (Well, it’s about life… It’s about relationships… It’s about domestic abuse… It’s about hope… Just go see it!).

Damn it, Shane, what’s Leaving Sadie about?!

Okay, I’ve got to do better than “just read it”. As someone who’s paying the bills by working in advertising and marketing, that’s a pretty tame effort at getting people to read your work.

To put it simply, Leaving Sadie is about relationships, and in particular a couple who are questioning theirs. What happens around these doubts are the events that shape the novel: Henry, a writer, is hoping his next play will be his seal of success, and he’s even met a washed-up, alcoholic Oscar-winning actor who’s agreed to star in it – what could go wrong? Sadie is a musician who’s focus at the minute isn’t her art, but her family; a critical mother, a successful sister, and a cardiologist brother all come together to address the central issue in all their lives: their ill father. But a serendipitous meeting may present to Sadie a career opportunity that’s too good to turn down, and which could take her away from her family, and Henry.

Is this truly a work of fiction?

So, like Henry, I’m a writer. And I happen to have a girlfriend who’s a musician. Those close to me will see other similarities between the story and my life find their way into the novel — that’s guaranteed with this one. Hmm… Am I writing a roman à clef here?

No, I’m not. Unlike my previous work, Leaving Sadie is inspired by a number of real-life events that are quite close to me, but that’s about as far as it goes. There are real-life inspirations, but beyond that, the rest is fiction. Characteristics may be borrowed, but characters are fictitious. Scenarios may mirror reality, but when stepping through the looking glass you’ll find yourself a different world.

Isn’t focusing your debut novel on a writer an absolute no-no? Doesn’t that make you an idiot, Shane?

Maybe. It’s often said that publishers will automatically reject any story who’s protagonist is a writer — if the work is by an unpublished author. I’ve read this, I’ve been told this, but I also read enough books and watch enough films to know that it’s not necessarily true. Countless debut novels have focused on a writer, and too many films to mention do the same. Anyway, Leaving Sadie is as much about Sadie as it is Henry; it’s as much about relationships as it is the arts. In fact, I’m a big fan of Ivan Turgenev, who would devote plenty of pages to his supporting characters – maybe that’s something that’s rubbed off on me (I can only hope a degree of his talent has!).

Also, after submitting Sadie to a mere five or six agents, I decided to self-publish. So I need readers, not publishers, to get on board with a story who’s protagonist happens to write.

What has inspired the work?

Real life always inspires my work, whether it’s something close to me, or something I observe or read about. To be honest, when I wrote the first lines of Sadie I was setting out to write a short story inspired by short fiction masters like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. The former in particular has been a huge influence on me, and is someone whose mastery is often mistakenly labelled with the misnomer “minimalism” — there was nothing minimal about Carver’s work. It was what is was. It was exactly as it needed to me. It was enough. (Sorry, had to get that off my chest).

Eventually the story developed into something longer – something more adventurous than I had initially imagined – and so it became a completely different project that I would work on on-and-off for a few years.

Carver’s hero – and greatest influence – was Anton Chekhov, another writer I’m a big fan of, although rather than embracing his short fiction, I was first drawn to his major plays which had a profound impact on western theatre. Other writers who I regularly revisit and whose style I suppose I use as inspiration, for I am attempting to craft my own style (I hope I’ve achieved that with this novel, after many years of writing badly, then writing not-so-badly – I hope), include J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nick Hornby, Hunter S. Thompson, Haruki Murakami, Françoise Sagan, Woody Allen, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Franzen, Charles Bukowski, and Christopher Isherwood, to name a few. There are many, many more.

So, when’s it coming out?

I recently moved back to Dublin, Ireland from Vancouver, BC, and there’s a strong chance I’ll be on my travels again sooner rather than later, so it’s a bit of a crazy time right now. However, I’m hoping that Leaving Sadie will be ready to go by late August. If not, it should certainly be released this autumn.

I’ll post further updates here and on my Twitter and Instagram pages, and I may even post another extract soon.

Thanks for reading, and for allowing me to partake in a bout of online self-promotion — perhaps Dickens would give me his blessings, but don’t tell Franzen.

For now, last orders have been called. I’m off.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

Book Cover Reveal!

Getting the cover for your debut novel right when you’re on the verge of self-publishing is not only pretty important; it’s also quite challenging! Here’s an update of where I’m at with the cover for ‘Leaving Sadie’, which hits shelves this summer.

So, the brilliant designer Chloë Keogan designed these three covers . . .

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Sadie Design 2

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That was after we had gone through a number of concepts. When I posted the three covers on Facebook and on this blog I got some invaluable feedback on each one (thanks again!), as well as some butterflies in my stomach at the thought of putting this out there for people to see (can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when I finally publish the work!).

When we tallied all the votes we found that most people leaned towards cover 1, with cover 2 in a close second. Personally, I was leaning towards cover 2, and this presented me with a conundrum: How would I decide on the cover when I’m leaning towards one and most people are leaning towards another?

Well, Chloë suggested printing the covers and putting them on physical books I have in my apartment. So we did that. Chloë also brought along some alternative versions of each cover to try on for size. Chaos kind of ensued . . .

Choosing Sadie Cover

(Okay, I concede that doesn’t look so chaotic. Exaggeration can help sell a story, though)

As I looked at the covers, it occurred to me: something is missing.

And this wasn’t an oversight on Chloë’s part; she had delivered exactly what I’d asked for—she was right on brief every step of the way! This was on me and my direction/requests.

It was only when I held the covers (or fake Sadie books) in my hands that I realized they weren’t true to the tone of the novel; the story focuses on the often turbulent nature of relationships and the madness of the arts (and of course the madness that is family :p), but it does it with a wink and a smile—there’s plenty of playfulness in there. And that’s what was missing from the covers we had in our hands: a sense of fun and adventure.

Then Maria got involved . . .

Maria & Moi

(That’s Maria, my girlfriend. She’s a very beautiful and talented woman, and she can do an incredible dolphin impression. Anyway . . .)

The three of us sat down, drank tea and chucked around ideas. Then Chloë went away, worked her magic like she always does, and came back with a brilliant new design (something of a redesign of cover 1).

So, let me reveal to you the latest draft of the cover for my novel. This is close to the finished version; only small changes will be made in the coming weeks. Here it is:

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Like it? Let me know what you like about it! Hate it? Tough shit, buddy!

Thanks again for all the comments and help along the way. And thanks to Chloë for being incredibly patient and for her unique talent. You can check out her work on her website.

More updates on the novel coming soon!

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .