Today’s featured debut author is Sabrynne McLain who offers a truly insightful and in-depth look at the road to publication for her novel, When Red Is Blue.
Name of book: When Red Is Blue
Book genre: Contemporary drama/literary fiction
Date published: February 2012
Publisher: Elevin Books
What is your day job? Proofreader and editor
What is your book about? The theme of the book deals with how children are affected by parents who suffer from some form of dysfunction – in my book’s case, mental illness and alcoholism. The story is based on my own childhood experiences. The “in a nutshell” description is:
Kate Faraday, a young woman from a small town in Michigan, dreams of leaving her past behind her and moving to California. But when her schizophrenic mother is found dead in a ravine, Kate is forced to examine her conflicting emotions over her mother’s death, while coping with the demands of her alcoholic father and local residents who witnessed the shame of her childhood. In the end, Kate discovers that the most difficult relationship to reconcile is the one she has with herself.
Why did you want to write this book? When I turned 30, I realized I wanted to be a writer. I bought and studied numerous books on writing and, about six months later, began writing my first novel. I opted for the romance genre, which I thought would be a lighthearted way to start my new passion. My first attempt at a book was loads of fun to write, but then I decided I wanted to apply to the University of Iowa’s MFA program in Creative Writing. The application asked for 75 pages of a manuscript. I was too embarrassed to give them the opening chapters of my little smut novel, thinking it wasn’t serious enough. Then I recalled all the people over the years who had suggested I write a book about my family, so I started When Red Is Blue. I got to page 75 and kept going.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? My goal was to write an honest portrayal of the events that took place. To do that, I had to dig deep inside my heart and soul, which was very emotional and painful at times. I also had several instances of: “Do I really want to share such intimate details of my life and my relationship with my parents with the world?” But I kept coming back to something John Irving said, that if you don’t humiliate yourself, your writing is probably not valid. I wanted my writing to be valid.
Besides using your personal experiences as inspiration, did you conduct any other research in order to write this book? The main storyline happened twenty-odd years before I started writing about it, so there are a number of scenes in the book that started as vague recollections that I had to make real. So, yes, I did have to do research to give credence to my memories. For example, I have a couple of scenes that deal with churches and religious practices, of which I have no knowledge beyond those brief experiences that happened so long ago.
What motivates you to write? As Terry Pratchett says: “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.” That’s it, really.
Did you experience writer’s block? I don’t write anything without planning what I’m going to write beforehand. For a novel, I do an in-depth profile on each character, write out the plot and sub-plots and research locations and various aspects that stand out as requiring research. Then I sketch out scene/sequel plans before I put a word on the screen. For a blog or article, I sketch out the points I want to make and find the links and images I need first. I’ve never experienced writer’s block because I know exactly where my story is headed – then I just write it. I know that sounds a bit obvious, but I’ve spoken to writers who claim a “blockage” of some sort, and then it turns out that, other than a vague idea, they haven’t done anything to make the story come alive inside their heads.
Wow! How long did it take you to write this book? In total, I think it took 12 or 13 years. During that time, there were a few stretches where I got caught up in life and found it too difficult to make time to write. When I was a financial adviser, the job was full on and then I had to study for exams on my days off, because the finance companies want their financial advisers to get more and more qualifications. I didn’t mind the studying, but I couldn’t find the energy to write much during those years.
Tell me about the self-publishing process. Was it easier or more difficult than you thought it would be? I’m in a “soft launch” phase at the moment. My book is currently on Kindle and the paperback is on Amazon.com. I’m waiting for a file tweak from my book designer before I do the full electronic and print distribution in the U.S. and UK. I found the entire process more complicated than I had anticipated, to be honest. I am distributing mostly through Lightning Source for electronic and print versions, but CreateSpace for Amazon in the U.S. because they mark books printed through Lightning Source as having a four-week delivery time. This is incorrect, but I think Amazon uses it as a ploy to get writers to use CreateSpace instead. For Kindle, I’ve just gone direct. Using multiple distributors incurs extra costs and time. And with each distributor, there are many decisions to make, so you have to understand what you are doing or suffer the consequences. I’ve definitely made a few mistakes, but I’m learning as I go. I’m relaxed about it, meaning I don’t expect to take the world by storm in a month, so that helps my sanity.
The promotional part is doing my head in. There are so many avenues, all of which take time and energy. Trying to figure out which ones are valuable and which ones are simply time-consuming is my mission right now. I also have a day job to worry about, which makes life more interesting.
The most surprising part was the editing process. Since I never wanted to traditionally publish my book, I didn’t look into what a publisher offers in exchange for taking over everything to do with your work. I think the one thing that stands out is the editing process. Publishing houses put a book through (I’m told) four or five editors, which would have been a tremendous help. I paid for a professional editor, but she didn’t do a great job with the technical stuff (she is more of a story editor) so I was left having to self-proofread and edit, which is very difficult. J W Manus has written some good advice about editing in her blog. I will definitely make better use of beta readers in the future. I will also look for bartering opportunities (you proofread and edit for me and I will for you) as well. As I said, it’s all a learning process.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? My biggest misconception was the idea that it would have been best for me to go from high school to Uni to MFA program in Creative Writing to writing novels. For a time, I regretted not having figured out that I wanted to write until the age of 30. Now I realize how important it is to experience life for a few decades before trying to write a novel. I’m not saying that getting the technicals figured out at school is a bad thing, but all writers pull from their experiences when they write – it doesn’t matter what the genre or topic, all their characters and stories take from past experiences. If the writer has spent the better part of their life sitting in a room in front of a screen, it’s that much harder to tap into the subtleties and complexities of human nature. Even if you aren’t dealing with humans, per se, your creatures need characteristics that readers can relate to. I guess that’s why some of the greatest writers of all time started writing later.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? The most challenging part of writing When Red Is Blue was also the most enlightening for me. I learned so much about myself – I realized that the way in which I viewed the world was a reflection of what I’d gone through. It was truly an epiphany; writing the book was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? This is early days for me, but so far I have a Twitter account that I started a few months ago, a Facebook page and a website/blog that I try to post on twice a week. I also have Google +, but I’m a bit perplexed as to how to use it. It seems the same people are on Facebook and Google +, so do I have to come up with more unique posts for it? I’m not sure, so I haven’t done anything with it yet. If any writers out there can enlighten me, I’d love to hear from you! I’m also on LinkedIn, but more for the editing stuff.
Before the book was published, I also did a fundraiser through Indiegogo. It’s similar to Kickstarter, but since I live in the UK now, I had to find an alternative and I decided on Indiegogo. Because I had very few social connections at the time, it wasn’t a huge success, but I would recommend it if you have thousands of connections and have friends who are willing to help (also with thousands of connections).
KDP Select – I enrolled in this promotion immediately, thinking people would download the book for free, they would read it and I’d get some reviews. Well, the first part worked – I received about 500 downloads. The promotion hasn’t benefited my sales, though, so it hasn’t been a success or worth doing for me. I guess people like to amass loads of freebies and then don’t read them. I think it would have been better to try it after I had accumulated a number of customer reviews first, because the downloads do help you get listed on the “those who bought XX, also bought When Red Is Blue” feature, which will get people to your page. But without reviews, it’s not likely they will buy it on impulse. It’s a chicken and egg thing. I’m uncomfortable asking people to write a review for me, though, so they’ve been hard to come by.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? It’s now more hectic. I constantly feel guilty that I’m not doing enough promo work on a daily basis, but I have other responsibilities that take precedence. As I said, I try to stay relaxed about the whole thing.
Do you find yourself obsessively checking sales stats? I did during my first KDP Select promotion. It was surreal watching the number of book downloads tick over every few seconds, and I was so psyched to see my little story sandwiched between the Welsh Fairy Tales and a book by Mark Twain in the Top 10 Free Downloads for that day.
Do you plan on writing another book? Yes, I have an idea for a nonfiction book next. Then I’m off on a purely fictional journey, which will involve (of course) lots of time and effort. I have a few other ideas as well, but those two I’m sure of.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? Was that Oprah? Yes, I would agree with that statement. It’s fascinating how some people believe that there is such a thing as an “overnight success.” If you research any successful person’s life, you will undoubtedly find a long and difficult journey leading up to that success. I’m not sure I qualify as a success at this stage – even though it’s already taken lots of pain and effort to get this far, I feel like I’m just beginning the journey. I look forward to it though, whatever happens.