How and why I wrote and published my first novel
An impractical guide
tl;dr: Autobiography of Joker so Far is out now get it here
The Day Job becomes Night Work
Regular readers here, of which Google Analytics assures me there are near-zero, know that by day I am an independent software developer. By night however, I enjoy writing, mostly fiction. When I say “by night”, I don’t mean this in the literal sense, unlike “near-zero” above, which I indeed mean in the strictest formal sense of the words. I’m not a natural multitasker. I’ve never really been able to do one thing really well during the day and a different thing really well at night. When I’m really writing software, I’m more or less writing it all the time, waking, sleeping, eating, showering, etc., and the same is true of writing fiction. They are all consuming enterprises that seep inexorably into all aspects of my life. It’s how I function. Fortunately for me, in the world of modern software development, where check writing is like wish granting in the Emerald City of Oz, working this way long enough has gotten me to the point where I have enough stretches of free time to permit myself being all-consumed by writing fiction.
Careful readers may here smell a rat, and they would not be entirely in the wrong. But to that I’ll say this: I’m not independently wealthy, I’m not set for life, I have not founded, bootstrapped and sold a cubic zirconian social unicorn that allows me to lounge about like a nineteenth-century gentleman writer, penning a few clever lines in between my eleven o’clock breakfast and my afternoon salon. In short, I’ve ground away at writing software, like so much unglamorous night work, long enough to get reasonably good at it, to the point where I can charge a decent enough hourly rate for it. Combine this with the fact that I don’t spend the proceeds on stupid shit, and this cannot be emphasized enough, I don’t necessarily have to do so called night work for the entire duration of the year, minus two weeks vacation and eleven federally sanctioned holidays. That’s all I’ll say about that, unless my near-zero readers clamor for a separate missive on the topic.
Back to the story at hand, the writing of fiction, the publishing of novels and realization of a life’s worth of dreams and aspirations. There is no more important question here than: why is this the dream? It occurs to me that the how is actually of more interest to the pragmatic reader, and I’ll get to that in short order, I promise, but we can’t get there, at least not properly, at least not in the same manner that I got there, without first answering the question: why? Why write a novel? Or more generally why write? Or even more generally: why do anything artistic or creative? Can we do it just because it’s fun? By all means do. If it wasn’t fun I wouldn’t do it. But, if it was just for fun I probably would do it less over time, attested to by the wasteland of other hobbies that litter my past. Is that why they are called pastimes? And if it was just for fun I probably would not have gone through all the trouble (spoiler alert, it’s is a lot of trouble) to actually polish and publish the results of all that writing for fun. Can we do it for the money? Boy wouldn’t it be nice to have that as an option! If you want to do anything for the money, write software, not fiction. Besides, doing anything solely for the money gets boring pretty quick. But maybe that’s just me.
I write for two reasons, one small and one large. The small reason is that the act of creation is immensely rewarding. It’s the same reason I enjoy writing software actually. I like to make things. I like to make things up. And, the more control I have over the making the merrier. To state that more formally, the more control one exhibits over a creation, the more emotionally and physically invested one becomes in the process and the more fulfilling the finished product will be, or alternatively, the more devastating the failure. Writing software is rewarding to me relative to other potential occupations, e.g. teaching (don’t get me started), policing, accounting, scooping ice-cream and singing to slavering tourists at Cold Stone Creamery for example. But, writing software can’t hold a candle in the control department to writing fiction. Ahem, please don’t ask any of my former colleagues about this.
Yes, by writing software we can help put satellites into space. We can be impresarios of small business and ringmasters of mid-level enterprises. We can save lives by writing software for dialysis machines, for example, or enable, or derail for that matter, democracy by writing software for voting machines. Don’t get me wrong, these are all truly awesome, and potentially noble pursuits (unless you are writing proprietary voting machine software of course) by which we, as individuals can exert immense control over our practical world and, ultimately, contribute constructively to civilization.
But….but…by writing fiction, we get to play at being God. Now that’s creative control. Into the limitless void of the blank page we can open our hands and blow a universe entirely of our own making. And while writers with mundane commercial aspirations may have to restrict themselves to a certain list of rudimentary building materials (vampires, the illuminati, BDSM sex, the conflicted emotions of unfulfilled adults), those of us with more far reaching, or simply far afield, artistic aspirations can build our worlds with whatever elements we see fit. Life needs not be carbon based. Laws of physics need not apply. You can, if you so choose, make super-intelligent jellyfish the most powerful beings in your world. Though, speaking from experience, there may not be an audience for this particular fancy. Of course, just because you can put anything into a book, doesn’t mean you should or that people will necessarily read it or like it. See Finnegans Wake. In that sense, there are certain laws that apply in the universe of fiction. There needs to be some form of coherency, some form of balance, of continuity, of aesthetic beauty, some organizing principle that compels a reader to move along from one word to the next. But these laws are highly mutable, ever expanding and contracting and drifting according to the whims of taste and time and culture.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that you get to use your imagination. It’s a fair summary and why I say it’s the small reason I write. But that’s not to say it’s unimportant, it’s just personal. It’s an individual gratification. But even if that were the only reason, I’d still do it. But it’s not the only reason.
There is a larger reason I write fiction. I say larger because it’s not individual. It’s communal. It’s communication, across both time and space, sometimes vast stretches of it. Humanity has been having a semi-formal written conversation for five thousand years and I want to have my say in it. This conversation is not by definition constructive. It’s never been orderly, fair, democratic, meritocratic or civil, but it is, nonetheless, an integral part of the fabric of civilization. Right now, sitting at my desk, I can reach over and grab a handful of thin volumes and have a spirited roundtable with Marcus Aurelius and Holden Caufield and Ignatius J. Reilly and Jake Barnes and after only a little time conversing with these fellows, I’ll know a surprising lot about what it means to be human. After our brief chat I’ll walk away with some startlingly accurate notions of how the world actually works, the good parts and the bad parts and why the good is good and why the bad is bad and I’ll even have practical instruction and useful strategies and examples for making the world better. And, to boot, the conversation will actually be immensely entertaining. To the point where I’ll want to keep on talking, just for the fun of it. Even if I may find a particular conversation drool-on-the-desk-boring (Tolstoy) or self-aggrandizingly boorish (Bukowski), I’ll probably walk away with something instructive. Joking pot-shots aside, I want to put my two cents into this long ledger of human accounting. Now I know it’s not the same dimension as nuts-and-bolts civilization building, the engineering of aqueducts, the building of buildings and bridges and sewers and power grids, but it is still part of the accounting. If it’s not exactly making civilization, then it’s making it mean something. And who knows, now that information has been digitized, this sort of accounting might one day be the only evidence of the human experiment that remains, after all the concrete manifestations of human existence have been ground up by time and calamity and fed back into the great furnaces of the universe.
Ok, now that all that hot air has been spent, we can more easily steer this dirigible back down to the practical matters at hand: writing and publishing the damn novel already.
Now is also an opportune time for us to clarify a few potentially ambiguous terms. Technically speaking, the first novel I published is actually the third I’ve written. Also, technically speaking, the novel is self-published. However, I did in fact go to the trouble of setting up the minimal legal, marketing and business trappings of an actual “Small Press” from which to do the publishing. This included registering an assumed business name, or DBA, for the publishing company in my state associated with my existing LLC, getting a domain, putting up a rudimentary web presence, email, phone, and all the technical sundry of which I’d be happy to share but they are mundane enough that I won’t unless someone asks. The result is that my book was technically issued by the publisher: True Joker Company. At present, this is a rather thin veneer around Amazon’s print and e-book publishing infrastructure. Charitably, I’d say this setup lends an air of professionalism to the published output and presents some opportunities for growth into an actual functioning small press in the future, featuring other local authors and classy, artisanal self-printed offerings. Less charitably, you could call this a vanity press, or worse yet, a digital shell game. If nothing else, I think the company is named appropriately.
Without further ado, the inaugural release of True Joker Company publications, and my first published work, can be found on the publisher’s site here. As already mentioned, the printing and distribution of said work has been sub-contracted to various subsidiaries (more on this in a moment) of Amazon and is featured here in print and here for kindle.
How I got there
I wrote my first book, a science fiction novel, many, many years ago. I wrote that one at nights in earnest, mostly, after the kids had gone to sleep. The idea came to me in a dream, literally. It was a classic dystopian near-future concoction. The surface of the earth is wracked by environmental degradation. The majority of earth’s inhabitants have retreated to private cities, in earth’s orbit, powered by stolen alien technology and the corporate entities that run the cities collectively harvest what remains behind on the surface, both people and resources alike, on an almost unimaginable scale. I poured just about everything I wanted to say at the time into it and spent a couple years editing and then shopping this around to various agents and publishers. Of course, no one was interested. This didn’t really bother me and I didn’t really work too hard at this because, frankly, the business end of the process just wasn’t as exciting and enjoyable as the writing, as you can imagine. So I just let it be and then wrote the next book while I was on a full-fledged, months long break from contract software development. This one was the first part of a planned science fiction, fantasy trilogy set in the geologically distant future earth. Inspired by another dream, this book featured super-evolved animals (upright walking/talking rats, badgers, etc) as well as a dwindling population of humans and the aforementioned super-intelligent jellyfish. On the heels of finishing that one I woke up one morning with this odd voice in my head.
It was a line, a silly line, spoken by a high school kid in an almost alien teenage dialect. I wrote the line down immediately and then wrote, more or less incessantly, Jack Kerouac style (if you picture Jack Kerouac with children and a mortgage), for a few weeks. Then I promptly threw it aside and thought nothing of it for a couple years while I did a long software contract. When I picked it up those two years later, it was like I was reading someone else. And, I really liked it. So much so that I decided to get to work publishing it immediately.
Expediency in Everything non-essential to the craft
Taking stock of the situation, with a raw manuscript in hand, I decided immediately that there was a spectrum of diminishing importance that moved, on the important end, from writing to editing to typesetting to cover design to publication and then marketing. This is an aesthetic calculation, of course, designed to apply the highest value and assign the most resources to ensuring the artistic merit and quality of the thing above all else. Of course leaving the marketing part on the far side of the spectrum of importance makes some sense from a chronological perspective, but very little from the point of view of someone who actually wants anyone to purchase and read the thing. But, I guess, it’s never too late to remedy that and here I am, in fact, doing the yeoman’s work of trying to get the word out. Lesson learned.
Self-editing as seppuku whose success is pyrrhic##
To say that being successful at ritual suicide is a victory not worth the cost is redundant to the point of being inane. But, as a metaphor for editing my own work, it is precisely accurate. If you are any good at editing your own work, and most people aren’t for obvious reasons, on your first pass you will slash gratuitously at any seemingly inessential content in an attempt to get down to the essence. This is the sword to the stomach. So much hard work bled out on the cutting floor. Then, gradually the large and dramatic structural and aesthetic slashes give way, on subsequent passes, to copy editing and proofreading. Death by a thousand cuts. On each pass you find ever more small and obvious errors, going down in concentric circles unending according to the immutable laws of the inferno of literature if not the physical universe. There is no end to it but the non-arbitrary point at which you can no longer stand to even look at this thing that at one point was your pride an joy. The pyrrhic victory is that if you are successful at self-editing, you will find your own work revolting. Then you hand the sword off to others and beg for a merciful end to it. I handed mine off to friends and family. None of them professionals at the task, but all of them smart and competent and interested. And the price was right.
I did shop around for an independent professional editor. Turns out the traditional publishing industry being in a state of amazon induced turmoil has left New York city awash in independent editors, most of whom appear to be independent against their better wishes. I almost pulled the trigger on one for about $1500 but, in the end, I just couldn’t figure out how to get to some level of aesthetic comfort with this person quickly. So I fell on my sword one more time and resolved to finish the effort myself and with the help of friends and family. At this point it warrants recalling the lengthy discourse on the small and large reasons why I bothered with this endeavor in the first place. Without having articulated that big picture to myself, I’m not sure I would have seen it through.
In the end, Joker is a relatively short work and it has the added benefit of a protagonist who speaks an alien teenage dialect that requires a large amount of grammatical inaccuracy. Unfortunately, my future publications, already underway, are substantially longer and feature more conventional narrative voices. I’m afraid there will be no getting around professional editing help for those.
Type setting is a huge time sink##
Having an engineering bent, I signed up for a trial subscription to Adoble’s In Design and began kicking around that beast. Being very impatient to make progress and being an engineer with open source proclivities, I switched over to Scribus and began to kick the tires on that as well. Recalling my motto of expediency above all things, I quickly resorted to Microsoft Word and I taught myself enough tricks to typeset a few pages roughly and printed the results and pronounced the output professional enough to not detract from the total aesthetic comportment. Of typesetting I’ll say that dealing with orphans and widows is an extremely tedious and precarious game of falling dominoes. Whatever total time I spent originally writing the book, I spent several multiples on typesetting alone. God forbid you find a significant edit during this phase. Restack the dominoes and start again.
Here I got lucky. There are two ways to view a book cover. There’s the idiom that you can’t judge a book by it, which, like most other idioms, proverbs and conventional wisdom, is demonstrably false. Nothing says “self-published” like a shitty cover. So I took the opposite view that the cover must attempt to be a reflective distillation of some important aesthetic quality of the contents. Unfortunately for me, unlike editing and typesetting, where grinding hard work and masochism and sleight of hand may suffice to carry the day, it is very difficult to fake talent when it comes to the visual arts. Luckily I have a very dear friend who does this sort of thing for a living, so I was able to call in a favor, for gratis. Before I talked myself into imposing on my friend for this, I considered advertising a design contest at one of the local schools and paying the winners something modest. I also considered commissioning more magna doodles from my children (see Ignatius J. Riley above). I may resort to these in the future so as not to go back to the friendship well too many times.
Create Space and Amazon Kindle Direct publishing##
Createspace is easy enough. I had my publishing company. I bought some ISBNs to make it official. Muddling through the forms for publication there makes you feel a bit like you are putting together an embarrassing church newsletter that you are sure will not properly goad people into church at all but will instead temp them to stay home and use the paper to soak up the excess grease from the Sunday morning bacon. But, the cover and contents themselves are eventually rendered to Createspace in PDF format, so you are reasonably assured that the printed output will look more or less as you intend. Kindle Direct publishing, on the other hand, features a more professional seeming interface to usher you through the publishing process, however, despite supporting a variety of formats, including word, html (with a bunch of custom amazon tags, most of which kindle doesn’t appear to even support), mobi, etc., it’s maddeningly difficult to control the formatting of the thing once it hits the actual device. Yes, they have a simulator. However what I saw in the simulator never matched, even remotely, what I ended up seeing on the actual device. And that is to say nothing of the preview (or look inside) feature on the amazon book page itself, that never looked anything like what was in either the simulator or on the device itself. I bounced back and forth between html and word and eventually quit and simply stopped when it was good enough and it was obvious that I was not going to be able to accurately control the amount of whitespace in a chapter heading without dramatically breaking some other aspect of the layout.
I am on Amazon, I am therefore famous##
After ordering a round of printed proofs and working painfully through the last few steps again, I pushed the buttons and pointed at amazon and told my children that I was, indeed, a famous and accomplished author. I then told them, regretfully, that they could in fact NOT read the book as it contained entirely inappropriate content for pre-teens. They took the bad news in stride and beamed with pride and I declared myself done and promptly forgot about it for several months. I mentioned the book to some friends and a bunch bought it and read it and almost everyone who has done so has reported back very positively. I take this as evidence that, perhaps, the book may actually have some ineffable and redeeming qualities or, at the very least, as evidence that my friends and associates are both polite and kind. This word of mouth has resulted in perhaps a few dozen sales, though it’s hard to tell for sure as Kindle Direct Publishing makes it very hard to look at historical sales numbers.
A return to marketing, the jokes on me##
At long last I saw the light that this process would not be complete unless I take some mysterious and rudimentary steps to market the thing. I began this process, as almost any sane person would, by sitting down at my fine bamboo topped geekdesk and googling myself. Sure enough, Autobiography of Joker So Far, popped up as a top result. That’s something. But, wait a minute. My blog was nowhere to be found. My personal site, which I have maintained for about ten years (despite not having an audience) and which has sat firmly as the top result when you google me, had disappeared. This was troubling because I had a vague notion that my site was somehow going to be integral to my marketing efforts. I signed up for google search console and registered my domain and sure enough, I saw this:
Nothing boosts morale and gets a marketing push off on the right foot like someone at Google “manually” determining summarily that ten years of idle musings and pictures of my family are probably automatically generated gibberish. I’m pure spam. But hey, at least I’m not a victim of some indexing bug or change, a human actually thought that about me!
I requested a review and they reversed the decision within a few days, but, as of this writing (a month later) I’m still not indexed despite several requests to reindex and a maddening round of feedback on Google’s webmaster forums that led me to, more or less, retool my entire web site for fun and self-edification but to absolutely no effect on Google’s search index. For a laugh, see: post wherein Jacob Heric tries unsuccessfully to get his site re-indexed by google.
In the end, publishing my first novel and promptly being called gibberish by the the second largest company in the history of the world by market cap is actually a fitting turn of events. A sort of cosmic synchronicity. The situation bears more than a passing resemblance to Joseph K’s predicament in Kafka’s The Trial, on whom Joseph Kare (aka Joker) in Autobiography of A Joker So Far is loosely based.
Kafka’s Joseph K wakes up one morning to find himself the subject of lies, arrested for unknown reasons. He’s set upon by an inscrutable bureaucracy and his life becomes an absurd and darkly comic trial. Joker wakes up on the first page of his Autobiography to find himself in the teenage equivalent of a similar predicament. Undaunted, Joker deals with compounding calamities with determination and unique humor. It makes sense this book’s first steps into the wider world should be as troubled and hilarious.