“Yesterday, I couldn’t spell author. Today, I are one.”
I said those words to my oldest sister in March of 2012, while I was holding an author’s proof of Fortresses, An Airman’s Story of Survival in my hands. It was a proud day for both of us, but even in my wildest dreams, I never imagined writing a book. My love of writing was something I found by accident, or an ironic twist of fate.
I was a car guy, through and through, and was going for a business degree so I could open my own shop, restore old cars, build hot rods, and live happily ever after. When my college advisor informed me that I would have to take English Comp I and II, I wasn’t happy. Visions of my old steel edged ruler totin’ Catholic school nuns just waiting to give me a good shot across the knuckles for violating the I before E, except after C rule ran through my mind. (I think I remember one of them having a holster.)
Question — Could you just poke me in the eye with a sharp stick instead?
“You’re really good at this. Just don’t try to make a living at it. There’s no money in it.”
— Diane Tompkins, English Comp I and II instructor,
Delta College, Michigan, circa 1993
It turned out my instructor was not a heavily armed nun, she was a young, vibrant teacher, who let her students write whatever they were passionate about. I actually liked the classes, and hated to see them end. When I completed them, she took me aside and gave me the above quote, which is actually an excerpt. The full quote was “Tom, I really enjoyed reading every assignment of yours. You have a wonderful way of letting the reader see what you are writing about.” While I beamed with pride, she then added the ‘don’t try to make a living’ part, bringing me back down to earth with a thump. Oh well, I hadn’t planned on it anyway. Too bad though. It sure was fun.
I learned a lot when I eventually opened that shop. First and foremost, if you want to make a little money running your own business, start with a LOT. Then be ready to devote a lot of hours to it. When a chance to get an extremely well-paying job with excellent benefits that my family needed came along, I jumped at it. Writing became the furthest thing from my mind.
Then on Christmas Day of 2001, my dad finally lost the battle he had been fighting with Alzheimer’s and passed away. It wasn’t the only battle dad faced in his lifetime. He had also been in the Army Air Corps in WWII, and a German POW for nine months. While cleaning out the family home and divvying up the contents, my siblings and I stumbled upon an old Army suitcase full of memoirs and journals he kept during that time, and read (for the first time) what part of hell he really went through. I was mesmerized by the story, and thought to myself that it would make an incredible book.
“You have a wonderful way of letting the reader see what you are writing about.”
The kind words from my instructor echoed through my mind. Should I write that book? Could I write that book? The only experience I had was a few 1500 word short stories from college, and a few of my own memoirs that I had begun. But a whole book? That seemed pretty overwhelming. I had no idea where to start, plus, I remembered my instructor saying there was no money in it. Where’s the reward in it? I decided to pass on the idea, and simply walk away with a whole new level of admiration for the hero that dad was.
A short while later I got the chance to get an up close and personal look at a restored B-17, just like the one dad used to fly in. It was every bit the magnificent aircraft I remembered him telling me about. It made me think about writing dad’s story again, then of how big a task that would be. Then I remembered something he used to tell me whenever I didn’t want to do something, which usually was preceded by me saying the words “Daaaad … I can’t.”
“Don’t gimme that I can’t bullshit! There’s no such word as can’t!”
After reading about the ordeal he went through, I understood why he felt there was no such word as can’t. It had been much tougher than raking leaves or eating canned peas that used to garner that wonderful bit of fatherly advise. I decided to give writing the book a shot. A book is made up of chapters. Chapters are sorta kinda short stories, right? I got this.
I wrote a few narrative chapters and decided it didn’t flow right. It just didn’t have that … something. They wound up in a box under the bed until a friend, who also loves to write, called and told me about a five week writing class that he heard was being offered at the local Skill Center. We both signed up for the class, which was taught by none other than Kathy Henderson-Sturtz. It was Kat who gave me the brilliant suggestion of writing the book in first person, which made the story much better. It now had that something. With Kat’s help, the pages began to fly off my keyboard. I joined a writers group and got a ton of good advice and feedback there as well.
Then I happened to mention the project to my Aunt Dot, my mom’s last surviving sister. She thought it was a wonderful idea, but added, “Tom, there is another side to that story … your mother’s side.” I spent the day listening to her tell another equally fascinating story that I never knew. It had to be included in the book. What started out as a military story had now become more of a Greatest Generation story.
Why go self-published?
I got asked that question quite a few times. Honestly, I felt having my work accepted by a traditional publisher would give it and myself a lot more validation. My work would have been acknowledged by professionals.
But the more I searched for a publisher, the less I found were accepting work from “newbies.” The select few that were, were only accepting work through an agent. Before I could even think of climbing the Mt. Manuscript on a publisher’s desk and placing mine in the thin air at the peak, I had to find an agent to tie myself to. It was a long uphill climb. Most agents I approached were extremely busy as well, so I knew it could be tough to get one.
I envisioned one of my children (because my agent would have died of old age) coming to my nursing home, where I’d be drinking creamed steak, to give me the good news that my manuscript was finally accepted. Of course, by then I wouldn’t be able to hear them … or I’d forget what they said fifteen minutes later.
I’ve found that self publishing is much like a business, especially the part where if you want to make a little money, start with a lot. I’ve also found that traditional publishers and authors tend to look at a self-published authors work as the literary poop in the yard they have to be careful not to step in, and I can understand why. If I had spent a lot of time and effort to run the gaunlet to get my work published, I wouldn’t be all that happy with someone who simply wrote a book (and then a check) and Viola! You are a published author in as little as a few months.
So, have things changed since my instructor gave me the there’s no money in it speech?
A lot has changed since then. There are a few authors who have struck gold because of the wide array of ways to publish and ebooks. Some of them aren’t all that good either. It all came down to hitting that marketing sweet spot for them. I have to admit I’ve had dreams of rumbling up to my new cabin on the lake in my brand new Mustang GT … a red one, just like the new one I bought in 1980. Or should I go all the way and get a new Shelby Mustang … a dark blue one with white stripes and ungodly horsepower? Nah. A new orange Boss 302 … that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Many analysts say that the typical self-published book sells 60-70 books, and only a few go much farther than that. As for mine, I’ve surpassed that. I’m embarrassed to say by how much. Oddly enough, the ebook version has done nothing, so I’m still plugging away at that. The printed version is doing better than average, has earned me a lot of praise, and another veteran liked it so well, he wants me to write his story of surviving a 1700 mile Death March, which also occurred in WWII in Germany. But I still can’t say I’ve found my sweet spot. The real estate agents and local Ford dealer are still waiting on my call.
My advice to any budding author filled with self doubt or writer’s block is keep trying. Don’t give up. MAKE time for it, even when it seems there isn’t any. When factoring in drive time and sleep time, my current job allows me a whole three hours of “me” time, yet I currently have two books on the burners, plus, I’m still trying to market Fortresses.
Surround yourself with a lot a brilliant people, like Kat. Join a local writers group and feed on all the wonderful advice and encouragement. But, most of all, write because you love it, not to make a lot of money.