Finally, it’s here; I can hold it in my hands. A real, honest-to-goodness print edition of my short story “Roadkill” finally exists. The proof copy is sitting next to me as I write this.
It’s a such a thin, frail little tome. Not surprising, of course; the story itself only spans the length of forty-three pages, six-by-nine in length. It’s a little wisp of a book, and to look at it you wouldn’t think of just how much effort went into it, how much insanity-inducing, teeth-grinding, hair-pulling effort. I can hardly believe the thing is actually finished. For a while (a long while) I wasn’t sure that it ever would be.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. It’s not QUITE finished. It’s just a formality at this point, however. I need to do one last check, one last time before I hit that magic button that says “approved.” Then, suddenly, anyone who might want it could order an actual, physical copy of this thing. They, too, could hold it, read it, write in the margins, the whole bit. Will they? Will anyone ever actually discover and buy this book? I have no idea, and to be honest, while I would love to find out that someone, somewhere eventually does buy a copy, at this point it’s quite enough for me that I finished it. I can let it rest.
What is “Roadkill” about, you ask? My intent here isn’t to tell you the story, you’ll have to read it for yourself. My intent here is to tell the story of how the story came about. Still, it would be helpful to have a little bit of description, wouldn’t it?
“Roadkill” is the story of four friends who go on a late-night fast food run. Perhaps that brings to mind some adolescent memories for you. What you might find less easy to relate to, however, is that the these four friends happen to be the anthropomorphic ghosts of recently deceased animals, the victims of violent, grisly deaths. Along the way they meet some sort of Fox-forest-spirit thing, some kind of Animal Control Officer-Grim Reaper-guy, and discover that their favorite fast food hamburgers might be the key to their very existence.
The story is filled with mystery, wonder, suspense, comedy, tragedy, rambling philosophical conversations (but it’s the amusing kind), death, and life. There are ghostly animals, pursued by a hooded figure who might be the Angel of Death! There is a forest that absorbs the memories of those who pass through it! The clock is ticking for our heroes, who could vanish from the earth by sunrise! There are late night snacks! Don’t miss it!
It covers a surprising amount of ground for only 15 chapters, really. “Roadkill” came about due to a mix of real life experiences (I’ll mention those a bit later) and my desire to tell a story that is at once direct in its confrontation of mystery and death, yet nonetheless upbeat about it. One might say it’s a story about faith, of a sort. There are no deus ex machinas, just characters who stand up in the face of who-knows-what and keep moving forward. You’ll have a few laughs, and you might feel a little catharsis near the end. You might become a vegetarian. What’s not to like?
But now let’s get back to the story of how I wrote it. Let’s see, now, exactly how long has this book been in production?
The Road to Nowhere
The book has been nearly one year in the making, though the story itself was created over a year earlier than that. But let’s start in media res, shall we?
In November of 2012, I had turned a corner; I’d come to realize that I wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled socially or creatively. I had spent the last several years pursuing a degree and feeling miserable about it from start to (incomplete) finish. Nothing about my school work felt authentic or meaningful and I didn’t feel I was learning much of value, with a few noteworthy exceptions. I was forced, in order to graduate, to take four classes that stressed me out so much that I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. For the average person, they would likely be nothing to worry about at all, but that’s anxiety for you. By August of last year I failed the mid-term of my second-to-last class (never having failed any class before) and, exasperated, gave up.
I had always told myself that once I finished college, I would devote as much time as possible to writing. I would, I thought, finally take advantage of the free time I hadn’t had in so long and create all the crazy, wonderful stories I’d dreamed up during countless dreary classes. However, I was horrified to realize that I couldn’t get the groove back. I’d got in a habit of viewing life as including only mindless work and mindless pastimes. My poison of choice was gaming; most of the time I wasn’t even having fun, I was just killing time. I couldn’t focus on writing anymore, I procrastinated at it just as I had done with school work. Years earlier, when I first started college, a classmate asked me about my major. When I replied that I wanted to major in Creative Writing, she warned me that by the end of it, I would hate writing. I was terrified that she had been right.
My writing projects last fall all began to feel dry and stale, being locked up alone with no one to read them, and me without any feedback on the stuff I was creating. I’ve long had that unfortunate, rookie-mistake tendency to not share something until I feel totally satisfied with it…and, as it usually happens, I end up not sharing much of anything. Combine that with my school-inspired procrastination habit and I tended to never get close to completion on any project, and even when I did, I never felt satisfied with it enough to want to release it. I’m only slowly recovering from this.
My birthday, though, last November, was a particularly contemplative one. I felt very alone and isolated and disconnected from people. I’d lost my job as a janitor, which I loved, when my place of employment went through a regime change of sorts. Everything felt dry and lifeless. The last time I could remember feeling really inspired on a novel-length writing project was in 2009, and the last time I felt really alive and challenged on a creative project was a short film my friends and I had made in 2008. I’d always wanted to work on movies, but I’ve just never had much patience for the complex organization involved. Writing had always seemed the most accessible way to be creative, and I tend to believe I’m pretty good at it (whenever I actually do it, that is). At the time, though, writing had lost its magic for me, and I wondered if it ever really had any, or if it was just something I told myself I enjoyed in order to have some kind of “productive” identity.
Something had to change. There had to be a way, I thought, of snapping myself out of the slump. I found myself being inspired by three unlikely sources. The first was Zen Habits, the self-help blog by Leo Babuta. The second was my discovery of the videos of Shaye Saint John, surrealistic and unhinged works of either sublime art or utter trash (the best, most luscious kind; Happy Halloween, by the way). Lastly was none other than my childhood “television neighbor,” Fred “Mister” Rogers.
I can’t think of a more bizarre combination, but somehow it all made sense. I became obsessed with all three of these odd, creative personalities and their work. Things began to come into perspective. Zen Habits taught me to be unafraid to experiment and to enjoy the process of creating something without worrying about failure or end results. Shaye Saint John also taught me to be unafraid to experiment, even when the experiments involve things that no one else understands, like doing the Hand Thing, trying to make salad out of dead leaves, and a feeling of deep unease. Mister Rogers taught me to reconnect with my inner child, to try new things (see a pattern here?), and to take things slowly. All three seemed to be teaching variations of the same lessons, more or less, and they really hit home (even if Shaye’s lessons were a little…different, in form).
I signed up for an online voice acting class. It was something totally new to me, something I’d wanted to try for a long time, and something I’d always been encouraged to do. Of course, most of the encouragement was due to my ability to perform a few funny voices, and as any voice actor will tell you, that’s really not enough…you have to be able to, well, act, and acting is a great deal more difficult than funny voices. Still, I had no real expectations for how it would go and decided to just embrace the discomfort and the strangeness and see what happened.
The class was stressful but fun. Lucky for me it was an unusually small one, only three other students, so we all got plenty of face-time with our instructor, a prolific voice actor who does extensive work in anime dubbing (and who, funnily enough, appears in some of the very video games I wasted too much time with). I still have vivid memories of drinking chamomile tea during the break and watching clips of Shaye Saint John and Mister Rogers to calm myself down (yes, I watch Shaye Saint John to calm myself down). I get anxious all too easily, and it was difficult, but in the end I was glad I’d tried something new and felt some renewed energy.
When it was over, though, I felt like I was back at square one. I didn’t have any really promising opportunities for trying out more voice acting, and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to pursue further anyway, at least not too seriously. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to pursue it as a career. Still, I needed some new way to connect with people, and I needed a creative outlet. Somewhere along the line it hit me that I needed to just release something, to get something out there. Writing had been my focus for most of my life, even if I’d lost some of that focus recently, and it was the best place I could think of to turn to. Yet I was still too burned out to consider writing a whole new story. That was the problem in the first place, after all; my major projects seemed too daunting and I was just too burnt out. The Zen Habits blog stressed the importance of starting small, taking tiny steps. What was the smallest step I could take?
The Road to Self-Publishing
That was when I remembered “Roadkill.” It was a script I’d written in spring 2011 for a screenwriting class. The idea first came to me during fall of 2010, due to three events: the real-life horror of watching a dog get hit by a car, nearly getting run off the road by a semi-truck myself, and seeing a long line of various dead animals by the roadside and thinking “I wonder if they talk to each other.” Despite few of my creative writing courses at university ever inspiring me much, it was that screenwriting class, which I took for my minor in film, that for a while had made me feel like a writer again. “Roadkill” was one of the most satisfying projects I’d worked on in recent memory. Unlike the aforementioned group film project, which had made me feel so alive, and my larger novel-length projects, I didn’t really think of “Roadkill” in usual terms. It was a different medium.
I wasn’t used to writing screenplays, and I doubt I’d have done it at all had it not been for that class. It was one of the few times I can credit my university experience for having a major positive impact on me creatively. “Roadkill” didn’t quite fit into either my video-making experience or my writing experience. I imagined it primarily as an animated film. Truth be told, I imagine most stories I write as movies first; this was only different because it was actually written as one. Exposition was understandably sparse; the story was nearly all dialogue.
Nonetheless, it seemed the best candidate for something to release publicly. It had great feedback during the screenwriting workshop. One fellow writer took me aside at the end of the last day of class and gave me some really positive comments about the story’s uniqueness and said it had been his favorite part of the class. What more can you ask for as a writer? Well, maybe this: another person had said that “It’s what would happen if “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” was written by David Lynch.” Both comments made me very, very happy. The class also offered a lot of helpful constructive criticism, too, so I didn’t feel so uncertain about it.
Besides the promising feedback, it was already finished; the story was already there, all that was needed was to reformat it into a short story. It was a story I was satisfied with and proud of. The dialogue was funny and flowed smoothly. The story was tight; due to having been written for a screenwriting course, the classic three-act structure was at the fore (even if I was a bit loose with it, and even if the premise is rather bizarre). Of course, it did occur to me that translating it so directly from script to short story would make it a rather dialogue-heavy piece of fiction, but I don’t really mind that if the dialogue is done well so I figured (hoped) that no one else would mind either. In the end, every single chapter of the story is exactly equivalent to each scene of the original script.
I set to work. From November through December, I went back to the original script. I copied most of the dialogue verbatim at first. I tweaked it. I added a few details, and expanded one or two scenes. I tweaked it again. Late in the process, I caught a minor plot hole (or at least a character inconsistency) and tweaked it again to fix that. I added exposition to balance the heavy emphasis on dialogue. I tweaked it some more, and then some more. Finally, I had a worthwhile rough draft.
Then it was time to edit. So I edited. I’ve never been very fond of editing my own work (in fact I usually kind of hate it) but I persevered. I got one edit done. Then another. I began sharing the edits with friends, including my long-time editor Franklin D. Lewis, who did a complete editing job for me, and for which I thank him immensely. Grammatical mistakes were caught and fixed. Spelling errors were repaired. Potential snags in the plot were revised. Sentences were punched up, things became a bit more brisk. It all started to take shape at last. I even ran the story by a friend of mine who studies microbiology, to check and see if the (potential) light science-fiction elements made any kind of general sense (apparently, they did, at least well enough).
By late January, it was all ready: all I had to do was format the thing as an eBook, and maybe a print-on-demand book, and I could say “Hey, I self-published a book!” The hard work was over, and the rest was simple, smooth-sailing, right? Say it with me now: WRONG!
If there is a Hell and it is designed to suit each person by surrounding them with what they hate the most, there’s a fair chance that mine would be filled with lots of book formatting. My naivety on this subject was immense; I had absolutely no idea how much work went into formatting. The idea of formatting an eBook, in particular, seems so simple; it seems like something you could do just by clicking a button in Microsoft Word. Once again, say it with me: WRONG!
Formatting the book turned out to be a labyrinthine maze of horrible crap. If you’ve never done it before, I’ll try and summarize it for you. Essentially, for an eBook, the formatting process involves keeping the text as plain as possible (no fancy fonts or any such thing, which isn’t so bad) and completely devoid of simple things you wouldn’t even give a thought to when writing normally. What “simple things” do I mean? For one thing, manual indentations are NOT ALLOWED. If you’ve hit the “tab” key at any point, you’ve committed one of the deadly eBook formatting sins. And God forbid you should, in your effort to properly format your book, miss something; if you mess something up and can’t identify what it was, you may have to “go nuclear” and start again from square one. Things like centering text require the set up of specific text styles, and even then, it might not work correctly in every format. It’s extremely easy to get lost; you have to save a new file after virtually every change you make, and Microsoft Word seems inclined to a lot of invisible shenanigans that are hard to identify. And don’t forget file conversion! That’s when you think you’ve fixed everything, only to look at the end result and discover a whole new set of mysterious problems.
I should probably qualify this by mentioning two things about myself: I can be a rather slow learner at times (quick to impatience and distraction) and I’m not all that tech-savvy. It’s entirely possible that someone who is quicker to learn, has more patience, or is simply more handy with these magical computer device thingies may not have nearly as difficult a time at book formatting as I did. Nonetheless, it was a special kind of grueling torture for me. There was a constant barrage of nigh-impossible-to-identify problems that were only solved by “going nuclear” and starting over again, and it seemed that even the simplest things were needlessly complex to do. There are those who format books for a fee, but I neither had the money nor desire to outsource; it was something I wanted to learn to do myself, even if I hated it. Boy, did I hate it.
Somehow, despite all the frustration, I eventually got it settled. First I decided to release it via Smashwords, due to their no-DRM policy and their willingness to include a “pay what you want” price option, which I’m fond of. Not only that, but their “Meatgrinder” software will convert your book into just about every major format imaginable and put your book up for sale on virtually every major bookseller’s site. Thankfully, the founder of Smashwords, Mark Coker, created The Smashwords Style Guide, a incredibly helpful formatting eBook. My initial plan was a Smashwords-only release. Amazon’s Kindle store could help me reach a wider audience, but they include DRM in their eBooks and that I don’t care for.
However, I realized that fellow author, Free Culture advocate, and CC0 user Aelius Blythe released her books on Kindle. Her rationale was that even if DRM was part of Kindle, it would make more people aware of her work and its CC0 status. The DRM of Kindle, after all, doesn’t cancel out the non-DRM versions. This made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to do as she did. But Smashwords (as Mark Coker admits in the Style Guide, and kudos to him for his honesty) doesn’t work well with Amazon, apparently, and the Style Guide recommended authors actually bypass Smashwords for Kindle releases and upload directly to Kindle to avoid headaches.
So from there I had to create the MOBI file, the only format accepted by Kindle, using the free conversion software Calibre. While some of The Smashwords Style Guide was general formatting advice, a good deal of it (as you can imagine) is specific to Smashwords. So formatting for Kindle involved a lot of searching through author blogs, tech blogs, Youtube videos, and tons of other things looking for formatting guides that even remotely came close to the helpfulness of the Smashwords guide. There were a ton of new problems and frustrations. Eventually, though, it too was finished.
Then came the last major formatting hurdle, one I had put off. I had really, despite the book’s short length, hoped to create a print edition. While initially considering going eBook-only, I couldn’t shake the feeling that not doing a print edition would be too much of a disappointment. There’s just something particularly satisfying about having a physical copy of something you’ve created. After some research, I settled on Amazon’s CreateSpace service. Another painful round of formatting commenced, with many new problems (the words “widows” and “orphans” have new and even more painful meanings for me now). Yet, once again, eventually it somehow was finished. Formatting all three had taken roughly four months, from January through the end of April.
There was just one big problem left. The book needed a cover.
The Cover Story
My first thought was an artist friend of mine, the very talented Dane Eichinger, but for personal reasons he wasn’t taking commissions at the time. I tried a few artists on Fiverr ($5 per image was really all I could afford, having lost my job the previous fall). While some of them weren’t bad, none of them really captured the look I was hoping for and had tried to describe, and most didn’t look very professional.
There was one artist in particular who came to mind as a great candidate for the job: Piti Yindee, the creator of the Wuffle comic series, who I’d written about on this blog at the beginning of the year. Not only is Piti an incredibly talented artist, he also shares my rather unique views on copyright, a quality I wasn’t likely to find anywhere else. His comic series Wuffle is released with a CC0 Waiver, just as I planned “Roadkill” to be, and I imagined that he might be my only chance to have a CC0 book cover to go along with my CC0 book.
Piti had commented on my blog when I’d written the post about him, and replied to a tweet about it, but I’d never spoken to him before otherwise. I was a bit nervous as I wasn’t used to asking for help from someone I barely knew. I had to be upfront about the fact that I didn’t have much money, and wasn’t sure when or if I could pay for a commission, but assured him that if he was willing to help me out, I would do my best to pay him back; if nothing else, I figured I could help out by doing some kind of writing or editing work. I don’t like the thought of taking up so much of someone’s time and effort without being able to give something back, so I hoped my writing and editing skills could at least be of use…if, that is, he would be willing to help me at all.
To my delight, however, Piti proved to be a most friendly and generous person, and he was willing to help me despite my uncertain situation. I was, ultimately, able to pay him, too. I’m still blown away by his generosity and patience through the whole process (especially for putting up with my long-winded, rambling emails). I don’t think I could ever thank him enough for all of his help and support.
However, I contacted him at one of the busiest possible times: his Wuffle IndieGoGo campaign, which I’d written about months earlier, had finished, and he was extremely swamped dealing with his own book being formatted, printed, and shipped out. It would be a few months until his schedule was free enough that he was able to begin designing my cover. So the project was on hold throughout the summer; it was frustrating to have to wait even longer, but I felt very lucky that Piti had any time at all during the year to help me, so I counted my blessings and moved on, though “Roadkill” was always at the back of my mind. I experimented on new projects in the mean-time, and began another new longer-form series of a much larger scope.
Once August arrived, however, he set to work, sending me rough sketches and revisions along the way. It was a magical experience, seeing the cover take shape from the rough idea in my head to the final, polished form Piti created. It was in mid-September that the cover was, at long last, finished. And it was a beautiful thing. I’m still in awe of it. Once again, I can’t thank him enough.
Bringing “Roadkill” to Life at Last
That brings us back to the present. The beautiful cover Piti created adorns the first, printed proof copy, sitting here next to me. I can still hardly believe that it’s finally almost over, and I can hardly wait to share this strange little story I’ve written with you.
As things currently stand, “Roadkill” should be released first on CreateSpace, as a print-on-demand book, on October 1st, 2013, followed shortly after by the Kindle edition and Smashwords edition (and Smashwords’ various affiliated sites, like Barnes and Noble, and Kobo). Last but not least, it will be released on the Internet Archive, and of course, the beloved TUEBL. I wish I had a more definitive date for the various eBook releases, but as this is my first attempt at releasing a book, I’d rather be honest and vague than misleading. All I can say is that I will get them all released as soon after the print edition as possible, hopefully on the same day. The ideal, of course, is for a book to launch in all formats at the same time, but this is a one-man book launch operation, and that man happens to have no prior book launch experience, so hopefully fate (and potential readers) will be kind to me. I’ve done my best.
Looking Back Down the Road
As I finish up this little recollection of “Roadkill,” and the past year, I can’t help but wonder about what’s next. Once the book is released, what then? I feel much like the characters of my story: tired, worn-out, uncertain, and yet strangely hopeful for the future, ready as I’ll ever be to face the unknown and secure in the knowledge that I’ve spent this time as best as I knew how. The last couple of years have been full of ups and downs. I’ve made some excellent friends along the way. I’ve felt lost. I’ve considered giving up writing for good. I’ve considered never releasing anything else once “Roadkill” is online, effectively retiring before I even really got started.
During the course of working on my book cover, Piti gave me the opportunity to become a proofreader on his Wuffle comic series, an opportunity I didn’t expect but couldn’t be more grateful for. Inspired by his kindness, and the dedication of other artist-and-author friends of mine, I started work on another series. I’m still not sure when or if I’ll release it publicly, but despite that uncertainty I feel better about writing than I have in a long time…too long a time. If nothing else, that makes me feel like releasing something new is more likely than not.
I suppose what I do next will, in part, be influenced by the reaction I get to “Roadkill.” I don’t have any expectations for it. It is, after all, a short story (or “novelette,” if you’re fancy), not a full-length novel. The strongest possibility seems to me that it won’t make much of an impact; it’s not a series, not something likely to build a fan base. I’m fine with that. What I really hope for is one or two kind words from a stranger who enjoys it. It may be short, but I really do think it’s a beautiful, strange little story.
I doubt I will rush into self-publishing something again, not to the same level of detail, anyway. I spent far more time formatting and polishing “Roadkill” than actually writing it, and I’d prefer to get back to simply writing. The next time I release something, if I do indeed release something else, I think I’ll just post it online first, likely right here on this blog. A friend of mine who writes fanfiction has inspired me to worry less about the polish and consider just sharing what I do, even the rough stuff.
Releasing even rough drafts would be a great way to focus on gaining feedback and finding readers who enjoy my work and want to return to it, and read more of it. It could be a great outlet for releasing a series, too, and the way things are going on my current project, there may be quite enough material to begin posting stuff soon if I decide that I want to. I’m even considering releasing it on a fanfiction site (though it’s mythology fanfiction, not popular-franchise fanfiction). It could also create a kind of collaborative process with readers, one that might make writing a little less lonely for me. What do you think? Feel free to comment.
Eyes on the Road Ahead
In my last “CC0 Heroes” post, I quoted Aelius Blythe’s description of the webfiction community, and it’s worth quoting again here: “…we happen to like the neighborhood. We say “Hell yeah!” to cheap fiction. We say it may not be worth $14.99 or $9.99 or even $5.99, but entertainment doesn’t need to have a price tag. And when it does, we’re likely to pass it by and go hang out on the porch steps of our crappy neighborhood for kicks.”
I love this idea. I think I might want to hang out in this neighborhood. If there’s one thing I learned during my little quarter-life crisis last fall, it’s the value of a good neighborhood. That value doesn’t come just from having good neighbors, but from being one. And good neighbors share. So I’ll share “Roadkill” for now and maybe I’ll have something else fun to share in the future. After all, isn’t that why I support Free Culture, and release my writing with CC0 in the first place? Isn’t that what Aelius, Piti, and every other artist who shares his or her work online (Free Culture or not) hopes to do? Sharing is caring, after all, and I hope more people realize that.
For now, though, I’m just going to enjoy this moment, enjoy the fact that finally, at long last, “Roadkill” is nearly finished. And I want to appreciate how far I’ve come in my writing practice, too.
After all this time, writing is fun again, something I look forward to doing rather than viewing as an obligation. Will it continue to be fun? I don’t know, but as long as it’s fun, and feels meaningful, I’ll keep at it. If it’s no longer fulfilling, I’ll see what else might be out there.
But for now, I’m going to keep writing.
I hope you’ll join me on the road ahead.