On September 10, I was honored to give the Independent Writer of the Year speech at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2016 Gold Conference. I am posting the speech in its entirety for those interested.
Thank you, Susan, for that wonderfully kind introduction. And thank you to all of you. Without you, I wouldn’t be standing here. I mean that. My wonderful critique groups, the members that I’ve become close with, and my fellow finalists, Sue Duff and Nathan Lowell. If you haven’t had the chance to get to know them, take the time to do so this weekend. They are amazing authors. Every one of you has been part of me getting to the place where I am as an author.
I first attended the Gold in 2013, and OMG, did it open my eyes as to what needed to happen in order for me to move from writing that novel, to actually finishing it, and becoming an author. Initially, that list of to-dos seemed huge. Add to that, I joined RMFW one week before the Gold Conference. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.
But I came away from Conference with a burning enthusiasm, and a realization that I could indeed reach publication. I’ll be honest and tell you that I had a completely different path in mind as to how to get there three years ago. I made a list of agents, including my Dream Agent, and set about wooing them with my mastery.
Don’t laugh! I actually had a small measure of success. Requests for pages. Polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ after they read the pages. I wasn’t crushed, although I did sulk for a day after Dream Agent passed. I figured I’d get one of them with the next book, and I set out to work on the new project.
And that is where I was, in 2014. I’d joined an amazing critique group, and I was learning my craft, and beginning to have a better idea of why my first novel hadn’t gone anywhere. I was in a good place.
I had no intention of being an indie author, none at all. I didn’t even really know about being self-published. But that year, I learned – and that brings me to what I want to talk about tonight – why going indie and being self-published can be an amazing choice for you to make as an author.
Essentially, it’s making the choice to be the captain of your own boat.
You all may not know this, but I spent nearly ten years in another life teaching sailing. Three years of that, I spent in the Florida Keys. I mention the Keys because when teaching there, you’re teaching in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Anything can and will happen. I never, ever had a motor on the boat, the thought being that we had to teach the students to operate without one. In my experience, when sailing, the motor only goes out when you need it most – so you need to learn to do all the things under sail. You have to be prepared, and you learn to be creative, read the wind, and watch for opportunity.
That sums up how I see life in Indie Land, as a self-published author. It’s amazing, in my opinion, because you are your own boss on all levels. Just like when I taught sailing in the Keys, you’re in a wide-open ocean, and the possibilities of where you can go are endless.
Endless doesn’t mean easy.
But to me, the opportunity to be in charge of where your career goes is worth hard work. That’s the joy of being the captain of your own boat. You chart the course.
One of the questions I got the most when teaching was “Will the boat tip?”
My answer was, Sure, we can. We probably won’t, in this boat. The design prevents it. Tipping is what is referred to as turtling in sailing – your boat turns upside down 180 degrees. Generally, if you turtle, gravity and the boat design will eventually right you. The moments when you’re upside down, frankly, will suck. But you have to have faith in yourself, and your boat, and know that you will eventually be upright again.
If you make a mistake as an indie author, if you turtle in some way, just like the boat, you can right yourself.
That is something you must keep in mind as you move through your career. Understand that fear is a natural thing. The fear of what might happen, or of the unknown – if you’re not afraid, you’re not looking at all the possibilities. But you can overcome the fear. Don’t allow yourself to be so afraid that you freeze. Recognize your fear, take a look at what could happen, prepare as best you can. Then get in the boat, drop the lines, and push off from the dock. That is the hardest thing in sailing, as in life, to me. To actually push off from the dock, and send yourself out into the unknown.
Under sail, you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. There are always potential mishaps lurking, waiting for an opportunity. As authors, we’re well aware of many of those potential mishaps. We actually toss a lot of them in our way – we’re our own worst enemies. Get away from that. Don’t undermine yourself – have faith in your boat, in your work. Know that you can’t control everything. All you can do is control your actions.
So as I mentioned, in 2014, I was happily querying, and working on a new novel, and basically, completely okay with being a passenger on someone else’s boat. Sitting in the cockpit, having a boat drink, and enjoying the sun. I wasn’t the captain.
However, I came across an opportunity to leave that boat, and captain my own. How does that happen? I mean, I had total buy-in for my chosen path.
I’ll tell you.
My critique group moderator had been to a conference where she heard Courtney Milan speak. After she got back from that conference, we talked about self-publishing. I was so intrigued because it was presented in a way I hadn’t considered before. I went home and holed up in front of the computer and googled SP until my eyes were ready to fall out of my head.
At that point, with all this information in front of me, I had a choice to make. Did I stay on the boat I sat on currently, and make another drink, and move along? Or did I step off that boat and onto my own boat, steering towards an unknown horizon to see what happened?
To say that such an idea was scary to me is an understatement. Even now, two years later, I can feel the drop in my stomach as I contemplated setting out on my own, into something where I didn’t see a clear path.
You can guess what I did, because I’m standing here. Even scared to death, the idea of being my own captain appealed to me. And I knew from my sailing experience that while changing course can be challenging, it also has the possibility of being incredible.
This is like when I was out with students one day, and the wind was shifty and weird, and I looked to the southeast, and I saw a waterspout. For those of you unfamiliar with waterspouts, they are tornados that form over water.
Now our teaching boat was not overly fast, and I had no way to get away from the waterspout quickly if it came towards us, because remember – No Motor! And of course, it was coming towards us!
So I did what I had to do on the water – adapt, and handle it. The students put on life jackets, we reefed the sails, and discussed the plan of action should the thing catch up with us. I had to. I was the captain of the boat. The students looked to me for the answers. I’ll be honest, I was winging it, because REALLY? A waterspout? I’d only heard about them before that moment.
The waterspout kept heading towards us, and it was gaining on us. Every time I looked at it, what I wanted to do was huddle in the cockpit, cover my eyes, and hope for the best. But the captain can’t do that. So I shoved down the fear, tried to remember all I could about riding out sudden storms, and braced for it.
Thankfully, the waterspout dissipated before it got too close. But you know what was left over? Shifty, puffy, squirrelly wind. Rougher water. A challenging situation.
And that was one of the best days I’ve ever had out on the water. One of my top five teaching days. That came out of something that began by scaring the pants off me.
And that is what this, my career as an indie, is right now. Being nominated as the IWOTY is one of the rides of my life. It started out scary, too.
That’s what being an indie is all about. It’s a leap of faith – knowing you’ve done the best work you can, knowing your tribe is there to guide you when you need help. With your tribe, you can build your production team, just like building the crew of your publishing boat that will help you get to where you want to go.
Don’t be afraid to act. As the captain, you have to keep up with the boat. You have to do your homework, keep track of the changing conditions, or things will go wrong. That can slow you down, and reinforce the idea that setting out on your own was a foolish choice.
It’s wasn’t. Louisa May Alcott wrote something that resonated with me from the moment I read it: I’m not afraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship. I read that before I learned to sail, before I began writing with purpose. Once I knew how to sail, and had made it through storms, I realized how true it is. Not only for sailing, but anything worthwhile in life. Everything has less than ideal situations.
Indie Land is full of them. Just like sailing, however, you can make choices. On a boat, you have 360 degrees of choice – and you can go any direction you want. It’s the same in Indie Land. That horizon is wide open.
One of the things about sailing is that you have a lot of time to think. That’s also true for us as authors. We sit and create alone, and make time to stew over things, ruminate, and to fear.
That fear is the Kracken below, waiting for the signal to come out and wreak havoc on you. The secret that no one tells you is that the Kracken is within you. Which means if you see him, you’re the one who let him out.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey of being an indie author, it’s that you can’t let fear drive your choices. Fear makes for some faulty navigation. If you’re feeling lost, all you need to do is look up. The stars are there to guide you. If it’s cloudy, use a compass. In Indie Land, other authors can – and will – be your compass when you’re in doubt.
There are many ways to get out on the water and go sailing. Just as there are many ways to become published. It’s a completely valid choice to go out on a boat with someone else as the captain. It’s where I began my journey. But now, for me as an author as well as a sailor, the best place to be is at the helm of the boat, of my boat, with both hands on the wheel.
I’ll leave you with an amazing quote from William Arthur Ward that I love:
The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the sails.
Be the captain. Be a realist. Push off from the shore.