Self-Publishing for the First Time by Alexander Lane

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Alexander Lane

Alexander Lane

From novella to novel, and back again

It’s August 2017. I’m sweating buckets in the Borneo rainforest, trying (and mostly failing) to hammer nails into planks of aptly-named ironwood. Hard work aside, I’ve had an incredible three weeks, volunteering with the Orangutan Foundation at one of their research posts in the jungle.

The jungle is beautiful, and we’ve been closer to wild orangutans than I could ever have imagined. I’m keenly aware that it’s also full of dangers for the unwary, there’s an illegal mine upriver which (from a distance) looks like a piece of First World War no man’s land has been dropped into the forest, and our living conditions are basic.

Like any writer with an idle mind, I start to wonder what would happen to the dozen volunteers and our hosts if we couldn’t get out. There’s only one way in and out of this tropical paradise: the river. We’re resupplied every few days, not least with potable water.

There’s a writing deadline on my horizon: the month-long NaNoWriMo writing challenge in November. I need an idea that will power 50,000-words of rapid creative writing, and I want to be more prepared for this year’s attempt. I’d completed the challenge in 2016, pantsing my way through a rambling tale that hit the Nano target with no end in sight. I can write a lot of words, which is one step towards a novel.

A career in journalism hasn’t made me a natural plotter, though, so I spend the next few months prepping my characters, sketching the relationships which will drive a lot of their story. The practical tips and sage advice within Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook are an immense help. I’ve also got hundreds of photos to reference, and quickly develop a rough outline of how the story will descend from holiday-of-a-lifetime to nightmare vacation.

I want to experiment with a found-footage epistolary format, combining diaries with more contemporary media. My ambitions are more Blair Witch Project than House of Leaves, but it will give me a chance to play with voices and styles. It’s an extended writing exercise and I have no idea if it will succeed.

November spawns a monster

Blood RiverNovember finishes. I’ve blitzed through NaNoWriMo, tying up my story at around 56,000 words with several days to spare. I’ve had a lot of fun torturing my characters and Blood River is much better than I’d expected, but I set it aside, as recommended by Stephen King. A few months later I read it through and it’s still a decent vomit draft, so I begin to revise and polish. I sign up for a novel-writing short course and hand it to the tutor, who returns a positive verdict and copious notes (for a fee, of course).

Their key note is that I need a clear protagonist. I’ve got an ensemble cast, but novels aren’t TV shows and publishers prefer pitches based around a single character. Another revision ensues and I start to believe that I could publish this thing.

At this point, I make a wrong turn and convince myself that it must become a 90,000-word novel. Much of the next year is spent trying to achieve this via different routes, until I complete a 110,000-word manuscript that I’m happy with. I’m about to begin a Creative Writing MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and that needs a fresh project. I find friends willing to beta read, and Blood River goes back into storage.

I graduate from the MA with a distinction and a half-finished manuscript for a new novel, In Machina, plus beta feedback and a plan to polish Blood River before I submit it to agents. Fast forward through 18 months of unsuccessful queries: I decide that this odd novel might not find a champion amongst traditional agents, but I can use it to learn about self-publishing. The costs are minimal and the worst that can happen is some bad reviews.

I’ve also gone off the novel-length version, so I slim my MS back down to a punchy novella. At this stage, I’ve probably written in excess of 200,000 words across various revisions, which teaches me to outline early if I want to revise less later on.

These things take time

Self-publishing is complicated: Scrivener users will understand the fear of the compiler, which requires a very different, disciplined mindset from my novel-writing brain. Creating and formatting the ebook and paperback editions out of Scrivener is even more difficult when you’re trying to present multiple voices without an ugly barrage of alternate fonts.

My cover art budget is non-existent and I’m aware that Amazon is full of self-published covers more horrific than anything that I could write. Fortunately, my partner is a graphic designer who can turn my amateur notions of cover design and book layout into a professional product. Even with her help, it takes far, far longer to deliver publishable books than I had expected. My June 2022 target slips to July, then August. Amazon will only ship my author’s proof copies to the UK, not Ireland, which adds more delays. I settle for September 1st.

This gives me a little time to explore Advance Reader Copies, for which I select a NetGalley co-operative (Victory Publishing) and BookSirens. I wait anxiously for the paperback edition to go live, then my listings on Goodreads and BookBub. The Irish summer ends promptly at the end of August, and my first ebook goes live on Amazon the next day.

ARC reviews begin to pop up. Blood River wins a few five stars, a couple of three stars that read like five stars (why would you do that?), and a two star (but it’s reasonable). I’d love to know whether other authors feel this way, but I find it incredibly uplifting to discover that something I’ve written brings joy to complete strangers. I can’t wait to finish my WIP and write a second Nightmare Vacation novella. Hopefully, it won’t take another five years.

(c) Alexander Lane

About Blood River

Blood RiverTrapped in the Borneo jungle, British eco-tourist Tara must protect her fellow travellers from a killer possessed by a bloodthirsty animal spirit.

Tara wants to forget her abusive ex. Wild child Alison yearns for the rainforest to heal her soul. Student Maya’s thrilled by her first long-haul adventure. Bad boy Cristian’s chasing his next conquest. Everyone else just wants to see the orangutans.

Their tropical paradise turns to torrid nightmare when they’re stranded by freak weather and targeted by ruthless thugs. Tara must discover hidden strength to get anyone home alive.

But the greatest dangers lie within: jealousy, vengeance and a primal hatred unleashed by the forest itself.

The journey up Blood River was easy. Coming home is a killer.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alexander Lane has almost died on several continents. When he’s not writing, he’s thinking about travelling around our planet or into the stars. Much like Max Headroom, he lives about 15 minutes into the future.
He’ll be wondering whether scuba diving is truly as safe as it is incredible, planning his next trip to somewhere that’s hopefully more fun than fatal, or dreaming of the many ways that space travel could be both wonderful and dangerous. He always buys good travel insurance, and so should you.
He graduated with a distinction from the creative writing MA at St Mary’s Universi-ty, Twickenham, in 2020. His first published novella is Blood River, and he’s currently working on the first two books of a science fiction series, In Machina.
He currently lives in Ireland, where there are no snakes or large predators.

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