The Story of My Middling Success (Part 3)
In part one, I told you about my spooky October, when book sales crept up on me, and I began losing sleep over their eventual plummet and gruesome end. Then I regaled you with my chilling November, where the Fall should surely have come to return me to ignoble obscurity. And now this little trilogy of gut-spilling and soul-searching diatribes ends with my December of 2011, when my middling success took several wrenching turns and left me stunned, breathless, and as close as I’ve come to seeing the ball drop in a decade of trying to stay up past midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The last three Novembers have been all about writing for me, about the old NaNo, which traditionally left the month of December for recuperation. Not this year. Instead of drafting a new novel with my NaNo, I wrote the three stories that follow WOOL. Sales were rising, the pressure was on, and I needed to satisfy the mad cravings of reviewers whose only complaint with WOOL was that there wasn’t enough of it!
So, when December 1st hit, I was doing something unimaginable. Possibly unprecedented. I was watching the first copies of a NaNo project fly out the door. And not to family and friends mind you, but strangers! Think about this (I sure had to): Something I wrote on the first of November was being gobbled up on the first of December. Not just written, but revised six or seven times, edited, cover art created, paginated and prepped for the Kindle store.
I was putting 8 hours a day into these books on top of working a 30 hour workweek. My routine, almost invariably, went (and continues to go) like this:
Wake up before 6:00 (in December, it was often at 4:00 or 4:30), eat a bowl of cereal and sit down in front of my laptop. Check my email and a few websites while I spoon down what I consider the human version of dog food. Fire up Pages and start writing/revising/Photoshopping/Indesigning. Go to my day job at 10:00. Take lunch at noon, write/revise for an hour while I eat half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a small box of raisins. Go back to work until 5:00. Go home, eat dinner, plant myself back in front of my computer until I pass out around 9:30. Get up and do it all over again.
That’s how a “first sentence” turned into sales thirty days later. And while WOOL 2 got its legs beneath it, WOOL 3 was sitting in draft, waiting to be revised. It was crazy to follow sales on the first two while I cleaned up the third. The fourth book, meanwhile, wasn’t even finished. I had the last chapter written (the cliffhanger agonized even me!), but there were other chapters with just placeholder notes. “Lukas Chapter.” “More Knox.” Stuff like that. This was already stressing me out as WOOL 3 gradually came together. I was going to have to transition from revising back to writing with no break between. NaNos were not supposed to go like this.
WOOL 3 went live on the 12th of December. It felt like it took forever to get it out there, but it was truly a blistering pace. The cover art was by far my favorite, mostly because it required photographs of me in a mock “cleaning suit” and digital editing beyond what I thought I was capable of. The final result looked (to me, at least) like a real science fiction book, not the self-published, indie, awesomeness it really was. On the day WOOL 3 went live, it sold 15 copies. And I think it was late in the day, I can’t remember. WOOL 2 had already sold 212 copies for the month. (Remember when I told you I made a spreadsheet at my wife’s insistance? It’s coming in handy right now).
212 copies of the Second WOOL in 12 days. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like much. At the time, I was probably dancing around the living room, or just sitting there, gaping at my wife, wondering if she knew what the hell was going on (she didn’t and still doesn’t. Neither do I).
I was glad to have WOOL 3 out in the wild. It felt like I was in a rhythm now, giving readers what they’d clamored for. Amazon reviews began popping up. They seemed to be more effusive and positive with each entry, like readers were getting excited with where I was taking them. But still with those damn cliffhangers, a bad (or good, for those who rave about them) habit I had formed with the Molly books. I didn’t want to leave people hanging, especially not at the end of WOOL 3, so I dove into the writing for WOOL 4.
“When’s it coming out?”
The emails were pouring in, demanding to know. I was getting Tweets about the release date. None of this had ever happened before.
“January 1st,” I said, because it seemed like a nice date.
And now I was well and truly fucked. I still had chapters missing. My boss was going out of town for a week, turning my 30 hour job into a 40 hour job. That meant getting up earlier and staying up later. When my wife took off for balmy Florida for the holidays and took our dog with her, this left me in the house alone. I basically stopped sleeping. The laptop was plugged in beside the bed. I would eat cereal for breakfast, half a PB&J for lunch, and cereal for dinner. I took a photo of my dishwasher one day and titled the shot: “Three Days of Solitude.” It was six bowl and six spoons arranged in a pathetic melange of bachelorhood. At the time, it seemed quite clever to my sleep-deprived mind.
At night, I would wake up every five or ten minutes and type notes, paragraphs, dialog, sometimes an entire chapter. Work at my day job was slow, so I dusted shelves and daydreamed plot elements and more dialog. I didn’t need to drive home to walk the dog (she was lounging on a beach in Florida with my wife), which provided me with two extra days of lunch-hour writing.
There was no way I was making January 1st with WOOL 4. I had this pattern with setting deadlines, you see. I always beat them. Soundly. I set ridiculous expectations of my time, and then I exceded them. It never failed to worry my wife. I blame my new gray hairs on her, but it’s really the writing, the pace, the obsession. Man, I hope she doesn’t read this. Stop reading this, Honey. Like, a paragraph ago.
But this time there was no way I’d make my self-imposed deadline. No way. My mother and sister came to town, so I left with an unfinished draft of WOOL 4 to spend a few days at her mountain home for Christmas. Four days WITH NO INTERNET.
My salvation. Unable to obsess over book sales, I dove into WOOL 4 and rarely came up. I completed the draft in two twelve-hour monster writing days, my mother and sister watching me with concern. To distract them, I made them open their Christmas presents early. Amazon Kindles. Their eyes averted, I returned to my obsessive ways and somehow (I still don’t know how), massaged a convoluted draft into WOOL 4, which I thought was pretty amazing as I began to revise it.
I did five or six full revisions/edits over the next two days. My mother, who is my primary editor these days, read through and marked it up with her new red pens (a selfish Christmas gift on my part. As were the Kindles, to be honest). I incorporated these changes, set my sister to knitting a swatch for the cover I had half-dreamed-up, and WOOL 4 was done.
I can’t tell you what a crazy whirlwind it was, putting those three books together in the space of a month. On top of it all, WOOL kept rising and rising. It went to #2 in all of Kindle Science Fiction the week before Christmas (I only have a dozen or so screenshots of the occasion). Reviews, emails, and Tweets kept pouring in. I managed my Goodreads author page a little better, started a W.O.O.L. Facebook fanpage (you should join), and even began the bookblocks for the interiors of the physical copies, which is a mega-endeavor. All the while, I watched WOOL sell and sell.
If you remember, I went nuts in October when it barely hit 1,000 books. In November, I wigged out over 3,000. The end was nigh, right? It sure seemed that way heading into Christmas. Sales started declining, even as the sequels arrived on the scene. But I wasn’t used to watching those; I was always focused on the first book. For a while (when it hit #2), it was selling over 250 copies a day! At $0.35 per copy to me (let’s face it: I’m giving these awesome little guys away), that meant almost $90 in WOOL books each day. I make $60 a day working at the bookstore (six hours a day). I was out-earning my day job! The dream of any artist! But I knew it wouldn’t last. And it didn’t.
Leading up to Christmas morning, where I dreamed of being #2 on the sci-fi list and seeing sales skyrocket (I didn’t tell anyone, always keeping my mask of pessimism intact, but I secretly dreamed of selling 1,000 WOOLs in a single day when millions of new Kindle owners fired those puppies up and saw ME! waving my arms and urging them to join the revowooltion). Instead, sales tanked the week before Christmas. I plummeted to #21, off the front page entirely. I was despondent. These were the days of wrapping up WOOL 4, and I would drive to the coffee shop or library in West Jefferson, N.C. once or twice a day, log in, and weep at my misfortune. I had peaked too early! My writing career was over! These were not exaggerations!
What I was doing, of course, was ignoring all my other books. WOOL was still selling over 100 copies a day (this is how it goes: you cry today over yesterday’s triumphs) and WOOLs 2 & 3 were starting to do the same. The week after Christmas, order began to restore itself. WOOL climbed all the way back up to #5 and began bouncing around between there and #10. The other WOOLs straggled behind like ducklings, squawking and making noise in the top 40. Hell, at one point, I had one tenth of the top 40 books in science fiction. And HALF WAY HOME was going nuts, and the MOLLY books were picking up steam, as well as THE HURRICANE and THE PLAGIARIST (which deserves more love, in my opinion).
The spreadsheet didn’t lie. On the last day of December, the final day of 2011, when I finally started feeling like an author (in addition to a writer), I saw that I had sold over 10,000 books. It was probably over 11,000 with the iTunes, Nook, and physical books thrown in.
I wouldn’t see the money (still haven’t) for another three months, but the tally was there, staring me in the face. It’s what I make in five months at the bookstore. As January began, I was making in a day what I normally make in a week. I say this knowing full well it could end at any time, which is why I’m hesitant to project even an hour into the future (and why I haven’t quit my day job). Still, for one month, the month of December in the year of 2011, I became a full-fledged author. I had fans. Strangers were reading (and more importantly: reviewing) my works.
And then I realized I had a major problem.
I had a blank Pages document in front of me.
I had told lots of people that WOOL 5 would be the end of this incredible story.
I had said it would be out in February.
And so I woofed down my bowl of Grapenuts humanfood, wiggled my butt into the dented cushion of my couch, and I got a’crackin’. . .