I’ve just self-published my first novella, Hell, and while it’s not exactly topping the charts (yet!) it feels like a major accomplishment. Much of my academic writing has been published as articles, book chapters and even as a full-length monograph. It felt like a waste to let the fiction I wrote as a hobby sit on my hard drive but I soon learned that the traditional publishing route might not be the way to go. So I went on a journey.
About six years ago I was dissatisfied with my fiction. Fiction had been a hobby for many years, I had even been a productive member of a creative writing group, but as my studies got busier and I started working part-time to support myself I stopped writing fiction altogether. My head felt empty, unable to come up with anything interesting, and the passion that had given me so much joy before became a source of frustration.
Then, in the summer of 2014, I picked up a pen and notebook once again. I had no plan, no flash of inspiration, and I have believed ever since that both are pointless to aim for. Just start writing. Just play. See what happens. I remembered that many years before I had had a nightmare that had continued to haunt me. In the story I explored a glass house occupied by strange creatures and their elusive owner. What if I tried to write her story? Maybe I would finally why anyone would want to create such a horrifying place.
The result was The Glass House, a short story. Writing a short story I was happy with after such a long time of creative non-activity gave me the confidence to take on the longer and more demanding project that became Hell. Both The Glass House and Hell are about women finding their own voice and place in the world and, implicitly, about mental health. Both subjects are close to my heart.
I wrote Hell over the course of that summer, during my lunch breaks, and proved yet again that sometimes it’s best to work with what you’ve got rather than wait for the perfect circumstances to work in. Contrary to much of my earlier aborted attempts Hell proved easy to write. It was a fun and enjoyable experience. I loved the gothic feel of it all. At that point I wasn’t thinking about publication at all. I was just happy to be writing again.
And then, as I was about to finish the first draft, life happened. My mum had a severe stroke, from which she has since recovered, but the experience turned life as I knew it on its head. There’s nothing like a confrontation with death to reshuffle your sense of priorities. Hell is a fictional story and none of the characters and events are real but it’s fair to say that its plot would have looked very different had I not answered the phone one Friday morning and heard my dad tell me those words that would change life forever.
Did I seek publication for Hell? Not really. I was working and studying and content to write fiction as a hobby. By the time I changed my mind my grandmother had become unwell and once again, the focus of Hell shifted. Whereas before it was a horror story, I would now argue that it is more about relationships and coming of age, confronting the secrets of adults, and finding one’s place in the world. I submitted Hell for the MsLexia Novella Prize 2018 and found out that I had been shortlisted just days before my grandmother passed away. Again, proof that life and art can be intertwined in unexpected and confusing ways.
Of course I didn’t win the prize. I have entered many competitions since and never made it beyond the shortlist. Yet it was a good experience: I now knew that my writing was not completely rubbish. It felt increasingly silly to write these stories and then put them in a drawer to die. Fame and wealth have never interested me and I knew that my writing wasn’t exactly fashionable. I also had no literary connections whatsoever. Hence no hope for a book deal. So what to do?
I’d caution anyone against allowing themselves to let their life be ruled by frustration. The world is often a dishonest, unpleasant and unhappy place, but it also offers more possibilities than one might expect. So if a traditional publishing deal isn’t on the cards, I started thinking, is there another way to get my work out there?
I had worked briefly for a self-publishing company many years ago. Technology had come a long way since then. I had published an academic book – Extreme States – and several academic articles and book chapters. I had no illusions about knowing everything, or about being able to achieve what publishers can achieve by myself, but I reckoned I knew enough to self-publish Hell. And what I didn’t know yet, I could learn.
Self-publishing is often frowned upon, seen as a vanity exercise that removes the gatekeeper function of traditional publishers and releases floods of drivel onto an already saturated media landscape. My own opinion is a bit more nuanced. I think publishing and self-publishing can easily exist together. Indie and DIY approaches have long been common in other creative sectors, such as music and film. And with everyone broadcasting themselves on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, I can’t see why self-publishing my thoughts in book form would be a weird or embarrassing thing to do.
Turning Hell from a manuscript into a book was fun. I learned so much. It was a lovely creative project to work during a pandemic that ravaged through life as we all knew it. In that respect Hell has already been a success, even if no one ever reads it and I’m just talking to myself here.
I don’t care about becoming the next Stephen King, I’m just doing this just for the joy of it. And I feel that, in this day and age, we need joy and beauty more than ever before.
Image my own – Hell cover