This week’s post is from Branden Johnson, author of the novel Heaven’s Forgotten. I’ve known Branden for over ten years and have watched him grow from a budding writer to a published author. He has also had three short stories (that I know of) published. One of those we reprinted in Fabula Argentea issue #3 “The Exoneration of David McCrae.”
With that brief intro, here’s Branden.
I’ve wanted to tell stories since I was thirteen years old. I remember typing my first—a book about some friends who became trapped in a virtual reality game—on an ancient laptop, a giant brick of a thing I borrowed from my dad. I’m not sure what happened to that story, but it was the key that got the engine going.
It wasn’t until late into high school that I began thinking in terms of novels. By the time I got to college, I figured I was pretty much good to go. I was wearing the blinders of the new writer. For whatever reason, I couldn’t see that my writing in no way compared to even some of the lower-quality stuff being published.
(The first short story I wrote in college I immediately sent to The New Yorker for consideration. I never heard back.)
When writing in a vacuum stopped being satisfying, I decided to seek out some feedback. Not from family or friends, but from strangers. I think I still had the blinders on, and I didn’t expect anyone to have much to say beyond praise.
I joined Zoetrope.com, an online writers’ group resource, where authors can submit stories and give and receive feedback from their peers. The feedback I received there made a world of difference. Particularly from Rick Taubold, who took the time to look at my work in depth and help me grow. He invited me to join his own writers’ group, and I grew even further there.
That was the first hurdle I had to overcome: being too sure of myself. Once I’d heard from enough unbiased readers, I came to accept I had a lot to learn. With that, I was able to work on developing my craft.
The second hurdle was actually writing a damn book.
I’d already written one novel (that was, and still is, sitting on a hard drive somewhere not doing anyone any good), one that I’d had no luck in finding a home. I’d written several short stories, a couple of which I’d been able to publish in print journals. Throughout my last year of college, and into the first year of my working life, I continued to send this novel out to every agent I could find.
Each new rejection somehow cast a shadow over previous successes. This agent doesn’t think I have what it takes, so obviously the editor who accepted my short story for publication didn’t know what she was doing. Right?
Naturally, that’s nonsense, but the mind facing rejection takes a lot of stupid detours. And I haven’t even had it as bad as some of our most famous and treasured authors. I was ready to throw in the towel after a couple dozen rejections—other, better writers than myself have faced hundreds.
I eventually did stop sending that first novel out and began writing a second. After a lengthy rewriting and editing process, I started sending it out, too. To no avail.
I’ll fully admit I was ready to give up on that document, the book that became Heaven’s Forgotten. Stick it in the drawer and forget about it. At best, maybe release it someday when some other novel I write goes on to become a bestseller.
But one day, I heard about #Pit2Pub on Twitter. I had no earthly idea what that meant. I knew it was related to publishing, and I was curious, so I took a look. It turns out it’s a pitching campaign put on by small and indie publishers to find new writers. You compose a tweet, tag it with #Pit2Pub and the genre, and use your remaining characters to pitch the story. Here was mine:
#Pit2Pub #PNR #NA Having an angel for an ex-lover who blames her for his fall from Heaven puts Moira and her half-angel daughter on the run.
This put me in touch with my publisher, European Geeks Publishing, and got the ball rolling. I still went through the standard submission process, and I was still very surprised when I received the offer of publication. As I’m sure many have done, I had to read the email a few times before it fully sank in.
The book came out October 12, 2015, and it feels very weird even today to type a sentence like that. “The book came out.” Even six months ago, that would have sounded absurd to me.
There are two points that I can draw out of this publishing story, points that I would love to go back and tell myself in the midst of the struggle.
The first is to get unbiased feedback. Don’t shy away from it. Develop a thick skin and find a few people who know what they’re talking about to tell you what you need to hear. Writing is an art, but it’s also a craft, one you can always improve upon.
The second is to resist the urge to give up. If I had missed the opportunity with my publisher, who knows? I might never have published Heaven’s Forgotten.
There’s nothing revolutionary in either of those lessons. Others have said them many times in many different ways. But my hope is that hearing it from someone who is just beginning the journey of publishing will be an encouragement. I don’t know about you, but for me, hearing words of advice from Stephen King, while nice and often helpful, don’t always feel the most practical or applicable. He’s a literary superstar; I’m just some guy.
But believe me: If I can do it, anyone can. It’s just hard work and persistence.
RICK ADDS: You can buy Heaven’s Forgotten in paperback or the Kindle e-book by clicking the cover picture of Branden’s book on the right of the blog.