Today I welcome fellow Clean Reads author, Brett Armstrong, to share his Path to Publication story. Without further ado, here’s Brett…
Path to Publication
My journey to being published really started when I was nine years old. That was when, after years of reading books in the library, particularly history books, I decided to write a story of my own. The result was an original story set in the last years of the Aztec Empire. A slave from a rival people group was supposed to have been sacrificed, but escapes and blends into Aztec society, determined to get revenge. Which he eventually did and overthrew the Aztec Emperor. It was all handwritten and led me to write two “sequels” which followed the characters all the way to Hernan Cortes’ arrival and subsequent devastation of the Aztecs. I say it was my first step to publishing, because after I finished part III in Aztec, I got a special folder, bound the handwritten pages in it, drew some cover art and even made up my own press name and put it on the back. To nine year old me, I had written my first book and was pretty proud.
Over the next decade I kept writing stories as they came to me. Some set in space, some horror stories, a western, whatever caught my imagination. My English teachers and high school creative writing teacher were very positive about my writing and encouraged me to pursue it in college. During my senior year, however, I was pretty much convinced there was no way I could be a writer professionally, and thought I should pursue a career in biomechanical engineering (I also did well in anatomy, art, and math). I found out West Virginia University, my college of choice, was going to have a program in biomechanical engineering through a newspaper article on it. I went to Morgantown intent on following that path only to discover the biomechanical engineering program wasn’t a degree program yet and wouldn’t be for years. It was only a modified mechanical engineering program with a certificate saying I had worked on biomedical topics while at WVU. Seeing I was at a loss, a friend talked me into moving into computer engineering. So for three years I prepared to be a computer engineer, even though I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be my life’s passion. I don’t think I really contemplated that full on though until I had a blank space in my schedule for my first semester junior year and decided to take a creative writing class for fun. Which it was. A lot of fun actually. So much fun I took the next level course a semester later.
While in the second creative writing course I had a couple breakthrough moments writing-wise. The first came when I wrote a short story titled Destitutio Quod Remissio and had it critiqued by the class. My professor called it “beautiful” and my classmates said it was “cinematic”, “epic”, and most importantly enthusiastically volunteered to help me turn the story into a novel. That was the first and only time in any creative writing course I’ve been privy to that kind of sentiment. Later in the semester I remember walking to my car after class, which was a fair distance, and just stopping in midstride. My thoughts from the moment I’d left the classroom to that point had been fixated on writing. I knew that with the semester ending soon, my writing would be as well and the thought was painful. It caught me by surprise, though in retrospect it seems like I had always been building to it, but I realized I did not want to give up writing. Writing felt different, far different from any other task I’d ever undertaken. Even subjects I enjoyed: history, math, and art, never made me feel the way delving deep into the fictional realm of story could. I often tell people, standing there I understood the statement attributed to 1924 Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell, “God made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure.” I haven’t been able to shake the feeling since.
My then fiancée graciously indulged and encouraged my newfound determination to pursue writing. She read my first adult novel (still unpublished and a work-in-progress) and has supported me every step of my journey, even when the proverbial stack of rejection e-mails began piling up. I read up on agents, publishers, query letters, and just about any and every of the myriad of topics related to getting a book into print to refine my pitches and queries. Meanwhile, I graduated from WVU with my computer engineering and computer science degrees, and had a minor in creative writing along with the first thirty pages of the novelization of Destitutio Quod Remissio in hand. Within a year I had the completed manuscript and submitted it in the 2014 CrossBooks Writing Contest. While I waited on the outcome of that contest I really started thinking about what life as a writer should look like for me and I decided that rather than going into writing full time, I wanted to be able to give back. If God blessed me with the privilege to write for others I wanted to also be able to give from what I’d received. So I decided I would keep working full-time at my new job as programmer analyst for the WV Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology and write in my free time. In that way I could donate my book royalties to charity and mission work.
In April 2014, Destitutio Quod Remissio was announced as the winner of the CrossBooks Writing Contest. I literally jumped up and down when I got the phone call. It was a national contest from an imprint of B&H Publishing Group/LifeWay (the publisher for Southern Baptist churches) and meant Destitutio Quod Remissio would be in print, receive a marketing and publicity campaign, and next year I’d get to be a judge on the next contest’s panel. By October 31st, Destitutio Quod Remissio was on Amazon. In spite of everything I’d read up that point on getting a book published, I had neglected to read up on what to do after you had a book in hand as an author. Which for the record, I do not recommend. I knew nothing of marketing, blog tours, street teams, book signings and festivals, any of that side of publishing. I was leaning pretty heavily on the publisher to market the book for me. That was a mistake and a rather large one. I did have a few helpful things happen, though even those I didn’t actively pursue, like getting a book signing at a local LifeWay store and having an article about me in my state’s biggest newspaper. I’m still trying to find my way to where I should have been three years ago. Or a more positive way of looking at it is that I’m learning and making progress.
My road to being a published author also hit a major road bump when I found out just shy of a year after winning the contest that LifeWay had decided to close CrossBooks permanently. In May my publisher was gone and had handed my book over to Thomas Nelson’s self-publishing imprint West Bow Press. Thankfully I didn’t have to pay to have it re-published through them, but all of the marketing from CrossBooks I had been depending on was gone. DQR was back in print by my birthday in August, though a lot of my pride that came with it had been leveled. Which was a good thing. Because instead of fixate on what I had done, I focused on other things. A major portion of my focus went to my wife and our infant son. He was born just after I found out about CrossBooks, so I really appreciated being distracted by waiting for a first smile, giggle, and figuring out this thing called tummy-time.
I also kept writing, which I think is really imperative. I might be jaded, but I feel like a lot of the aspects of publishing (marketing, brand-building, etc.) are useful and necessary for an author to make it in the publishing world of today, but they also take a lot of a writer’s attention away from writing itself. From the time CrossBooks disappeared to August 2015, I did a lot of writing. Over 100,000 words worth actually. And most of it late at night and during nap times. It was during that period of defeat that I finished the bulk of a new novel which I called Day Moon. I had the idea for it about the same time I was finishing up school at WVU and working on Destitutio Quod Remissio, but had held off on writing Day Moon until late 2014. That was when I decided to start writing it for my creative writing master’s thesis work. I graduated in March 2015 with close to 40,000 words written and from March to August I wrote three quarters of the book and started on its sequel. The whole thing was a huge shift for me, because I had quickly come to fancy myself a historical fiction writer and while history has its hand on the book, Day Moon pretty clearly is sci-fi and dystopian.
Breaking my genre bias has really took me back to my roots storytelling-wise. Day Moon was a strong reminder that telling a good story in the setting and style it needs to be told is the important thing, regardless of what genre it falls in. Right now I’m at varying stages of completion on an epic fantasy, a speculative history, a historical, and a horror novel. My brief bout of being unpublished again helped me get some priorities straight, correct a bad direction I was going as a writer, and treat me to some humble pie, which really tastes better than one would think.
Round two in seeking publication I researched one-on-one meetings with agents and editors and some less conventional methods of proposing a book. I’m wretched at writing query letters. Whatever development I’ve had in that regard is negligible and probably all in my head. What I can do is speak about things I’m passionate about. When I can strip away a lot of the peripheral issues and just talk about writing or a particular story, I do much better. So I decided to go to the West Virginia Writers Conference and the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in 2016 (the latter happened during my birthday that year so it seemed all the more appropriate). I also started looking into Twitter pitch parties, found four or so that seemed to work well for me and started writing pitches for Day Moon and my two other nearly finished novels.
Even if you never get the courage or opportunity to try face-to-face pitches or Twitter pitch parties, I would encourage every writer to go through the work of preparing for each. It really helps you hone in on what the most basic elements of your story are and express them in a concise and poignant format. I never had to do that for Destitutio Quod Remissio and I regret that now, because I can see I’ve been much more effective at telling people about Day Moon in casual conversation, querying for reviews, interviews, etc. Before submitting a manuscript to an editor or agent, go through the work of making each kind of pitch and then see how big a difference it makes on the more conventional forms of queries.
I had some likes on most of my pitches for each book at all of the Twitter parties I participated in and submitted my manuscripts to a couple of publishers that were reputable (which is something to watch for in Twitter parties and in general, because not all of publishers are trustworthy; research is crucial). While attending the conferences I got some really positive reactions to Day Moon’s premise from an agent and a couple editors but no firm commitments. A couple weeks after the ACFW conference, I found an e-mail from Stephanie Taylor at CleanReads saying she wanted to publish Day Moon. I had been interested in CleanReads for some time because I thought their covers were fantastic and knew they had a large selection of young adult books. CleanReads just seemed like it would be a good fit for Day Moon. After looking into what other authors were saying about CleanReads on AbsoluteWrite and anywhere else I could find information, I decided to accept the offer.
It’s been almost two months since Day Moon was released and it still feels surreal sometimes. It’s easy to get caught up in promoting, marketing, what is said in reviews, and comparing how my books are doing to books from other authors. That can all be maddening to deal with, but at the same time, there are incredible moments. I got to speak at the library I grew up attending as an author and just talk about writing in very pure terms. A man who taught creative writing for decades told me it was “brilliant”. On another occasion, a woman let me know that after reading Destitutio Quod Remissio she had bought a copy for a loved one because he was going through hard passages in life and she thought the story might help him.
I don’t necessarily feel intrinsically special to be an author, but I do feel privileged to be a part of something special. Fiction stories have a marvelous potential to get down deep inside someone and make a difference in how he or she faces reality. To have started out as a nine year old boy with a homemade book and to now be able to really share stories with the world is truly a blessing. The road hasn’t been and still isn’t always smooth, but it is one I’m thankful to be traveling.
In A.D. 2039, a prodigious seventeen year old, Elliott, is assigned to work on a global software initiative his deceased grandfather helped found. Project Alexandria is intended to provide the entire world secure and equal access to all accumulated human knowledge. All forms of print are destroyed in good faith, to ensure everyone has equal footing, and Elliott knows he must soon part with his final treasure: a book of Shakespeare’s complete works gifted him by his grandfather. Before it is destroyed, Elliott notices something is amiss with the book, or rather Project Alexandria. The two do not match, including an extra sonnet titled “Day Moon”.
When Elliott investigates, he uncovers far more than he bargained for. There are sinister forces backing Project Alexandria who have no intention of using it for its public purpose. Elliott soon finds himself on the run from federal authorities and facing betrayals and deceit from those closest to him. Following clues left by his grandfather, with agents close at hand, Elliott desperately hopes to find a way to stop Project Alexandria. All of history past and yet to be depend on it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brett Armstrong, author of the award-winning novel, Destitutio Quod Remissio, started writing stories at age nine, penning a tale of revenge and ambition set in the last days of the Aztec Empire. Twenty years later, he is still telling stories though admittedly his philosophy has deepened with his Christian faith and a master’s degree in creative writing. His goal with every work is to be like a brush in the Master artist’s hand and his hope is the finished composition always reflects the design God had in mind. He feels writing should be engaging, immersive, entertaining, and always purposeful. Continually busy at work with one or more new novels to come, he also enjoys drawing, gardening, and playing with his beautiful wife and son.