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A Fork in the Writerly Road


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IcE-Man-1.jpg?resize=525%2C350&ssl=1A few months ago, my younger daughter, then not-quite-sixteen, requested to drop out of high school.

A rising junior and easily in the top 2% of her class, she had learned from home since March of 2020.  Unfortunately, Texas law required all students back in the classroom this fall, pandemic be damned. Despite the way she noticeably bristled each time we drove by the school building and the crying emoji drawn on the calendar square for August 17th, I thought she was resigned to returning.

I was wrong.

After considering every possible objection her father and I could have and preparing counterarguments for each point, she presented her case. With SAT and Texas Success Initiative exam scores qualifying her for college, we could not dispute that high school classes were academically pointless. She couldn’t care less about football rivalries, prom or walking the stage wearing purple and gold in 2023. Attending community college would allow her the flexibility to work, she reasoned, and work would force her to engage with people, something she did not do while surrounded by peers who seemed years younger than she felt. There were the financials to consider, too. Dallas County waives tuition for homeschoolers. That’s two years of free college.

Within a couple of weeks she had seamlessly morphed into a transitional adult with a license, car, Dallas College ID, and a barista job at one of our favorite coffee shops. Her confidence has grown as fast as her bank account.

Traditional schooling may be the most accepted path to getting an education, but there are alternate routes leading to the same destination. Students who are neurodivergent, quirky, have learning difficulties or, who, like my daughter, can’t be challenged in the era of No Child Left Behind, may thrive taking the scenic road alone rather than being funneled from point A to point B by way of crowded expressway.

Her transformation, and the vastly improved mental health that came with it, got me to pondering something in my own life. Why could I embrace her points about education without hesitation, yet I’ve spent decades of my life stuck on the traditional publishing on-ramp, refusing to acknowledge that it may be wiser to circumnavigate the gridlock than wait for it to clear? This stubbornness has persisted even when author friends who had been lucky enough to merge into traffic years ago now reported back that the road was riddled with vicious potholes and that unexpected lane closures often diverted traffic onto the shoulders.

“Sure, I’m on here,” they’d confide, “but only those driving Land Rovers are being invited past the construction right now. I’m in a Honda, so I’m parked, too.”

I bought into the idea, popular back when I started writing, that traditional publishing was the only way to go. That if I followed the advice of one of my English professors and threw enough mud at a post, eventually some of it would stick. What my professor didn’t mention, or perhaps didn’t know since he died before e-mail queries even became a thing, is that the post in question would be continuously sprayed by a fire hose for all but five random minutes a month.

I’ve been throwing mud since before my older daughter was born. She’s now 20.

My family stopped watching what any sane person would call an exercise in futility years ago. They don’t even ask about my writing anymore. I can’t decide whether I’m more relieved or devastated by this.

My arm is tired.

Worse, my soul is tired.

Like my daughter, I’m at a crossroads and I now understand that those imaginary neon billboards in my mind – the ones advertising six-figure book contracts and heaping doses of validation – are just that. Advertisements. Actual results may vary. I also concede that the indie route is now a completely respectable way to publish one’s work, and that many writers who might otherwise have been overlooked have found success taking that approach. It may, in fact, come with perks I had not previously taken into enough consideration, such as complete creative freedom.

I’ve spent the last couple months pondering tough questions about how to best dig myself out of this writerly Slough of Despond. I offer them here in case they are of any help to others who find themselves similarly floundering.

  1. If publishing frustrations were out of the equation, do you still want to write? Is there anything else you could be happy doing?
  2. What are your true publishing goals? Fame and fortune? To make a modest living? Simply to hold a printed and bound copy of your book in your hands?
  3. Is your prose the best it can be? If not, what classes or workshops can you take? What critique groups can you join?
  4. Have you written a story you wholeheartedly believe in even if it’s been rejected by fifty or even a hundred agents?
  5. If yes, will you be able to fully commit to another project before that story has in some way been launched into the world?
  6. Have you explored small, independent publishers?
  7. Do you have writer friends who have already traveled the path you are considering? Are they willing to offer advice of things to do and pitfalls to avoid?
  8. Are you opposed to taking toll-roads to get where you want to go?
  9. If not, how much money can you realistically invest up front for things like professional editing, cover design, and marketing? How about an audiobook narrator? Website designer? Can you do any of this yourself?
  10. How important is it that you earn all that money back?
  11. Do you know people who can help get the word out to more than just family and friends, if that is important to you?
  12. Would your story dovetail into any niche markets? How might you exploit that?

Have you considered (or chosen) alternate paths to publication? Do you feel you successfully met or exceeded your goals by doing so? If you were to do things again, would you choose differently? Do you have other questions that should be considered?

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About Kim Bullock

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A., a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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