Self-publishing: First things first

Jean Harkin

Jean Harkin

(A guest post by Jean Harkin,

Oops! I may have put the cart before the horse. In August 2016 I published my short story collection, Night in Alcatraz: and Other Uncanny Tales. Not until April 2017 did I begin research for my blog series on self-publishing. Maybe I should have asked the questions before I published. I learned much about self-publishing by writing my blog series. Fortunately I did a few things right, but I also made some goofs in publishing my book.

For instance:

1) Just before I self-published my book, successful authors were advising other writers to establish a social networking presence. Dragging my feet, I joined Facebook. I also started an author page on Goodreads (, where I post my blog and feature my books. Acquiring a blog site on Goodreads was easier for me than signing up on Blogger, WordPress, Weebly, GoDaddy or other popular web hosting sites.

2) I began organizing and revising my stories in March 2016. I did something right: I made sure all the stories were edited. But I did something wrong: I didn’t state on the opening page (with copyright info, etc.) that the stories were edited and by whom, although I did note where many of the stories were previously published.

3) To print and publish my book, I used Createspace. That was a good decision in some ways, bad in others.

Good: Createspace offers user-friendly uploading and production; free ISBN number for print copy; e-book made available on Kindle; automatic exposure on Amazon and Amazon international; print copy available on demand to buyers through other online sellers; and the author can purchase their own copies direct from Createspace at a reduced price. An especially nice perk is the fast, friendly and professional help service Createspace provides by phone or online.

Bad: I recently discovered that independent booksellers will not stock books printed by Createspace or affiliated in any way with Amazon. Those booksellers see Amazon as a market bully. The indie sellers can’t sell my print books as cheaply as Amazon can and still make a worthwhile profit. Either I or the store would be shorted. I haven’t been able to determine, however, why the walk-in Amazon store at Washington Square in Portland, Oregon, won’t stock my book and won’t respond to my queries.

4) About marketing: While royalties on my book sales slowly accumulate, I haven’t received one payment. Apparently I must wait until $100 is reached; meanwhile Amazon makes money on each sale. (There may be a way to collect payments through direct bank deposit, but I haven’t checked that out.)

What I did right (but not perfectly): I offered my book for sale at local venues, including the Oregon Historical Society’s annual Christmas Cheer book festival. I’ve gotten the word out about my book—most recently to my high school alumni magazine and on the website of Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA). I recently joined that group—another smart move. Of course my book, Night in Alcatraz; and Other Uncanny Tales is featured on my Goodreads author page.

So far, so good as far as reviews on Night in Alcatraz: and Other Uncanny Tales. I’m grateful to readers for 5 stars on Amazon and 4.5 on Goodreads.

Pleasure and pain


George C. Thomas Memorial Library (photo by Nancy Woods)

To me, reading has always meant a mixture of pleasure and pain because the library I visited as a child also was the place where my brother, sister, cousins and I got our immunizations against chicken pox, measles and mumps. There were eight of us kids in all, including my older brother, Roy, my younger sister, Jean, and my cousin, Randy, who was the same age as me.

When yet another booster time rolled around, we kids would pile into my mother’s rattley Ford station wagon and head down to the George C. Thomas Memorial Library on First Avenue in Fairbanks, Alaska.

During the 12-block ride to the library, we older cousins would take pains to explain to the younger ones just how horrible the shot would be. We even provided graphic descriptions of the needle, focusing on its length and diameter. Feeling confident because we’d been through the experience more than once, we went on and on, exaggerating the caliber of the needle and resulting pain until Mom would chastise us from the front seat, saying, “Okay, that’s enough. You’re scaring the little kids.”

By then we would have pulled up outside the log library, a matronly building that wore its wrap-around porch like a skirt. On a normal day, I would have headed to the kid’s section with its selection of books, but today was different. We hadn’t come to the library to read. Instead, we filed into a room back behind the stacks, one that included a white screen and ironing board onto which, one at a time, each of us cousins would be placed rump side up, have our trousers lowered and be poked.

The bravado I’d felt in the car evaporated at the first whiff of alcohol. My stomach lurched, and I was filled with dread. One by one we were led behind the screen where the nurse did her job. The pain was real but short.

It was a much quieter group of children who hobbled back down the library steps and gingerly set their backsides in the car. Everyone, that is, except Randy. Perhaps it was a side effect of the serum, but Randy apparently felt great.

“I didn’t feel a thing,” he kept saying on the ride home. “It didn’t hurt a bit.”

I was surprised he could be so cheerful. I felt humbled by the pain and was feeling pretty sorry for myself. The fact was, the shot hurt. Mom drove us back down Cowles Street, turning right at the bowling alley and left on Kellum Street to Randy and Aunt Helen’s house. Once inside, Mom and Aunt Helen went into the kitchen to prepare lunch while we kids sat quietly on the stuffed furniture in the living room. None of us said anything. Except for Randy, who continued to be talkative and chipper. His brown eyes glistened and his smile deepened as he bragged about his physical courage.

“Hit me hard. Here,” he insisted more than once, slapping his hand on his backside. When we took him up on it, he laughed at our vain attempts to hurt him.

“Harder!” he yelled. “I can’t feel a thing!” He seemed to have been injected with a new source of energy and joy. “Watch me!” he shouted to the rest of us before taking a running leap and sliding on his butt down the hallway, skimming across the smooth, hardwood floor.

I sat there, watching, amazed.

And once was not enough. Randy performed the stunt again and again. Afterwards, he was all smiles, his jeans hot to the touch.

Randy’s imperviousness to pain may have had something to do with the fact that, about that time in his life, his parents split up. In the following years, Randy became the favorite cousin, the one everyone liked best, the one we all wanted to sit next to at dinner. He was the funny one, the understanding one, the cousin who could take his own pain and turn it into entertainment that distracted us from our own.

Hooked on Antifreeze: True Tales About Loving and Leaving Alaska


Our changing language: Snap. Bam. Awesomesauce.

Very Cool Eyewear sign 4x

I first noticed the communication problem when a woman told me she planned to “hook up”¹ with a man.

“What does ‘hook up’ mean?” I asked, confused while trying to be tactful. “To get together for a cup of coffee, a drink or…?” Does it mean “to date” or “have sex,” I wondered.

The woman didn’t answer, just got a blank look on her face.

Another day, another language barrier. One of the writers I work with turned in an article with the word “piehole”² in it. “Is that an obscene term?” I asked. The publication I edit is “family friendly,” so no obscenities are allowed. The reporter looked at me as if I were crazy.

Around that same time, I sent out an email in which I used the word “cool.” The recipient emailed me back: “I learned that word in 1967 from Donovan. Haha.” So “cool” was no longer cool? Had I made a linguistic blunder?

Everywhere I looked, the English language was changing. I either didn’t understand what was being said or I was being labeled outdated.

It wasn’t just a case of my not being familiar with pop-culture references. True, I’ve been known to say “Star Wars” instead of “Star Trek,” and I’ve confused a basketball team with one that plays football. But what I was experiencing wasn’t just a case of not having watched “Game of Thrones” or of being unfamiliar with the new dance moves, Nae Nae³ and dabbing.⁴

No, the changes were in the language itself. I just didn’t get it.

I signed up for an online class only to have the instructor explain she would be sending the “deets”⁵ to her “peeps.”⁶ Huh? In the local newspaper, a concert was described as a “listening event.” Online, people used “adorbs” instead of “adorable.” Everywhere, “amazing” had morphed into “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” “Maybe” and “perhaps” had collapsed into “mayhaps,” “babe” had become “bae,” “bam” was an expression of excitement and “snap” was an expression that meant expression. “Netflix and chill” was a euphemism for sex.

According to Jessica Weiss, author of the article “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girl Speak Gibberish,” teenage girls are the source for much of the change in language. Girls create secret languages, Weiss believes, to create social bonds with each other while excluding other people.

I used to do that. When I was a teen, my friends and I talked pig Latin, which involves taking the initial consonant or consonant group of each word and moving it to the end. That way we could talk in private. “School is boring” became “Oolskay is oringbay” and “dumb parents” became “umbday arentspay.”

Today, as a writer, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring changes in my language. English is my currency. It’s what I use to communicate. So I need to make sure my vocabulary is up-to-date.

Some words, however, do withstand the test of time.

“Is ‘cool’ still cool?” a writer friend recently asked me. Actually, it is. Young people still use the word to mean hip and current. How awesomesauce is that?

Note: Definitions listed below came from

¹A purposely ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual action.

²The human mouth.

³A dance from Atlanta where you dance in a way that resembles Sha-Nae-Nae (a character in the 1990s sitcom “Martin”). Typically males participate in this dance, which makes it funny.

⁴To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. It looks like you are sneezing.

⁵Details, usually details of gossip.

⁶Short for “people.”

Author’s bio: Nancy Woods is an author and writing coach.

Tales from the Hallmark: It’s not a brain tumor

Hallmark Building 4- 8-16 wm

Hallmark Building

From what they tell me, most non-writers think writers spend their days sitting in a calm, quiet room where they twiddle their pen when they aren’t tapping on their keyboard or staring thoughtfully into distant corners.

My reality isn’t that calm or quiet. In fact, instead of writing the Great American Novel, I spend most of my time dealing with the blown fuses, nonfunctioning furnace and real-life stories of the other inhabitants of the 101-year-old office building in which I try to write.

The other renters of the Hallmark Building include Dani, owner of Black Sheep Salon; Matt, Christopher, Igor and their team of other artists at TigerLily Tattoo; and Katie, owner of Hollywood Lux Boutique, the downstairs shop that specializes in antique, used and vintage household items. Ron, the mild-mannered landlord, can usually be found a few blocks down the street at The Hobby Smith (“Your Source for Model Trains”), which he also owns.

Over the years, the Hallmark has housed everything from a jewelry store and insurance office to a medical marijuana distribution center and a one-room office where a woman sold baby portraits over the phone.

Anyway, one day last month, coffee cup in hand, I took the few steps from my office to Black Sheep across the hall so Dani could do her magic on my hair. When I walked in, Dani was sitting in the hair dryer chair, typing into her phone.

“Just a minute,” she said. “I have a long email to write and want to get it just right.”

I nodded, set my coffee cup on the counter and took a minute to look out the window with its view of the power station, also known as Poo Corner because that’s where dog owners takes their dogs to poop. After donning a black wrap, I took a seat in front of the mirror.

One thing I like about Dani’s salon, in addition to our talks about the latest events in the building, is that it’s a one-chair salon, which means when I get my hair done, Dani and I have the space to ourselves.

“I had to be careful,” Dani said that day, after setting down her phone and walking over to me.

Turns out, the email she was so carefully crafting was not only going to her mother-in-law, a ticklish-enough business, but addressed the topic of childcare. Dani is a multi-tasking mother with two jobs and a part-time nanny. She and her husband recently bought a discount grocery store, just about the time she gave birth to their daughter Sloane, now seven months old.

“I had to get the details and the tone of voice right,” Dani explained, while checking out my hair.

Even for non-writers, life involves writing, a search for the right word, a subtle touch or gentle approach. Over the next few minutes, Dani explained how her mother-in-law would offer to help with childcare, only to cancel at the last minute.

“Undependable childcare is worse than no childcare at all,” I said, remembering the days.

A month later, I was once again sitting inside Black Sheep when Dani said, “My nanny quit.”

“What!?” I said, giving Dani a poke.

When Dani was pregnant she’d planned months ahead to make sure she had a nanny. She eventually found a 48-year-old woman, with grown children of her own, who lived in nearby Vancouver, Washington. Things started out okay, but, as Dani explained while cutting my hair, the woman eventually revealed she was afraid of Portland and didn’t like Dani’s two dogs. Then the nanny’s excuses began. Her phone calls started with “I have a doctor’s appointment” and “I don’t feel well” and led up to “I’m getting migraines and can’t sleep” and “I have an appointment with a neurologist” before culminating with “I think I have a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?!” I shouted.

Dani and I looked at each other for a minute before bursting into laughter.

“She must have felt bad quitting, to come up with that,” I said.

“Yes,” Dani said. “She felt horrible. She felt like she let us down and she loves us.”
Still, it was funny, so we laughed even more. At which point Dani said

“There’s another story,” Dani said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

Just the other day, Dani said, the nanny asked her “Do you want my 20-year-old daughter to fill in until she moves to Italy?”

“Italy?!” I asked.

We laughed even harder about the bizarre nature of her trying to find dependable daycare. At that very moment, Dani then said, the ex-nanny’s daughter was “sitting in my living room watching TV while pretending she’s taking care of my child.”

So much for reasonable childcare. So much for the Hallmark being a place where I get away from everything in order to write. The next morning I checked my email and found that Dani had send me a link to a YouTube video called “It’s Not a Tumor.”


Advice from Ira Glass

Click here to read about the importance of practicing your craft (or read below).

Writing Inspiration: Advice from Ira Glass

How can we make our work live up to our ambitions? As writers, we set the bar high. It may seem that our best writing is always just out of reach. We’re debilitated by writer’s block, plagued by self-doubt, crushed by criticism from others. There’s a lot standing in the way between the story sketch in our heads and the polished, final draft we know we’ve got inside us.

Yet we push onward.

What distinguishes successful writers from the rest is persistence, according to Ira Glass. The Host and Executive Producer of This American Life believes that to go from good to great work, you simply have to do a lot of it. That feeling of inadequacy that gnaws at you after completing a first draft– it’s normal. It’s part of your growth process as a writer, and it proves you have something Glass likes to call “taste.” In other words, you have high standards for the work you produce, and you’re unwilling to settle for less. Hold onto that feeling, and let it drive you to create more.

Glass himself began a career in public radio as a 19 year-old, and over the course of 17 years worked on nearly every NPR news show and on all kind of production jobs. He’s been a tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. All that led him to launch This American Life in 1995. Today’s it’s broadcast on 500 public radio stations across the country, with about 1.7 million listeners.

Here’s what Glass wishes he knew at the start of it all:

Ira Glass


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Writing process: Turning anxiety into creativity



Guest Post: Turning Anxiety Into Creativity by Dennis Palumbo

Posted: 21 Sep 2012 12:00 AM PDT

Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.
by Dennis Palumbo 

Using what scares you to motivate you

An old deodorant commercial on TV once proclaimed, “If you’re not a little nervous, you’re really not alive.”

Pretty sage advice, even though the only thing at stake was staying dry and odor-free. But there is something to be said for accepting—and learning to navigate—the minor turbulences of life. I’m talking here about common, everyday anxiety. The jitters. Butterflies.

This is particularly true for artists in Hollywood—writers, actors, directors, composers—whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft. No matter how mundane, the small anxieties can swarm like bees, making work difficult. Those everyday distractions, like an impending visit from the in-laws, money worries, or that funny noise the Honda’s been making.

Then there’re the more virulent, career-specific anxieties, shared by few in other lines of work: Your theatrical agent hasn’t returned your phone calls. You’re three weeks past deadline with your latest screenplay draft. Your short film didn’t make the cut at the Sundance festival.

In other words, you’re the stereotypical struggling Hollywood artist: bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, staring pathetically at a blank computer screen (or the waiting edit bay, or the silent piano keys), hoping for inspiration and yearning for another cup of coffee, and maybe a nice piece of cheesecake. A dozen nagging, self-mocking thoughts echo in your head: You’re untalented, a fraud. You’re getting old and fat. No woman (or man) will ever want to sleep with you again. Your life is over.
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These kinds of feelings are tough to deal with, to be sure, even if validated (and then gently challenged) by a supportive therapist, mate, good friend, or fellow creative type who’s “been there, done that.” These deeply embedded, childhood-derived, seemingly inescapable Dark-Night-of-the-Soul feelings can, in fact, be crippling, regardless of your level of craft or years of experience.

And, as I’ve said countless times to the creative patients in my practice, struggling with these doubts and fears doesn’t say anything about you as an artist. Other than that you are an artist.

Frankly, this difficult emotional terrain is where an artist lives much of the time—in a matrix of triumphs and defeats, optimism and despair, impassioned beliefs and crushing deflations. In the end, it’s all just grist for the creative mill.

And, believe me, this is equally true for both beginning artists and accomplished, battle-hardened veterans.

But there’s another kind of anxiety that emerges occasionally in a creative person’s life: the kind of gut-wrenching, dizzying upheaval from within that throws everything you think you know into doubt and that scares you to the very core. A puzzling, alarming career dive. A shattering divorce. The death of a family member. A spate of sudden, dizzying panic attacks.

Then, what balm is there to offer—or to receive—that doesn’t seem trivial or woefully inadequate? Catharsis and validation, the foundation of most psychotherapeutic work, suddenly feel like mere word games. Medication, while often clinically appropriate, seems at best an armoring against something primal that’s working within you.

What is an artist to do with that level of anxiety?

Use it.

Because, for an artist, when all that’s left is the work, the work is all that’s left.

What kind of work? Maybe numbed-out and shapeless at first; chaotic and unsatisfying. Maybe dark and ugly, or self-pitying and shameless. Maybe a blind, angry clawing at the air with inchoate feelings and inexplicable images.

The important thing to acknowledge, to accept and to make use of, is the fact of this anxiety — its weight, its size, and its implacability at this time in your life. For whatever reason, it’s there. As immoveable as a brick wall, as deep and fathomless as a sea.

And, for now, it isn’t going anywhere.

So you, the artist, must ask yourself this question: Is there a character in the story I’m working on who feels such anxiety? Who feels as overwhelmed, as out of control, as terrified as I? These are the raw materials of the work. Whether writing a scene, directing a scene, acting in a scene, or composing the music for a scene, you must inhabit those aspects of the character whose narrative you’re building.

If you’re willing to do so, then plunge headlong into creating the hell out of that character, giving him or her your voice, your fears, your dreads. Create situations and scenes in which these anxieties are dramatized, exploited, “acted out.”

Create monologues, rants, vitriolic exchanges between characters, letting passions and behaviors emerge that may astound or alarm you; that stretch or distort or even demolish the narrative you’ve been working with. These problems can all be dealt with, deleted, perhaps even woven into the story later, in the cool light of day, when you have some kind of perspective.

Because to be truly in the eye of the emotional storm, to create from a state of anxiety, is to surrender any fantasy of perspective. In fact, in the purest sense, it’s the ultimate act of creative surrender from which, out of the crucible of your deepest pain, you might discover a joyful, wonderful surprise.

Do this: put those trembling fingers on a keyboard, RIGHT NOW, and start stringing words together that reflect how you feel…without context, or narrative, or character. Just raw feeling, in as many vivid, living words as you can call forth.

Then look at what you’ve written. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling. And hit that keyboard some more. Soon, I believe, you’ll have a sense of the logjam cracking. You’ll feel the urgency of creative expression, the palpable release of banked anxiety. Without judging what comes, without needing it to be anything, I think you’ll find yourself creating something—even if that’s just defined, for the moment, as putting words down on a page.

Does the idea of this exercise itself make you anxious? Doesn’t surprise me. We’re all pretty scared of creating, or making art, out of the very emotional space we’d most like to avoid or deny. It’s human nature.

Besides, as famed psychiatrist Rollo May reminded us, real creativity is not possible without anxiety. In many ways, it’s the price of admission to the artist’s life.

Which means, for those artists who have the courage to embrace their own fears, to co-exist with potentially crippling anxiety and create anyway, the rewards can be significant. Consider artists as diverse as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King and James L. Brooks, Anne Rice and Phillip Roth, Richard Pryor and Diane Arbus. They use who they are—all of who they are—as the wellspring of their creativity. Just as it is for yours.

Moreover, when all that’s left is the work…the work is all that’s left.

So trust it. Trust yourself. Like it or not, you’re all you have.

And the good news is, that’s enough.