So, on a regular basis, when people find out that not only do I want to be a novelist, but have already written two books, they follow up the questions about queries and submissions with this: "And you're not going to self-publish?"
My usual response is a very quick one: "I don't have the self-confidence for that!" I laugh at myself and my neurotic tendencies and go back to letting them know which people or places are considering my work.
Today, I thought I would give a slightly longer explanation. Let's be clear: This is not a condemnation of the people who decide to self-publish. It's my perspective of how my brain works and how that affects my aspirations.
To illustrate most simply, let's visit another one of my hobbies. I play six instruments, but the one that I'm studying most actively right now is piano. A couple of years ago, I realized that my teacher was essentially being paid to sit behind me and tell me "That's making real improvement" and occasionally, "Do you think that you should work more on the fluidity of your sixteenth notes?" She was good at helping me construct a program and had some helpful tips, but she wasn't helping me make real progress as much as I liked. I decided that it was time for us to part ways and, in the middle of this process, I told my mother that I was looking for a teacher who would get my music moving forward again. Since Mom has a master's degree in piano pedagogy and an active piano studio, she offered to take over.
My mother is a lovely woman, but she's a tough teacher. She doesn't let me get away with comfortable fingering that doesn't quite work. She makes me do scales and Hanon exercises. She recently made me play the same ten-note run for about four minutes because I kept having a fluidity problem in the middle and we were working out where my hand was tripping itself up.
One of our favorite refrains is "Did you mean to do that?" The story behind this is that my mother went in for a first piano lesson with a renowned pianist and pedagogue. After a few measures of her first piece, the woman mildly said, "Did you mean to do that? I thought not." It's a phrase that no one wants to hear, whether after three measures of a Bach two-part invention or three pages into a Beethoven sonata.
The result of this style of teaching is that my music is definitely moving forward. I spend more time thinking about my fingering, working on the exact mechanics of how my hand gets through a tough spot. I find myself thinking constantly, "Did you mean to do that? I thought not." This is the sort of process that works for me. It is a rejection-heavy way of approaching a goal, but it's the way I learned to get results.
I played many auditions growing up. One of my worst experiences was when I had to play a seating audition for my senior year in New England Conservatory's Youth Repertory Orchestra. I had been playing under Melba Sandberg in the orchestra for a year at this point and thought I was pretty good. Before I even played a note, Melba turned to the conductor who was helping her with the evaluations and said, "This is Kathryn Olsen, one of my violists. You can never tell what you're going to get with her. She can be flawless or hopeless." I was utterly humiliated by the comment and don't even remember if I played flawlessly or hopelessly at that audition. I can tell you that junior year, I was twelfth chair and senior year, I was sixth and that at least tells me that I was good. Maybe even very good. Melba thought there were twelve violists who played worse than me that day.
These sorts of experiences translate into how I perceive my writing. I've shared my writing with others for 22 years now, since I started posting fanfic on fanfix.com. I've had rave reviews. I've had people post replies no more coherent than "OH MY GOD. OH...MY...GOD! GOD! OH...GOD! OH, MY GOD!" I've had people write me essays on my characterization. Needless to say, my readers often make me feel very good. They are essentially the piano teacher sitting back and telling me, "That's making real improvement." They are also like the marvelously supportive friends who show up for my piano recitals and clap like mad when I finish anything.
What I need are more of the Moms and Melbas. My best times while writing these days are when I sit down to write with the three friends who co-write the Botosphere with me. They know where things are working, ask me for clarification, say "No, just no" on occasion and burst out in hysterical laughter at other times. Some paragraphs come out easily. Some less so. My favorite parts are where one writer will start a sentence and write "[Insert something witty by Ish here.]"
My best critic is, of course, Katey. She reads with a conusmer's eye and an editor's brain. At one point in Wingspan, she wrote "THIS IS BRILLIANT" at the top of a page and underscored it twice. I swear, I'm never deleting the pic that I have of that because I know how high praise that was from her.
So, what am I looking for with publishing? I could self-publish and have the pleasure of seeing reviews pop up on Amazon and seeing my Kindle sales. That would give me a really good feeling, the kind that I get when I get reviews on my posts at fanfiction.net. But what would make me happiest is someone whose job it was to dislike most of what they read genuinely liked it. It would feel just a little bit like getting sixth chair from the person who called me either flawless or hopeless.