The Black Lens by Christopher Stollar is the grand-prize winning entry in the 4th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Stollar wins a prize package that includes $5,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. For a complete list of winners from this year’s awards, click here.
Stollar, 34, lives in Ohio with his wife and two children. Stollar is a former reporter with a master’s degree in journalism who works full time as a public relations consultant for Nationwide. His debut novel, The Black Lens, was published in 2016 as an e-book available from all major retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iTunes. Hardcover and paperback versions are also available.
Stollar became a 2016 Liberator Awards Finalist for his debut novel and anti-trafficking work. He is donating 10 percent of his earnings from The Black Lens to organizations that battle modern slavery. Learn more at christopherstollar.com.
The Black Lens is a dark literary thriller that exposes the underbelly of sex trafficking in rural America. It’s about a teenage girl and her sister who fight back at the pimp that forces them into trafficking—and a news photographer who tries to help them escape.
Describe your writing process for this book.
I started by spending more than three years researching trafficking, including interviews with survivors, socials workers and police officers. That helped me make the book accurate and believable. Then I got up every day at 5 a.m. to crank out at least 500 words before work.
What drew you to such dark subject matter?
I wrote The Black Lens because I wanted to tell a great story that also sheds light on the dark underworld of modern slavery. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of forced labor and human trafficking, including 5.5 million children. In the United States alone, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received reports of at least 14,588 sex trafficking cases since 2007.
Those are harsh facts, but this book can make a difference. Not only does it tell a great story, but it also helps raise awareness of modern slavery. While this topic has received more press in the last few years, many people still don’t think sex trafficking happens much in the United States. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. A few recent books and movies have drawn attention to this crime, but no popular fiction so far has focused solely on trafficking in rural America. That’s where The Black Lens can help and even encourage some people to fight one of the largest criminal activities in the world.
When did you first become aware of the problem of sex trafficking? What made it so personal for you?
I first became aware of sex trafficking about 10 years ago when I was working as a reporter in Oregon. Part of my beat included a small rural town that had a truck stop, which some of my sources encouraged me to investigate as a potential hub for trafficking. Unfortunately, I was never able to independently verify that information—even though I knew in my gut that something was wrong. That began a decades-long quest for me to research and write about this issue. The more I learned about trafficking, the more I wanted to fight it. And as a writer, I knew that words were my best weapon. They would help me give a voice to the victims I interviewed.
Describe the process of publishing this book.
Like many first-time authors, I started by querying dozens of literary agents. I emailed at least 61 agents and got 38 rejections, but also received two requests for more information. One agent read my entire manuscript, but decided to pass. That didn’t force me to give up. Instead, I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the cost of self-publishing the book through Boyle & Dalton, a hybrid publisher based in Ohio. In just one month, 74 donors pledged $3,694—surpassing the original Kickstarter goal by 48 percent.
After securing the funding, I worked with Boyle & Dalton on the cover art and a rigorous editing process. Once the book launched, I began a year-long public relations and social media campaign to generate as much coverage as possible. The Black Lens has received more than 100 reviews and ratings with a 4-star average between Amazon and Goodreads. In addition, 10 news media outlets have covered The Black Lens through feature articles and TV spots.
Why did you choose to write this as fiction? Was this your first attempt at fiction?
The Black Lens is my first work of fiction. When I was doing research, I discovered that many excellent nonfiction books about trafficking already existed. But good fiction was lacking. The few novels that did address the topic took place mostly overseas—not in the United States—and especially not in rural America. So I realized that my book would meet a unique need in the marketplace while also raising awareness about one of the largest criminal activities in the world.
Why did you choose self-publishing? Why did you choose to self-publish as an e-book?
I loved the entrepreneurial challenge of being the one ultimately responsible for my creative product ending up on a person’s e-reader. In addition, I liked the idea of building a community of readers from the beginning through a crowdfunding campaign.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? As an e-book?
Time—that’s the biggest challenge. I work a day job, have a family and volunteer with anti-trafficking organizations, so it has been difficult to balance that with writing, publishing and marketing.
What are the most important benefits of self-publishing? As an e-book?
The most important benefit of self-publishing is learning how to lead a creative project from initial concept to a digital copy that ends up on somebody’s e-reader.
What surprised you about the self-publishing process? As an e-book?
I was surprised at how much fun it could be, especially building a community of readers through Kickstarter who were eager to promote my book from day one.
What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing? As an e-book?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing an e-book is that it will end up being poor quality or unable to compete with traditional, hardcover book represented by a New York publishing house. While there are many examples of bad self-published books, there are some that hold their weight in the literary world.
What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? Other e-book authors?
Stick with it until the end. Also, remember that you’re ultimately creating a product for a consumer. That means it should be the best, most high-quality book it can be. Find a professional to edit the hell out of it and create some powerful cover art that immediately catches your eye.
What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make? E-book authors?
Some authors think that readers won’t notice a typo or care about the cover art, especially on an e-book. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Again, make the best product you can. That takes time and money, but it’s worth it.
If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same?
I would try and build an even deeper community of readers before launching, but I would do everything else the same.
Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise?
My mom has always inspired me to write. She is an author herself and taught me the joy of storytelling. My wife has also inspired me by being my best advocate (and harshest critic).
How long have you been writing? How did you start?
I’ve always loved writing. Even as a child, I wrote adventure stories and mailed letters to the editor in our local newspaper—just to see if they’d get published.
What are the challenges of writing in the literary genre?
The biggest challenge is just sticking with it and silencing your inner critic. There are so many days when you want to give up, but you have to plug away until that final draft is complete or your story will never see the light of day.
What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author?
The best advice I’ve ever heard is from the master, Stephen King: “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
I start my day at 5 a.m. and try to write 500 words in one hour. That’s the only dedicated time I have to write. After that, I help my wife get our kids ready for school, work with the media in my day job, and then head home to spend time with my family or volunteer with an anti-trafficking organization. Then I do it all over again.
Describe your typical writing routine.
First, I begin by turning off my phone and computer so I can concentrate solely on the writing. That’s the hardest part, but it’s so important. There are too many distractions in today’s online culture that kill creativity. Then I write one word at a time until I reach 500 for the day. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
What are the keys that have made your book a success?
The biggest key is knowing my target audience. I’m actively involved in the anti-trafficking community, so I’ve relied on people in that world to help me promote my book.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing for your intended audience?
My target audience is eager to learn more about sex trafficking, but sometimes it can be hard convincing them that fiction is just as important as nonfiction. British author C.S. Lewis once wrote that “Art … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Fiction is a form of art, so it too has no inherent survival value. But novels can give value to survival in unique and powerful ways.
Think of the impact behind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird. Those novels affected so many people’s views of race and slavery in ways that no other medium could. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would never think of comparing The Black Lens to those literary masterpieces. But while a few recent books and movies have drawn attention to this crime, no popular fiction so far has focused solely on trafficking in rural America. So, my hope is that those who read The Black Lens will be changed. They will want to do something. They will want to join the fight to end modern slavery.
Why do you write?
I write because I love the art of storytelling and helping people understand a world that exists all around them, but hides in the shadows.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
A good cup of strong, dark coffee. And a good beer or bourbon every now and then.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
My strength is using journalism skills to make characters and worlds believable. I’ve developed those qualities as both a reporter and now a fiction author.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
I’ve struggled with finding my “voice.” It took more than a dozen drafts to do that, but the biggest help came from rigorous developmental editing by Boyle & Dalton.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
My proudest moment is when I got a review from a survivor of trafficking, who said “The Black Lens is both compelling and heart wrenching. It shows the realistic, complex components of human trafficking in the United States. I know only too well how easily this can happen and how hard it is to escape. Excellent writing!”
I also received a great review from a reader who said they wanted to become more involved in fighting trafficking as a result of reading my debut novel: “It isn’t very often that you can say a fiction book changes your perspective on life but this book will do that. I couldn’t put it down, I had to see how it ended, so it was read over the course of a weekend and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. It puts you through a whole range of emotions and it made me want to go out and stop sex trafficking.”
What are your goals as a writer?
My goal is to keep writing novels that tell a damn good story while also opening reader’s eyes.
Any final thoughts or advice?
As a Christian, I have some advice to writers who identify as believers. When you consider recent Christian novels, most of them don’t take crime or “sin” seriously. They focus so much on the truth of goodness that they hide from the truth of evil. And yet if you spend any time reading the Bible, you discover that it’s filled with descriptions of crimes. You’ve got rape, incest—even torture. None of these authors glorified those crimes or described them in graphic detail, but they also didn’t shy away from them either. Why? Because they were trying to contrast the depth of man’s evil with the depth of God’s goodness.
One of my favorite Christian authors is Flannery O’Connor, who became famous for her dark, brutal and violent short stories. She once wrote: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” That’s great advice for every Christian writer. We need to contrast both good and evil if we want to have any chance at engaging the world with our words, especially with such a dark crime and topic like sex trafficking. As British author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.” I strove to accomplish that with The Black Lens.