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Extended Q&A with WD’s Self-Published Book Awards Winner

Horizon, by Tabitha Lord, is the grand-prize winning book in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. It bested more than 2,300 entries from 55 countries across nine categories to take home a prize package that includes $8,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the March/April 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.

Tabitha Lord featured

Tabitha Lord, 45, lives in Rhode Island, a few towns away from where she grew up. She’s married with four kids, two spoiled cats, and a black lab. Her degree is in Classics from College of the Holy Cross, and she taught middle school Latin for years at the Meadowbrook Waldorf School, where she now serves on the Board of Trustees. She also worked in the admissions office there before writing full time.

Her first novel, Horizon, was released in December 2015, and her short story “Homecoming” is featured in the anthology Sirens, published by World Weaver Press in July 2016. She’s currently working on a nonfiction collection of essays for a pediatric cancer awareness campaign titled Project 3.8, and is also a senior editor for the website Book Club Babble.

Can you describe Horizon for us? I’ve been asked to describe my book in ten words. Here’s what I came up with: Science fiction meets romance meets survival fiction meets military thriller!

Tabitha Lord Horizon

Describe your writing process for this book. I’ve always had fragments of ideas floating in my head, and characters that would show up with names, occupations, and backstories, but I lacked confidence in my ability to create a complete story arc. It felt like such a daunting task, and it’s one of the reasons it took me so long to begin writing. Then, when my children got a little older and I was considering a career change, I had the opportunity to take on a year long, writing-intensive project for work. I thought, well, I’m in the habit of writing every day for work; can I take the time to write creatively every day as well?

I’d say that a key piece of my writing process for Horizon was to write every day. That type of discipline forced me to work through plot tangles, to understand that some days were bad writing days – and that was okay, and to prove to myself that I could finish something.

Once I completed the first draft, I popped a bottle of champagne! And then I realized pretty quickly that the draft needed a ton of work, so I hired a professional editor. She and I got the book into much better shape, and I felt like I could begin to consider publishing options.

Why did you choose self-publishing? What I failed to mention in the previous question is that after I finished the first draft, I went to the WD conference in NYC and pitched the manuscript to five agents during the pitch slam. All five asked to see it. Of course when I got home, I realized there was no way I should be sending it out in the shape it was in. Total rookie mistake! But what the pitch slam also taught me was that I had a good concept, a story that caught people’s attention, and it would be worth putting more time into it. That’s when I hired my first editor.

When I was satisfied that the manuscript was ready to pitch, I sent it out to a few agents at a time, and to a few small presses that would consider un-agented submissions. Within a couple of months, I had two offers from small presses. I didn’t sign. I knew if I did, I would still have to take responsibility for most of the marketing, sales, promotional, and platform building. And I knew I’d be losing control over some things I wasn’t willing to let go of. Right after I received those offers, I pulled the plug on querying altogether and decided to self-publish.

Everyone’s path to publishing is unique, and I’ve come to believe that there is no one right way to do it, only the way that works best for that author and that particular project. Ultimately, I chose to self-publish Horizon because I wanted control over the project timeline, the cover art, and the book design, and because I wanted to work with an editor who understood my vision for the story. Let me emphasize that I did not think I could do these things by myself! But rather, I wanted to choose the people I’d be working with.

Maybe this is a good place for a shout out to those folks. Grateful thanks to Laura Zats of Wise Ink, who was my first editor and who later helped guide me through the publishing process. She also taught me when and where I should be investing my time, energy, and funds. Thanks also to Amanda Rutter, my fabulous editor, and Steven Meyer-Rassow, my amazing and uber-talented cover artist.

There are compelling reasons to self-publish. But choosing this path is an investment. I knew I was essentially starting a small business. For some writer’s - like me, this is exciting. For others, it’s terrifying.

Describe the process of publishing this book. The keys parts of the publishing process for Horizon included an extensive round of developmental edits, with an editor who specialized in science fiction, and then a final round of beta reads.

While editing, I was simultaneously collaborating with my cover artist. One of the things we discussed initially was the fact that Horizon would be a trilogy, and we’d like to “brand” the series somehow. So in addition to amazing cover artwork, he created a title treatment that will carry through and give all the future Horizon books a cohesive look. He also did the interior design work and formatting.

Just before Horizon went to print, it was copyedited and proofread. Finally it was uploaded for e-book distribution and sent to the printer!

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? Writing creatively is a very different experience from working in the business of publishing. For sure the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a self-published author is time. There just isn’t enough of it when you’re in charge of all aspects of your project! But I’ve learned quite a bit over the years. I have to say no to some things I’d really like to do or try. I have to be realistic about what I can accomplish in a day. I have to work with a structured calendar that includes time for creative writing, strategic planning, and taking care of business items like accounting, marketing, and social media. And I’ve learned that things always take longer than I think!

What are the most important benefits of self-publishing? For me the benefits of self–publishing are mostly the same things that made me want to take that path in the first place. I have control over what’s most important to me, and I can adjust my course if something is working or not working. The failures are mine, but then so are the successes!

What surprised you about the self-publishing process? By the time I chose the self-publishing option, I’d done a ton of research, spoken with other writers, and really thought it through. Not much has been a surprise. I thought it would be a lot of work, and it is. I thought the business side of it would be exciting, and it is. I believed I could surround myself by industry professionals to help me grow and learn, and I have.

What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing? One misconception about self-publishing is that authors choose this route only if and when they can’t get a traditional deal. That isn’t true anymore. The first professional writer I spoke with had been traditionally published for years, and he encouraged me to do it myself. He, in fact, was going to self-publish his next book. I recognized that his was a different scenario than mine since he already had an audience and a platform, but it was the first time I considered that there might be an interesting business side to this whole thing.

Another misconception is that self-published books aren’t good quality. While that certainly can be true, a whole industry of free-lance editors, cover artists, marketing specialists, and social media consultants has risen up to support self-publishing authors. There’s really no excuse for a book not to be good quality!

What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? Don’t cut corners! Your book should be as well edited as a traditional author’s book, your cover art compelling, and your business dealings professional. And I firmly believe you can accomplish this within a reasonable budget.

What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make? If the author’s goal is to write for an audience wider than family and friends, then a big mistake is to not understand how much work this will be. But I think the worst mistake a self-published author can make is to put a book into the world before it’s ready. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of making the book dream happen, and it’s tempting to rush the process along. I think we all struggle to know for certain we’ve reached the final draft, and at some point, we have to just do it and stand behind our work, but that’s a really different thing than publishing an unpolished manuscript. Just because we now have the freedom to publish anything we want doesn’t mean we should!

If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same? Well, I’m about to self-publish again! Horizon’s sequel will be released this spring. The biggest thing I did differently was to create a longer pre-release window. I made a six-month plan for marketing and promotion vs. the three-month plan I’d developed for Horizon’s release. Otherwise, I’m working with the same team that helped me with Horizon. They’re talented and fabulous. They know my story and they know me. Why mess with a good thing?

How long have you been writing? How did you start? I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I loved to write stories as a child. In fact, when I was sorting through some of my grandma’s things after she passed, I came across a whole collection of poetry and stories I’d written. It was very sweet. In my professional life I’d written some ad copy, blog posts, and done some editing for school publications, but I had very little time or energy for creative writing, and I had that crippling notion that I couldn’t write a whole book.

Then, while I was in the middle of the work project I mentioned earlier, I just sat down and started writing Horizon. I remember the exact day. I was spending the weekend with my best friend. I woke up early, sat on her couch under a blanket, and opened my laptop. Nine months later, I finished the first draft. Being a mom, the significance of that timeline isn’t lost on me!

What are the challenges of writing in the science fiction genre? With science fiction, or any kind of speculative fiction really, it’s the writer’s job to convince the reader to join them on a journey, to a believably unbelievable world – a world we’ve created. To do that well, we have to make “rules” of magic or science or witchcraft or whatever, and we have to be consistent with them. I think successful world building is one of the biggest challenges in writing science fiction. When it’s done well, it’s seamless. When it’s done poorly, it pulls the reader right out of the story.

What elements do you think make a successful science fiction novel? Well, there are different kinds of science fiction. I’m writing what I like – space opera. So for me, the characters and their journey are particularly important. I sometimes tell people that Horizon is a story about the French resistance movement of WWII, but set on another planet. I like playing with the idea of what makes a hero. Who takes a stand against the enemy, what decisions do they make when civilization is falling apart, and how are they affected by it all? My characters have to suffer, fall down, fall in love, and most of all evolve. If I’ve done a good job, readers will want to follow them into the next book!

Also, an important element for any science fiction novel, as I mentioned early, is world building. Readers have to become immersed and invested in the civilization I’ve created.

Do you write in any other categories or genres? Yes! I’ve recently had a fantasy story, titled “Homecoming,” published by World Weaver Press in the anthology Sirens. I’ve also worked on some non-fiction projects. As a senior editor for Book Club Babble, I interview other authors and review new books. I’ve also spent months working with kids with cancer and their families for an awareness campaign called Project 3.8. Non-fiction is a very different kind of writing, but no less rewarding.

What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author? In college I had a professor who advised us that when choosing our careers we should consider doing something we loved, and also something we were good at. That advice took a while to percolate, but now I really see the wisdom in it. If we don’t love our work, it will become drudgery. Likewise, if we have limited skills in the field we’ve chosen, it will be a constant up hill battle. Another motto I really like: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. For my writing career at least, these two ideas have provided good guidance and motivation.

What does a typical day look like for you? I’m an obsessive-compulsive planner. I have a daily to-do list, a monthly project list, and I live by my calendar. I try to hit four power yoga classes per week, and although I don’t work at the school anymore, I am a Board member now and I work on a few committees, so I have to plan those things in as well. The kids who still live at home have activities and need to be fed, so there’s that!

Generally, I work out in the morning, come home and shower, and then dive into my to-do list. Some days I have meetings or phone calls, but other days I can log uninterrupted hours of creative writing. Once the kids are home, the afternoon is hectic but I can usually get in another couple of hours of work. It’s usually not creative work though. I use that time to deal with social media, answer emails, and tackle other tasks that don’t require a quiet space!

Describe your typical writing routine. When I’m working on a draft, I try to work on it every day, at least for a little while. I start by reviewing my writing from the day before and making minor edits. Then I work for several consecutive hours. I need at least two hours, preferably four, to get my imagination flowing and to have any success writing new material. When I’m finished with my work in progress for the day, I like to leave it knowing what scene I’ll be working on the next day.

What are the keys that have made your book a success? A good idea, a good editor, and a good cover artist! Also, I started building my author platform over a year before my book was released.

Why do you write? I write because I love to. The stories just keep flowing, and I don’t think I could stop now if I tried!

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life? Are tea and chocolate acceptable answers?

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities? I’ve been told I write strong dialogue. I may have developed this skill by chasing my family members around the house, wielding early drafts of manuscripts and asking, “Does this sound natural?” I also really like writing action scenes. They’re exciting and flow easily for me.

I think being an avid reader is important for any writer. We learn what works and what doesn’t; we get caught up in a scene and think later – wow, that was really well done! So I read a lot. I also attend workshops and conferences, and I have a group of beta readers that challenge me to do better. But mostly, I work on my writing skills by writing more.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas? I have to admit that I struggle with putting my characters into really messy spots. As a reader, when I get too stressed by a suspenseful plot, I’ll actually read to the end of the book and then come back once I know how everything turns out. I know it’s cheating! But seriously, as a writer, I don’t want to tie everything up in a neat bow. That’s not life, and it doesn’t make for a very interesting read. So, with the book I’m writing now, I’ve purposely written my characters into plot tangles, and then I’ve made myself sit in the mayhem for a while before figuring a way out.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer? I think holding the first copy of my book, fresh from the printer, was my proudest moment as a writer. Winning this award is a pretty close second though!

What are your goals as a writer? The most important goal for me, as a writer, is to tell a good story. I write because I have to get these stories out of my head and onto the paper, but I also write for my readers. I hope people fall in love with my characters and lose themselves in the plot. I hope they’re transported to different worlds. I hope they open my book and time flies away. This is what I want when I read, and I hope I can provide that experience for my readers.

Any final thoughts or advice? Here’s some good advice I’ve received that I’m happy to pass along:

First, finish something. A bad draft is better than no draft.

Second, a first draft is nowhere near the finished product. This was shocking to me as a first time novelist - although it shouldn’t have been! I knew edits were going to happen, but I had no idea how much work they would be. If I had to estimate, I would say that writing the first draft was only about one-third of the work. Editing and working through the business side of publishing made up the other two-thirds. What's fun though, or at least what's satisfying about the post first-draft phase, is transforming the story from a rambling, exhaustive, stream of consciousness manuscript, to a work that has structure, flow, and even some artistry. I’ve learned so much about the craft of writing through editing.

And finally, keep writing. Even when you feel stuck. Even when it’s a bad writing day. Even when you want to toss the whole mess! Keep writing. It’s worth it.

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