With every project I undertake or attempt to undertake, my goal is to challenge myself. In COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, the challenge was to write both a history of comics and provide practical information for the transmedia storyteller and deliver 100,000 words in five months. COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was a unique challenge. The story came to me through my fiancé’s mother, who told me a few stories from her best friend, who owned a bed and breakfast, Quiet Country, down the road from their farm in Nashville, Ohio. I knew Nancy in passing; we had had dinners at Quiet Country and I knew her as the source of the best Asian cooking I ever had, directly in the middle of Amish country; that alone stirred the storyteller in me. But it was when I learned more about how Nancy came to Holmes County that my interest piqued: fled North Korea during the war. Married a GI. But what grabbed me more was Nancy’s reticence to tell the story and the fact that her kids didn’t know the entire story.
The mission of writing COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was two-fold: one, I needed to get Nancy’s story written so her children and grandchildren could have a better understanding of where their lives came from; and two, I wanted a new challenge.
I got one.
So, for the next however many thousand words (probably more than the finished version of C2QC, as a I acronymanate it), I’d like to provide you some insight into how I tackled my first–and hopefully not last–work of narrative non-fiction.
WHAT IS NARRATIVE NON-FICTION?
Ok, perhaps an easy one, but essential to this article. Let’s get a working definition of narrative non-fiction. Basically, narrative non-fiction constitutes the telling of a true story through fictional storytelling devices. Among the best examples of this are Eric Larsen’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, James Swanson’s MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER and David Carr’s memoir, THE NIGHT OF THE GUN.
While COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY certainly isn’t book length, and certainly not article length, it fits in its own little world. But I’ll get to the length and decisions I made regarding traditional vs. self-publishing in awhile.
Why is C2QC so short, and not a novel? There’s certainly enough material for one. The first reason is that, as a writer, I can’t go by word count. I know that’s probably counter to our word-count focused writing landscape, but I can’t say “this is a short story because it’s 7000 words or less.” I can’t proudly say “I wrote 1,368 words today” and rack up statistics. For some, it works wonders; for me, it’s awful, resulting in the worst iterations of self-judgement, self-criticism and self-loathing ever wrought. My writing process is simple: I tell the story in the way I feel it needs to be told and I take however long it takes to do that (unless, of course, I’m on a deadline from a higher power, like an editor or publisher). If that constitutes a novel, great; if it’s a short story, great; if it’s somewhere in between, that’s what self-publishing and the Internet is for.
The great George Saunders had a wonderful insight on brevity when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert after the release of his stunning collection of short stories, TENTH OF DECEMBER (seriously, go read it, and try to find it in hardback, not the awful blue-tinged paperback). It was something to the effect of, when asked by Stephen about why he didn’t write novels, that would you rather read about someone telling someone they love another over a lifetime, or in the three minutes they have before boarding a train that’s rolling down the tracks?
The short version: I based the finished story on a collection of moments that intertwined with one another and built on each other. When those moments resolved, in whichever way I pieced them together, the story was done. The story came first, then length came from how the story emerged over time.
That said, I’m not ruling out the possibility of turning C2QC into a novel somewhere down the road. But that’s a ways off.
NO QUOTES AROUND DIALOGUE
This one is pretty simple. I rarely use them in fiction to begin with, but with C2QC, because the story was being recounted to me, I couldn’t base the dialogue between family members in evidence and fact; I could, however, use dialogue that I felt was within the person’s character based upon the actions they took. However, I used what some would call dialogue sparingly, as an accent.
This brings up another unusual trait of writing narrative non-fiction: I can’t ascribe thought to characters, again because there’s no way to directly source thought as it was occurring directly within the action described in the story. I could only describe action in the best way I knew how, which was to let the action speak for itself, devoid of flowery language and emotion. I had to let the reader put themselves in the shoes of the Cho family, and I felt that by being dispassionate in my descriptions, the passion would come from the reader during the reading of the book.
I *did* use quotation marks in the coda, set in 2013, where I quoted directly from my interviews with Nancy.
WHY I DIDN’T TALK ABOUT NANCY’S LIFE AFTER COMING TO AMERICA
The crux of C2QC was a journey, and I felt that the particular journey of the story, the one I had invited the reader on, ended in that airport in Tokyo in 1960. The conflict was leaving Korea, both the North and then the South. It was about walking the road to building your own family and taking the steps you need to get where you need to go.
While Nancy’s story obviously didn’t end in 1960, the story of C2QC did (with a 2013 coda).
TRADITIONAL VERSUS SELF-PUBLICATION
Throughout the entire writing, this one weighed on me. I thought maybe I could get it in a local publication, using the Holmes County angle, or the B&B angle, like a profile in FOOD AND WINE. One reader suggested traditional, the other didn’t know what to say.
In the end, I chose self-publication, and it was the absolute best decision I made FOR THIS PARTICULAR WORK. Remember how I said I can’t go by word count? Well, I can only go by a gut feeling that the story is ready to be abandoned (released). That particular instinct played into this decision. I knew the structure of the tale was such that any change would result in massive edits throughout the entire work and that my own minimalist and stark prose style (again, for this particular work) would result in having to add extraneous words to fit C2QC into pre-determined editorial guidelines. I didn’t want that to happen.
Also playing into my decision to self-publish was my experience in publishing. As many of you know, I ran a non-profit for a few years with a publishing wing, where I became acclimated to the publishing process, albeit on a small scale.This enabled me to make certain decisions, like cover design: at the NPO, I designed all the book covers, so I used that experience with C2QC; I understood how to write compelling back cover copy; I knew the size dimensions for a spine and for an ISBN box for a 6×9 book; I knew how to create royalty contracts. All of this fueled my decision to self-publish.
The other need was for print editions of the work. Again, my experience in publishing, and my experience in dealing with CreateSpace for years before I turned to writing full-time, further fueled the decision to self-publish. I live in the middle of nowhere. The story of C2QC has broad local appeal, and not all of those locals interested in C2QC know or care about digital books and Kindles or the future of storytelling. They just want something to read, and, if it’s good enough, they’re willing to pay for it. By creating print copies that are print on demand, and leveraging relationships with local business, as well as using tools like Square, I can more fully control the distribution of the book on a local, small scale, something I couldn’t do with the same flexibility had I gone web-based, #Longread-only or traditional publisher.
Pardon me a brief moment on a soap box: the argument of traditional versus self-publishing is asinine and counter-productive. Self-publishing is not a replacement for traditional publishing: it has to co-exist with traditional publishing. It creates a freedom for the author to interact with an audience and enables writers to try new forms and experiment with serialization and other forms inherent to the Internet. It isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.
I’ve been published by a traditional publisher, and I’ve self-published. Both have their ups and downs. The work dictates the publishing route, not the other way ‘round.
UPDATE: 03 February, 2013:
My good friend Geoff Long requested more detail on self-publishing, the ins and outs, the personal experience and all that. So, here it is.
I kept costs low because I did all the design work myself, from interior layouts to cover design. This comes, again, from my experience running a small publishing company in my former life.
Each print copy of QUIET COUNTRY costs me $2.15 via Createspace, in addition to $3.59 shipping, for a total of $5.74. I receive no “free copies.” While I was going through the publishing process, I had to make three versions of proofs to fix mistakes that I had made, including typos and forgotten words. From experience, I never trust the digital version of a proof of a book intended for print, so I purchased a new proof with each correction – the same cost, $5.74. Mistakes cost me a grand total of $17.22. With self-publishing, you literally pay for your mistakes.
It’s worth noting that the stock and finish of the final, printed cover for QUIET COUNTRY is of the same beautiful matte quality of my traditionally published book, COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES & ANIMATION. There was no additional charge for this, and it was an option that wasn’t available when I ran the small publishing company.
As a side note, I did not purchase an ISBN code for QUIET COUNTRY. The print version carries the publisher as “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.” While weighing the cost options of a block of ISBNs, I decided against purchasing a bulk group of them. This was a decision I made, and it may not be the best for you. In the future, once my catalog of self-published titles grows, I will likely purchase a block of ISBNs and redo the print version of QUIET COUNTRY.
Now, with the digital version on Kindle, it was a very organic, and simple experience. For a guide on how to prep books for Kindle, I recommend Amazon’s own guide, BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE. I did release C2QC digitally first, and then added a print version later (I believe it was about a month down the road). Changes I made to the print version (that cost me $17.22) were also made to the digital version for no charge. The two versions of C2QC linked up themselves, with no input from me, in about a day.
I also added the option for a signed print edition via Square (I purchased a Square card reader in November). The prices of the C2QC versions are as follows:
• Kindle version: $0.99 (I make $0.35).
• Print Version via Amazon: $7.99 (I make $2.64, the book costs $2.15 to print and Amazon takes $3.20 for the kindness, an expenditure I feel is worth it.)
• Signed Print Version via me: $9.99 + $3.00 s/h ($2.15 + $3.59 shipping to me = $5.74 + Square fee $0.27 = $6.01 + book rate shipping to purchaser = about $2.00 = $8.01, I make $3.98)
Not a vast money-making enterprise, but a rewarding one in other ways.
I’m having a difficult time sharing a “personal experience” from the self-publishing process, as it didn’t seem foreign to me at all versus traditional. It was simply, I felt, the best way to get this particular work out there in a timely fashion (infer personal experience with more traditional means as you will, however, you should understand that each experience differs with different companies and I aim to traditionally publish again soon). I trusted my abilities to produce a compelling work in an effective package and to deliver it in a manner that would be pleasing to the reader.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Hell yes. In fact, a hybrid of self and traditional publishing is my plan for the foreseeable future.
COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY was the biggest creative challenge I’ve faced thus far (intermingled with extensive personal ones, which I won’t discuss here).
The most important lesson I learned was one that is the overarching theme of C2QC: the power of listening. Listening saved a family and brought them back together. Listening brings understanding. Listening brings a world to life and gives you the means to dig deeper into it.
The lengthy process of writing it also showed me that I need to have a deep understanding of the world in which I’m working before a story can emerge that entertains both myself during the process and the reader once my end of the bargain is complete.
In the spirit of listening, if you have any other questions about writing C2QC and the decisions I made, or would like me to go into greater detail about any aspect of the writing and/or publication process, feel free to ask me on Twitter, @tylerweaver, in the comments here, or on Facebook, and I’ll update this post as new questions come in.
Purchase COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY: