It was May, 1984. I was fifteen years old, sitting in a sophomore history class at Brookfield High School in Brookfield, Mo. My history teacher read the daily bulletin. First up in the school announcements were the names of my fellow classmates who would be inducted into the National Honor Society. I held my breath, knowing I would hear my name. My teacher finished the list and then went onto other bits of news. My name was not read.
After the class ended, I approached him and asked, “Are you sure my name wasn’t on the list?” He assured me it was not.
I couldn’t believe it. The only thing I believed I was good at – academics – and my teachers told me I wasn’t. Only students nominated by the faculty would be inducted into NHS. I was not one of them. And then it hit me: I would never, ever be accepted in this school. That was my moment.
I was the nerdy kid who always did her homework. The note taker. The one who actually thought there was something of merit to be learned in high school. I loved learning. I remember one of my classmates teasing me, “Are you going to be a teacher when you grow up?” It surely was the worst insult for one fifteen-year-old to fling at another.
I ran home at lunch and cried. I couldn’t believe it. I finally saw the truth: There would be no scholarships for me. No money from the local rotary club for college. My teachers had sent a clear message: you are not among the honored.
I don’t know what inspired me to do it, but I approached my high school counselor, Rob Harl, and I told him how discouraged I felt. He listened and then reached into his drawer and pulled out a paper application – yes, they were paper in 1984 – to Northeast Missouri State University in Kirkville, Mo. Fill this out, he told me. Mail it in. Let’s see what happens.
Take the ACT test. You’ll need that to get in, Mr. Harl told me. I did this. My brother, Paul, and his girlfriend drove me to Kirksville. I took the four-hour test, feeling like an imposter among the high school seniors. After the test, they bought me lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. It was the first time I’d ever eaten Chinese food.
Meanwhile, I waited and applied at a local community college. Their answer: You’re not old enough and you don’t have a high school diploma. No.
Then it came: the yes. Northeast Missouri State University not only accepted me, they gave me a $500 scholarship. Today, that sounds like nothing. But in 1984, tuition was $20 a credit hour. This paid for my first semester. I started college in August of 1984. I graduated with my bachelor's in journalism in December, 1987.
The high school attendance staff called my parents a few days after the new school year started to ask if I was returning to high school. I wasn’t there when my mother answered that call, so I’ll never know exactly what she said, but I hope it was something along the lines of, “Why would she do that?”
Now it’s happened again. It’s time to quit.
Last year, I finished writing my middle-grade novel, Bone Girl. I shopped it around at literary agencies and publishers, and all came back with this answer: no. One publisher told me to stay in my genre – romance. Last December, I queried a publisher with my third book, A Year with Geno, and again, rejection.
And then I started reading all of the blogs and newsletters from authors who found amazing success as independents. They publish their own books. They pay professional editors to hone their prose. They hire cover artists, and upload their creations to e-book distributors like Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle. If these authors want a print version, they hire printers like CreateSpace or Ingram Spark.
These authors are bypassing the gatekeepers – agents and publishers – who tell them “the prose isn’t drawing me in quite strongly enough” or “we don’t feel that your work is right for us at this time” or >>you make up the bullshit. The gatekeepers say no. So the independent authors go around them. They quit traditional publishing. And that’s what I’m doing.
In early March, I published Bone Girl. Last Saturday, I published A Year with Geno. I hired an editor who is brutally honest and a cover artist who doesn’t stop until she gets it exactly the way I envisioned. I’m telling my stories my way.
The folks who help indie authors, like Mark Coker of Smashwords, tell us that obscurity is the author’s biggest obstacle. But I think there’s a hurdle that’s higher: walking away from the myth of a cheerleading agent and a benevolent publisher and believing in your story enough to publish it yourself.
For me, that first step was a familiar one, much like the path I chose thirty years ago. But for others I would ask, what’s going to spur you to choose a new road?
P.S. If you read my bio and see where I mention that I dropped out of high school, there’s a reason I include this. I want any reader who stumbles upon my blog and didn’t graduate themselves to know this: You are still a success. Don’t let the bastards define you.