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I Published A Book As A University Student. Here’s What I Learned.

Written by Alison Ross

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

At the age of 21, I published a book. How many people can say that? As it turns out, more people than ever. Self-publishing is more accessible than ever. If you can hire a freelance editor, learn how to typeset in Adobe InDesign, and sign up for Amazon’s CreateSpace, then you too can publish a book.

Now, the real question is: should you publish a book?

Let me tell you how I ended up as a published author. It’s a long story that spans five years (hell, I could probably write a book about it), but I condensed the story for this blog post.

It started in the Fall of 2013 when 17-year-old me attended the University of Toronto Mississauga’s open house. I was interested in the Professional Writing program. I aspired to work in communications, and I wanted to build a strong writing portfolio while at university. Creative writing programs felt too “useless.” Journalism programs seemed out of date. UTM’s Professional Writing program seemed to combine the best elements of creative non-fiction, journalism, and business writing. I learned at the open house that the program offers a course where students publish a book of their work. And I thought that the words “published author” would look great on my resume. I was right. Employers are always impressed by a “publications” section on your LinkedIn profile. But you shouldn’t publish just anything, especially if you want to publish a whole frickin’ book. You should take it seriously. More seriously than I did.

Here’s what I learned while publishing a book of personal narratives. These lessons can also apply to publishing any book: fiction, non-fiction, poetry or memoir.

One Year from Now, You Might Hate Everything You’ve Ever Written

This point is especially real if you’re writing a book at a young age. Your personality, talents, and tastes evolve continually in your teens and twenties. If you publish a book at 21, you might think it’s a cringefest by the time you’re 22.

Think of it this way: do you ever see those annoying “memories” Facebook sends you? Do you wince at the stuff you posted five years ago? That’s what I feel when I read my old writing.

I wrote most of the content in my book between August 2016 and December 2017. That’s not that long ago. Now, when I read my book, there are parts where I’m just like Ew! No! God! Why??? But it’s there in print forever.

People Might Get Mad That You Wrote About Them…Even if You Didn’t Write About Them

My book is a collection of personal narratives. When I was right in the thick of the editing process, I had an incident where a close friend didn’t like the way I portrayed them in one of my stories. This person asked me to filter some details. I did it because I love them, but my filtering made the story objectively worse. I read that story now and think about how much better it was pre-filtering. But to me, a good story isn’t worth a ruined friendship.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll just write fiction then.” But this problem comes up in fiction too. People might not like it if you write a character based on them. Here’s a famous example: JK Rowling based Severus Snape on her childhood chemistry teacher, John Nettleship. Nettleship responded, “I knew I was a strict teacher, but I didn’t think I was that bad.” A few years later Nettleship grew to take pride in his Professor Snape connection, but I think Rowling lucked out on this one. Be prepared for people not to like the way you wrote about them.

One of my writing professors told me that he’d had instances where people thought he was writing about them when he wasn’t writing about them at all. I guess some people are just egotistical like that. Be prepared to deal with people’s egos…and their hurt feelings.

Your Loved Ones Might Be Your Worst Critics

You might think that your loved ones will give you blind praise. But I found that my family and close friends were often the most critical of my writing. Some were even more critical than my professors. Don’t get me wrong, they supported me, and they were proud of my writing achievements, but they felt that some of the personal narratives I wrote just weren’t me. They thought I sounded too self-deprecating, too sad, or too dramatic. I’m known for being dry and quippy, so some of my loved ones didn’t like it when I took on a more sombre tone in parts of my book.

I’m not saying that (annoying teenager voice) no one understands me!!! But when you’re writing a book, you should keep in mind that a different version of you exists in the minds of everyone who knows you. Even your most supportive friends might point it out if they feel what you wrote doesn’t fit their vision of who you are.

This aspect of the publishing process is real when you’re writing fiction too. If your family and friends think you’re a fun person, they might have a hard time taking you seriously if you write a drama.

Write About Something Marketable

I believe that a good writer can make any topic interesting. But readers aren’t interested in every topic, especially when it comes to non-fiction. If you’re going to write non-fiction, I’d suggest you write about a hot-button topic. Current hot-button topics include sexual assault, mental health, and the immigrant experience. Now, I’m certainly not saying you can’t be a good writer if you’ve never experienced these things. You can always write about other people’s experiences. But no one will know if you’re a good writer if you can’t hook them with a topic about which they care.

If you’re writing fiction, look at what fictional books are popular at the moment. Then write a book tailored to that audience. Don’t worry about being unoriginal. Of course, you shouldn’t plagiarize or infringe on copyright, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When it comes to storytelling, everything is just a copy of a copy of a copy. Here’s a quote about unoriginality that inspires me:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” – Jim Jarmusch

InDesign Can be a B*tch

If you want to publish a book, you’ll need to typeset it in Adobe InDesign. And, like a lot of programs, InDesign can be a bitch to learn. YouTube tutorials saved my life, and they’ll save yours too. You may want to consider hiring someone to tutor you in InDesign.

A Good Editor Saves Your Life

Speaking of hiring someone, if you want your book to be any good, you should hire an editor. And not just any editor, someone who knows the rules of storytelling and grammar inside out.

Great editors don’t just tell you where you should and shouldn’t put commas; they’ll guide you through the emotional journey that comes with publishing a book. I was lucky to hire an editor who was a friend of a friend. He was a nice, caring guy. He guided me when I wasn’t sure of how to deal with storytelling issues, and he always listened to my opinions. If you can find an editor like that, you’re a lucky writer!

If You’re Nothing Without the Publication, You Shouldn’t Have It

I recently re-watched Spiderman: Homecoming cause Avengers: Infinity War got me hooked on re-watching every MCU film. In Homecoming, Tony Stark says one of my favourite lines in any Marvel movie, “If you’re nothing without the suit then you shouldn’t have it.” That line got me thinking about my publication. I primarily took UTM’s Making A Book course as a resume builder. I didn’t think about what value my narratives bring to other people.

My published book is now a real object that I can pick up, feel and smell. I flip through the pages and see an ISBN number, copyright info, barcode, and all the marks of a real book. But if an employer asked me in a job interview what inspired me to write the book, I wouldn’t have a clear answer.

What I Learned

Self-publishing is easier than ever. Writers have more power than they used to. But (another Spiderman reference) with great power comes great responsibility. Use the publishing superpowers our Amazon and Adobe overlords gave us to create meaningful work. Employers are impressed by publications, but they’re even more impressed by marketable, meaningful publications.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.