Sunday, January 1, 2023

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Nine (2022)

Nine of these yearly posts in and I'm still writing them!?! Nine years of proactively publishing books and pursuing a dream of being author I first had 33 years ago when I discovered Beverly Cleary. 

Usually, I strive for a more hopeful tone with these posts because I'm a mostly optimistic person--the world we live in is amazing--but I foolishly let traditional publishing hurt my feelings (AGAIN!) in 2022, so I'm going to go ahead and speak my mind this year.

In 2022, I took some time off from writing and grappled with the question: Do I still want to do this? Why? 

I didn't publish a single book all year! But I'm going to publish at least three books in 2023 to make up for it, all of them sweet, sweet middle grade books by Rob Kent. And I'm somewhere in the process of producing a new Robert Kent horror novel with direct ties to my first YA novel, All Together Now: A Zombie Story, which will turn 10 (!?!) in 2023. In the words of David Walters, "time, you wicked thing, you move too fast."

2022 was a year in which I felt older. Not elderly, exactly, but the years are adding up, Esteemed Reader. I paid to see Clerks III and found it to be...  aggressively sad for a comedy, but... fine. I remember laughing at Clerks in high school because they were young and fun like me and my friends. And now they're clerks of a certain age,  having heart attacks and late life regrets, but me and my friends are... oh no.

Hollywood has done a great job recently of bringing back my childhood heroes in new iterations just to remind me the first Jurassic Park/Ghostbusters/Scream movies I loved as a kid happened quite a while ago. While playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shredders Revenge with my niece and nephews I was alarmed to learn they didn't know the turtles' names! At once, I found on Netflix the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie I once owned on a gloriously green VHS tape to teach the children the essential wisdom of Master Splinter. After 20 minutes, they declared it old and boring and broke their elderly uncle's ancient heart.

Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast.

Who you young whippersnappers gonna call? 

Honestly, I've already lived a longer life than I should've given some of the decisions I've made along the way and this is a blog about writing and publishing, not an old man coming to terms mortality. But I take my time less for granted than I once did. I've only got so long to make art.

And I'm reminded that expecting to have the publishing career of Kurt Vonnegut in 2022 is like expecting to be able to chain smoke in a classroom and ash in the chalk tray while teaching, which Vonnegut did. The world has moved on. A trap of aging is thinking the world still works the way it did when one was young. I decided a decade ago that self publishing was the most viable option for me, despite it having not been so when I was growing up in a world without the internet.

I probably won't tell every story I want to tell, but with the three books I've prepared this year to be published next, combined with my backlist, I'll have told my most essential stories. I'll probably have more to say (always have had before), but I'm putting out the books of my heart now to live without regret. And also... because if the day ever comes that I step away from writing, I can't not tell these stories first.

The most recent iteration of my very favorite story, Rob Worm's Bird Adventure, is coming March 23rd. I wrote the first draft of Rob's story in 1991 when I was in the fifth grade (younger me named the worm after himself and now I can't think of the character as having any other name). I've been rewriting this worm's adventure ever since. If I have one true song, one melody innate to the singer that is their reason for existing at all, Rob Worm's Bird Adventure is my song to sing. Although, I think my other books are also very good:)

1991 original drawing by 5th grade me

Next up in May is Goodbye to Grandma, my book about death (and the cover that adorns the top of this post). I wrote that story 20 years ago and I've been rewriting it since. It's my most autobiographical work and though I would argue all my books are at least a little bit about death, Goodbye to Grandma is my most direct, unflinching look at the cruelty of fleeting human life spans and an earnest celebration of our too-brief, but wonderous existences. It is my heart and I give it to you, Esteemed Reader, still beating.

2023 is a year of milestones. In July, I'm going to publish the 20th anniversary and significantly updated edition of my very first middle grade book very few people have ever read, Jim's Monster. All my books are at least partly horror stories, but Jim's Monster is my definitive middle grade horror story. I self published Jim's Monster with illustrations by my best friend way back in 2003 through a vanity press and it was the happiest writing experience of my life. It didn't sell well, it was riddled with typos, and I haven't talked about it much since. But it's my baby and I love it, I've always loved it, even when some people tried to convince me I should be ashamed of it.

My shame is that I ever felt shame for creating art. It's what I do. 20 years later, my skill as a writer has greatly increased. Adam Smith's illustrations were always the best part of that book and they remain unchanged, but the text has been considerably reimagined and improved and possibly finally worthy to accompany those beautiful pictures. I figure if old videogames can get remasters, why not books?  The first version of Jim's Monster was a frantic grasp by a newbie writer with more passion than skill. The new version is a book I'm proud to put my name on beside my best friend's and I'll return it to its rightful place on a shelf with my other books.

(Adam Smith's illustrations still send a chill up my spine)

I've got a Robert Kent book I've been writing, but I'm not prioritizing it at this moment. If I were to stop publishing after the Jim's Monster 20th Anniversary edition, that would strike me a satisfying symmetry to a publishing career that was lovely. I enjoyed myself. I may apply my creative energies elsewhere for a while. I can't see me not writing indefinitely, but I'm also not prioritizing it out of reasonable proportion to other things in my life.

In 2022 I relearned the same lesson I knew when I was younger: Traditional publishing isn't a viable path for me. How many times do I have to touch that stove before I realize it's hot?

So I have this podcast. It's amazing, actually, but if you're reading this, you probably already know that. I can't believe the incredible guests who agree to talk with me. I've just posted this year's clip show and I'm grateful to every guest I've ever had the pleasure of speaking with. And I want nothing I'm saying in this post to disparage any of them.

When I was younger, it was easier to think of a cruel, faceless entity called "publishing" that was rejecting, then accepting, but PSHYCH! rejecting my work. I came so close to being traditionally published so many times only to have the rug pulled out from under me at the last minute, it began to feel personal. Well, traditional publishing isn't faceless to me now. I've spoken with too many wonderful editors, brilliant literary agents, and other charming book people to ever again mistake a systemic problem for a personal one.

Some of these folks have hung around after podcast recordings to ask me what I'm working on currently. It happened often enough that I decided to do a round of traditional queries for the first time in a decade just to see who might be interested. I'm pleased to say a lot of folks were and amused to say more than one of the inevitable rejections I received included a note that the rejecting party would love to be a guest on the podcast sometime. Rejection is rarely personal and we had great conversations:) I got lots of full manuscript requests and more than one agent told me they loved and wished they could represent my story (just damn it), but can't in the current market.

And so, again, I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football only for Lucy to yank it away. Not because any particular person in publishing is a jerk, though a few probably are and at least one definitely is:)

I can't objectively know that it isn't my writing that's the issue, I suppose, but I've gathered enough evidence to be 90-95% certain it isn't. I did receive some helpful revision suggestions, which makes me want to go on submitting future projects as a critique process:) But more than one agent and editor have candidly told me that it's a tough market for middle grade in 2022, especially in the wake of Barnes and Noble's disastrous decision not to stock most hardcover middle grade. Others have said it on the show.

I offer every guest on the podcast the chance to request any edits they like and so you don't always hear the full conversation. But I do. I'm frankly flabbergasted at some of the things people have said aloud, such as an agent offhandedly remarking that traditional publishing as we know it might not even exist in a decade. More often, guests tell me depressing things publishers have done that have harmed book sales or made it otherwise untenable for authors to have sustainable careers. 

The authors I assume would feel most confident their careers will continue often don't and others worry they can't make enough money publishing not to have to take another job. Publishing professionals have told me things about their careers that make my jaw drop. And that give me perspective on the publishing business, which is the whole reason I wanted to talk with such interesting people in the first place.

All this to say that I'm quite confident both that I'm not going to be partnering with a traditional publisher anytime soon and that I don't really want to. I have too many author friends who I've seen achieve the "publishing dream" only to later leave the industry, authors at least as talented as I am if not more so. And they tell me things. I frequently revisit my own interview archives to follow up on author careers to get a sense of the industry and I find a lot of dead links to author pages that no longer exist.

And there are social media posts by various authors and publishing professionals in response to different publishing events you've probably read as well I have... publishers not providing ARCs for authors in addition to doing no marketing, publishers not paying authors royalties owed, advances being broken up into 4 or 17 payments or whatever it is now, all the revealing testimony from the DOJ Random Penguin trial, editors and agents leaving publishing very publicly, and on and on.

One day in September I was grumbling about another I-love-your-story-but-we'll-never-sell-it-for-stupid-reasons-that-make-no-sense-and-are-beyond-anyone's-control rejection and Mrs. Ninja threw her hands up in the air, shouting, "I thought you started self publishing to get away from all this crap." Esteemed Reader, Mrs. Ninja is not just brilliant and beautiful and my most favorite person. She had a point. 

I spent the first part of this year rewriting and polishing a book, and then I spent the spring and summer with strategic submissions and playing the waiting game. And I became incredibly unhappy with writing and morose about the state of publishing, which lead to weeks of my not writing. And I taught some fiction workshops and kept the podcast going, which is a lot of work, and I was a parent, and I lost over 50 pounds through diet and exercise.

This isn't a health blog, so I won't spend much time on my weight except to say that I discovered I can step up and down on a block while playing videogames and that actually counts as physical activity!?! I lost 25 pounds playing and replaying my favorite game of the year, Horizon Forbidden West, before I started earnestly trying to lose weight. I bought a weight bench and have so far not seriously injured myself (knock on wood). If you watch me on YouTube, you can see my different weights, although the episodes are recorded out of order, so I fluxuate wildly from week to week:) 

My other favorite games of the year were Destroy All Humans 2 Reprobed (so wrong, but so right), Ring Fit Adventure, Mario Kart Booster Pass, Two Point Hospital and Campus (discovered both this year), Grand Theft Auto 5, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (man, those beautiful remasters hit the spot), and Saints Row (the critics are crazy, that game ruled, and their precious God of War Ragnarok was a collection of pretty, but tedious door puzzles and Elden Ring made me lose my patience almost immediately). 

Every year, I watch fewer movies and TV shows so I can focus on reading and videogames, so I may cut the favorite media portions of these posts as I don't watch widely enough to judge the best of anything. But of what I did watch, my favorite movie was The Fablemans, which caused me to weep openly and to stand in awe of Spielberg's artistic courage and unmatched storytelling. I also loved Black Panther Wakanda Forever, The Batman (of course). Nope, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (works better if you accept it's actually Evil Dead 4), Top Gun: Maverick (I'm as surprised as anyone, but that piece of propaganda was surprisingly emotional), and Prey. On the small screen, I loved Better Call Saul (what an ending!!!), Peacemaker, and Severance. And this was an amazing year for Star Wars as Obi-Wan Kenobi (we can just watch this level of entertainment at home!?!), The Book of Boba Fett, and Andor were all top shelf, premium, as good-as-it-gets science fiction.

Anywho, we were discussing publishing:) In conclusion, what I learned this year, AGAIN, is that I'm much, much happier when I'm focusing on creating, and not the nonsense I can't control. While I was waiting around on agents, lovely as many of them were, I was miserable and felt powerless. And the thought of waiting on and then hoping for publishers to do a great job publishing my books when I know how many things have to go improbably right bummed me out and zapped my creative energy.

In 2022, I was again convinced that, FOR ME, indie publishing is the only way to fly. You do what makes you happy, Esteemed Reader. As soon as I refocused on preparing my next three books secure in the knowledge my fans were going to get exactly the book I wanted for them, I found writing to be fun again. And reading brought me more joy. 

For 2023, my resolution is to think of myself as a content creator more than a writer. I'm still an author. This is year nine, remember:) All those books I published... I'm in the club. With the publication of these last three middle grade books of mine, I can walk away from book writing altogether if I want (I don't). I'll write more fiction when I'm of a mind to, but I'm going to create more videos and podcasts and work on other things. And I'm going to write some things that aren't books. Because it's fun. Because I'm good at it. And because I'm in a position to do it. 

And for that, I'm so very, very grateful.

Here's hoping year ten will be, if not the best yet, as good as the last nine have been. And I'm very grateful for so many wonderful things in my life not writing related (like my PSVR2 preorder).


  1. If it makes you feel any younger, I was teaching 7th grade in 1993, so I could have been your teacher. Hope you make peace with your journey in 2023.

  2. I am grateful for the Middle Grade Ninja podcasts. I started listening many months ago, starting on episode 1, back when I didn't know anything about publishing. I have about 100 pages of notes. It's like I have a huge pile of gold when I review all of this publishing wisdom. I recently went back and re-read the the notes and I feel very empowered to go forward as an author/illustrator. Thank you so very much, Rob Kent. You've done a tremendous service for so many. I'm listening to podcast episode 211 and then 212. Today I'll be finished so I can step out onto the yellow brick road with my basket of knowledge, looking forward to seeing what's around the next bend.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.