How One Indie Author Got Started

In my last blog I showed my path to Indie Publishing, and asked some other authors if they were interested in answering my list of questions on their path to Indie publishing.

My first guest is Thea van Diepen, a Canadian obsessed with Doctor Who, Orphan Black, and the inner workings of the mind. If you want to learn more about Thea, visit her Amazon page.

I will now let Thea tell you her Indie Publishing journey in her own words.

How did you get started with indie publishing?

Back when I was eleven, I started writing my first novel. Well, my first attempt at a novel. It was going to be published by a great publishing company (I hadn’t decided exactly who yet), but there was only one problem: how would I stop them from making inaccurate covers? You know the kind. The character is specifically described with “hair coloured hair,” which is in between blonde and brown, but the cover shows them with black hair. No, of course I don’t have a specific book in mind. Definitely not. Nuh-uh.

Fast-forward to the year after I graduated from high school, where I earned enough extra money to buy myself a Macbook because… well… they’re pretty. :3 I spent a lot of time on that laptop, looking for writing help and information, during which time I discovered more about vanity presses. They were a total turn-off, let me tell you. Even though you could control everything about the process, they cost a lot of money and really didn’t do anything to help you out with marketing, which meant that making money off your books through that route was well-nigh impossible. With a heavy heart, I kept a lookout for neat publishers and hoped they had cover artists that paid attention.

Then Holly Lisle, whose courses and forum I’d found, started talking about self-publishing. She showed that it was possible, how it was possible, and that it was a lot of fun to boot. And, well, I’d love to say that I had some kind of noble cause to start self-publishing. I mean, yes, there’s the whole being able to write whatever the heck you want without worrying about “marketability” (well, not the same way a big publisher would), and it’s nice to be able to be in control of every step of the process. But, really, I just wanted my covers to be right. I’m a sucker for well-done, accurate covers. 🙂

Can you recommend steps for beginning authors?

Read. Write. Lather, rinse, repeat. Find other writers, whether on the internet or in person, who you can learn from and with. One email group I was a part of towards the beginning was Other Worlds Writers Workshop, where people would crit each other’s work. It’s a really good thing. I still remember the stories I read when I was a part of it, and I hope to come across them in publication someday.

If you’re really serious about making a career (or half a career, however you want to do it) out of writing, then find good quality advice, books, and courses. If you’re going to have a career, you’re going to need to get into the habit of learning if you aren’t already, because you’re going to keep learning all your life. Might as well give yourself a boost at the beginning. 🙂

Absorb story in every form you can. Books, TV, movies, even music videos (Adele’s video for Rolling in the Deep is great for learning about foreshadowing done well). Anything with story, enjoy it and analyze what you love about it. Take it apart and learn what to keep doing, what to improve, and what to stop doing. Do the same for your own stories, and write each new story while keeping in mind everything you’ve learned.

Every once in a while, read what you’ve written for the purpose of looking for what you love about it. Enjoy it. At some point, you’re going to realize that what you’re reading sounds like it could be a published work already. That’s when you know you’re ready to start self-publishing.

What are your favourite writing programs and why?

Scrivener. I build worlds and stuff. Lots of stuff. It’s not always easy to categorize, especially when I start having conversations with characters about theme or their deepest selves. What Scrivener is really good at is keeping everything to do with the story all together in one thing. I don’t have to open up a bizillion Word or Pages documents to reference all the details I need to look at for two seconds before moving on. It’s all right there. And you can customize all the icons for your things. That’s always a big plus in my books. 😀

Another piece of software that’s useful for keeping track of timelines (especially if you’re crazy like me and decide to create complicated calendars for your stories that you actually have to use because you’re writing a four-book series spanning over a thousand years that won’t be published in chronological order), and which has the added bonus of working really nicely with Scrivener is Aeon Timeline. You can use custom calendars, keep track of specific characters’ lives, plot points in individual books or subplots within a single book, or whatever organization you can think of. It’s really nice. 😀

What is your way of editing your stories?


Would you hate me if you knew I got through all of school, including an undergrad degree, by writing first drafts (except for two, maybe three assignments)? It’s kicking me in the butt now, though, because I really do have to learn how to edit for my current book, Hidden in Sealskin rather than doing a really intense proofread. To my credit, I’ve gotten really good at first drafts, so my editor for my last book didn’t have too much to comment on, thank goodness, but this current book is a mess. Here’s what I’ve done to edit it:

1) Read the first draft and realize exactly how much help it needs
2) Cry
3) Ignore it for three years, aside from half-hearted attempts at cataloguing its problems
4) Write a new beginning
5) Angst about themes
6) Figure out what the five-act structure is and how it works
7) Delete a bunch of scenes and two characters that do nothing
8) Rewrite basically everything that stayed
9) In the hopefully near future, send to editor and cross fingers

It’s not a process I recommend. At some point, I’ll have a good editing process down that I can encourage people to emulate because it doesn’t rely on sheer luck half the time to work.

Do you use beta readers and where did you find them?

Yep. They’re writer friends I’ve met along the way, and some reader friends who know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, I also rope random people I’ve just met into reading things and telling me what they think. I can have self-esteem dips, or episodes of self-doubt about what I’m working on, and I try to get objective opinions to help me see things more clearly.

This is where I want to push the idea of making friends with writers as well as readers, especially writers who are in approximately the same position as you. You never know what will happen. I’ve made some really neat people this way, and it’s one of those gifts that really does keep on giving.

How do you format your ebooks and print books?

This is another area in which Scrivener is amazing. You’ll need to download the Kindle keygen from Amazon for this to work, but once you have that (and it’s easy to find and get working), you can compile your story, cover and all, as a Kindle ebook. It’ll look exactly the way it does in Scrivener.

In terms of compiling for other distribution channels, Scrivener isn’t as great with epub as I’d like (or I just haven’t figured it out), but there’s a fun workaround: Kobo accepts the Kindle ebooks created by Scrivener, and they’ll turn it into an epub ebook, which you can then download to make sure it’s all looking good. And there you go! It’s all formatted and ready for Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and more!

Paperback is a little more intensive, but it’s still creative enough that I don’t mind. Plus, as with ebooks, formatting is hardest the first time around. As you keep doing it, you get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, as well as how to do things quickly.

For paperbacks, I use a piece of software called iStudio Publisher, which makes pdfs. You can set up the page size, decide on margins, add in illustrations, and whatever else you want fairly easily. So long as you’re adhering to the guidelines given by your distributer (I use Createspace because then they put my books up on Amazon for me), you’re good. Actually, a tip about Createspace: always make the margins a little bigger than the minimum they give, and always get proof copies to make sure it’s all looking good. I did the minimum gutter margins (the part along the spine where the pages meet), and the words were nearly getting swallowed in there. Bigger margins made for a much better reading experience.

Another tip I’d give about paperbacks in general is, if you’re not sure what to do with things like the beginnings of chapters, what font to use, or what to put at the tops and bottoms of pages, just look at the books on your shelves. Pick up a few of your favourite ones in a similar genre and see how they do it. Decide what you like and what you don’t, and then create something that makes for a nice reading experience.

How do you create your covers?

Um. Heh. Lately, I’ve been getting other people to make my covers because I tend to angst about them looking good.

I have two books currently published, Dreaming of Her and Other Stories and The IllumDreaming of Her and Other Storiesinated Heart.

For Dreaming, it’s only in ebook so far, and I made the cover for it by drawing the lineart with pencil. Then I scanned that into Photoshop and cleaned up the lines so that they were all nice and smooth where I wanted them to be (which was pretty much everywhere). Then, on a different layer, I coloured it all in, taking care to make sure that it would look just as good in greyscale as it would in colour. DO NOT SKIP THIS. Most ereaders can only show black and white, which means it is imperative that your cover looks good on those screens as much as it does on full-colour computer screens. For the text, I wrote everything in Sharpie, scanned it in, and then changed it to white in Photoshop. I didn’t want to pick a font that looked amateur, and I didn’t know how to find one that looked professional, and my writing is interesting, so it seemed the best decision.

The Illuminated Heart is in paperback and ebook, and each format has a different cover. A friend made the (gorgeous!) cover for the paThe Illuminated Heart (Undead Fairy Tales)perback, and I made the ebook. For that, I found a photo on Getty Images that I loved. It was pretty expensive, though, so I don’t necessarily recommend that site unless you can afford it. Then I fiddled with text placement until it looked cool. Once that was in place, Photoshop miraculously provided me with a font I liked. 😀

Two things:

1) Drawing concept art and playing with several ideas before settling on one is a really good idea. It takes time to figure out a good cover, so be patient with the process.
2) Read up on what your cover needs to do for you. There’s the obvious of looking pretty and communicating the story, but then there’s the fact that it needs to look good wherever and at whatever size it might appear. Make sure it does.

Do you write your own blurbs?

I’m assuming that, by “blurbs”, you mean the “back of the book” description. Yes. It’s fun. 🙂

Have you set up an Indie publishing business?

Um. Should I have? *peers around* No, but I imagine it might make taxes a less weird experience. Not simpler, mind you, but less weird.

Do you actively market your stories and how?

Yes? This is one of my weaknesses so far, I’ll admit. I launch my books when they come out, and I talk about them on my blog while writing them and sometimes afterwards. If something happens that I think is funny or otherwise noteworthy while working on a story, then I’ll say something on social media.

Now that I have a paperback, I’ve also started having a booth at conventions, which is a ton of fun. I also did a fun author chat leading up to the launch of The Illuminated Heart which everyone loved so much that I want to do that with all of my books. Plus, that way, I get to plug other people’s books, too. 😀

Mostly, I focus on things that allow me to genuinely connect with people. That’s where I’m at my best, so I know that marketing at that point becomes easy and a natural part of making friends with people. There are probably more advertising-type things I could do that would help me, but I haven’t started really looking into them yet.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share?

*glances up* Oh, no. Definitely not. 😛

In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, I do have two big ones:

1) Get to know who you are and what makes you tick. Be dedicated to becoming the best version of yourself. The clearer you are about who you are, what dreams are in the deeps of your heart, and the value you already offer, the better your life will be. The better your writing and marketing will be.

2) Make love the centre of your life. I don’t mean that warm fuzzy feeling, although that often accompanies love. Love really means value for someone. Really value yourself and the people in your life. Hold them in high regard, consider them precious. See yourself and others for all the dignity and worth that already imbues every part of the self. Really see it, in such a way that your choices are transformed by what you see. Amazing things happen when you act out of this kind of love.

Can you list any mentors that helped your indie journey?

Holly Lisle has been a huge help though her website, her courses, and her forum. What she does is just amazing.

Sally Hogshead isn’t a fiction writer. She’s more a writer and branding person, but her Fascination Advantage stuff is brilliant. It’s helped me be more effective in marketing and relating with people, and all through understanding how people see me, where I get my energy, and what sucks me dry. The assessment and full report costs $37 (USD), but I do have a code you can use to get a partial report, which still has a LOT of good info you can use.

The code is: EBL-Irionuib

Katharina Gerlach is an author of fantasy and historical fiction. I don’t think she realizes it, but I pay attention to pretty much everything she does. She has a lot of solid ideas and an amazing work ethic. From her Advent calendars during Christmas to The Independent Bookworm, an author collective she spearheaded, she’s got some neat stuff going on that helps not only her writing business, but also other authors as well. And that kind of stuff is just my cup of tea.

Stant Litore, author of weird fiction, is another one I watch. His writing is gorgeous, and he has just so much energy. I don’t know how he does it, but I’ve been learning so much from him by watching his career grow and take off. Right from the beginning, actually, now that I think of it. It’s been really cool to watch. He’s also how I found Roberto Calas, who’s doing the cover for Hidden in Sealskin, which I am so, so glad about. His covers are pretty, and he’s great to work with.

Any other comments?

If you find writing/editing/publishing/marketing advice and put it into practise only to find it doesn’t work for you, you’re not broken. And neither is the advice. It just so happens that you and the advice aren’t a good fit, and that you either need to not follow the advice or tweak it until you do fit.

Note that you do have to put the advice into practise before you can throw it out. Theorizing about something is all well and good, but you won’t really know how well it does or doesn’t work until you actually do it. 😛

Always put into practise kindness and loyalty. They will build for you a good reputation and put you into the favour of others. Whether it’s with fellow authors, with reviewers, with readers, with baffled but well-meaning relatives, kindness and loyalty will always come through. You’re not a doormat, but you’re not a troll, either. Seek to show value for all you meet (including yourself) without any expectation of reward, and it will go well for you.

And have fun. Writing is hard work, but so very rewarding. There is always something to laugh about.

I look forward to discovering what you create. 🙂

Thanks Thea

You can visit Thea’s website or Thea’s books listed on her Amazon page

Anyone else game to tell us your Indie Publishing journey?

If so, just leave a comment, including your email (hidden from my blog readers) and I can email you the list of questions and my email address.

Most of all, keep writing and having fun.


6 comments so far

  1. Cat-Gerlach on

    Thanks for watching and mentioning me, Thea. Good luck on your journey. I very much enjoyed your books and hope they’ll find a big audience.

    • Thea van Diepen on

      You’re welcome. 🙂 Your stuff is awesome, and I’m constantly blown away by how hard working you are.

      Thanks for the well-wishes for my books. I’m delighted to hear that you like them. 😀

  2. Grace V. Robinette - Amazingrace on

    Many thanks to D. J. Mills and Thea van Diepen – what a treasure trove of knowledge! I am teetering on the precipice of Indie publishing – clearly i need to create a website. I’m inspired.

    • Thea van Diepen on

      (Grace also commented on my blog and reminded me of a few things I’d forgotten to mention in the interview. Thus, my reply to her is also here)

      You’re welcome!

      A blog you might find helpful is Catherine Ryan Howard. I forgot to mention her in the interview, but she gives advice on indie publishing and I keep coming across her posts whenever I look up something on that subject. Here’s the link to her self-publishing stuff:

      In terms of a website, I use the paid version of WordPress (you don’t pay for WordPress itself, just the space to put it and your custom URL), and it’s self-hosted (which means I pay for all of these things through a different company than WordPress, and then installed the website software onto that company’s servers). There’s a lot of info about WordPress that’s easily found through Google, but if you ever need help, feel free to ask me. And, as I’ve noticed you’re on Holly Lisle’s forums now, you’ll definitely be able to get help on there if you ask. Lots of us there use WordPress. 🙂

    • D J Mills on

      You are welcome, Grace. 🙂
      Good luck with publishing your stories.

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