Today, I am pleased to welcome Matthew Dale Hubbard to the Smiling Tree independent writing series. Matthew is a Chattanooga local. His story about how he reached the decision to self-publish includes the usual agents, rejections from traditional houses, but much more: a life and death struggle combined with an unquenchable desire to help others.
When I was a child, I did not dream of becoming a writer. Instead, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, adoctor, an astronaut. Writing, for me, wasn’t a dream. I didn’t approach it as though it was a sacred and hallow career path. I wrote without aspiration. I wrote for the thrill. Most importantly, I wrote because it was something I didn’t have to think about it. I just…did.
I should have known I was destined to write a novel after I tried writing my own version of Harry Potter, which is hidden safely away on a floppy disk (yes, a FLOPPY DISK) and will never see the light of day again, while in middle school. However, it wasn’t until a college professor pulled me aside after reading a blog post I had written for class that the thought of a writing the proverbial “great American novel” crossed my mind. He said to me, “I think you’re in the wrong major. You would excel with creative writing.” That was unexpected seeing as it was a business class and I was set to graduate the following semester with my Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing.
His words stayed with me over those following weeks, and I kept coming back to the blog post. It was a poem I had written, and I didn’t think anyone would pay attention to my words. After all, it was my first writing piece I had ever put into the blogosphere. The poem was entitled “Drowning,” and it was the firsthand account of drowning with metaphors to life being the undertow. I asked myself why I wrote it. Obviously, I knew why. I was battling depression, but I wanted to know the depths of my depression. I started brainstorming a back story for the poem, and then I started writing. Thinking back, I had no idea the way I approached it was method of self-preservation. By pouring everything out of me in the form of a character, I was somehow able to separate myself from the darkness of my suicidal past.
Over the course of a few months, I crafted a first person story a mere 30,000 words in length based off of the poem which started this whole process in the first place. There’s a high you get when you finish writing a term paper, and then there is a high you get when you finish writing a book. That feeling floods your body and mind with such a rush you want to run around and scream and demand the world acknowledge your accomplishment, but you can’t; you can only sit there, not moving a muscle, and stare elatedly at the screen while trying to remember how to breathe. I can remember the high I felt as I typed the last word in the last sentence in the last paragraph on the last page. I felt alive, but most importantly I felt free.
It was then I decided I wanted to be published. Research provided me with enough to know the length of my story was considered a novella at best. I never questioned the faith I have within myself until that moment. A resounding, “Trust you can do better,” answered my thoughts. The story plot needed work and revision—a hell of a lot of revision. I brainstormed and, after realizing how much more of myself I have to pour into it, decided to widen the perspective to four voices each told in third person.
After a few months of rewriting and ironically in time with my 2010 college graduation, I had a manuscript of 97,000 words in length, which I appropriately entitled DROWNING with respect to the initial poem. I then queried literary agencies for representation. Now, this is where everything simultaneously starts and stops for my newly established dream of being a writer.
I received so many rejections from agencies. Some were generic responses with a generic rejection that resembled other generic rejection from other agents. Some were downright rude and telling me I would never have a career (which I saved in hopes they would eat their words). Some were a pleasant sandwich of a rejection with compliments on my writing encasing the firm concern of me being too risqué for the current marketplace.
I took it all in stride—all 258 rejections. For each denial from an agent, I would send out ten more queries. While I was waiting on something to come up, I tried to ease my mind two ways: (1) Looking for a job with my then recently acquired BS in Marketing, and (2) Honing my writing ability.
I must admit, during that period in my life I began to slip back into the wallow of depression I had endured previously. At the time, the economy was suffering and I couldn’t find a job to support myself. Everything I tried to do turned out wrong. For the life of me, I don’t know how I managed to keep my chin up and persevere.
I channeled all my frustrations into a short story based on a grocery store in my small town. This time, I wasn’t writing in order to write a novel. I was writing for myself. It was a self-reflection project of fiction. After I wrote the story, which I was calling “Subterfuge Grocery,” I began to ask myself what happened next in the storyline. I have nothing else going on in my life, so I set out to find an answer.
The short story turned into a chapter. Then another chapter. Then another chapter. Before I knew it, three months had passed and I had a novel so personal it read like my journal. I had two novels written and was yet to be published. I was waiting for DROWNING to be picked up by a literary agent, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to submit what I’d just written.
I submitted the second manuscript under the name “I AM” to a handful of agents to start with—I had no expectations. I was shocked to discover one of the agents requested to read the whole manuscript. I worked with her for several months, revising and editing my manuscript. She eventually signed me with her agency, and we set out shopping for publishers.
At this time, I had completely forgotten about DROWNING and focused all my endeavors on I AM. The process with the agent lasted for more than a year. The feedback from publishers was astounding. Some elite houses part of the “Big Six” complimented my manuscript and said I had a true talent for writing, that my story was engrossing, that I had a voice. However, all of the publishing houses considerately rejected I AM because it didn’t fit in with the themes for their upcoming releases. Feeling defeated, my agent and I mutually agreed to dissolve our contract for I AM. It was an amicable parting, and she was one of my biggest supporters.
I never expected the literary world to have themes about what they would be releasing. Perhaps it was my naivety, but I was under the impression that an author’s hard work would garner attention if the story had that “next great American novel” quality. Not that I’m saying I possessed it, but all the compliments led me to believe I had talent…just not enough to warrant a risk. All these publishing houses with their preconceived notions leading the way for authors…the more I thought about it, the more it pissed me off.
The only solace came from a quote by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” What did I have to say? I asked myself this question as I stood on the precipice of “what happens now.” I didn’t give a damn about vampires or zombies. I didn’t care if I was worthy of a risk for a big time publishers. I didn’t know what was going to happen in time. All I did know was the hardships of suicide and depression and coming to terms with my sexual orientation, which is what I wrote about in DROWNING. Those struggles affected my life tremendously and shaped the man I am today.
I decided to focus on something bigger than myself. Like Fitzgerald, I did have something to say, and I finally realized what it was. I had a personal message to share with the world—a message of survival and strength and hope to those who felt like the only way out was suicide:
EVERY LIFE IS WORTH LIVING
I remember saying to myself, “It’s the 21st century. The game has changed and is changing and will continue to change. Where do I fit in?” I didn’t want to make a profit; it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to make a difference—an impact. I came to the conclusion that I was my own man, I didn’t have to play by the rules, I didn’t have to be traditional with my publishing choices.
I decided self-publishing, aka “indie publishing,” would suffice. I wanted to get my name and message out there. I wanted to be a voice for those who were too scared to ask questions. I wanted to speak to all the souls struggling to swim. I wanted to be unapologetically honest and open about my depression and suicidal past. I wanted to be.
With that in mind, I initially published DROWNING as an e-book on Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. I then published it in print using CreateSpace. I created the cover using a picture I had taken, and I did all the copy-editing. My debut novel is 100% me—what I wanted to portray, the vision I had the book itself, my heart, my soul (cheesy but true).
The attention I’ve garnered from social media has been astounding. I partnered with Goodreads and held a contest for 5 signed copies (which was open to 17 countries and had 1,400+ entries!). I encouraged readers to post pictures on social media and hashtag my name and book title. I would repost every photo with a personal message to the reader thanking him/her for reading. Aside from the United States, DROWNING has been spotted in Italy, Belgium, Brazil, and Panama. It amazes me every single time I receive photos and messages from readers. I cannot believe this is my life.
In addition to a locally owned bookstore, a local Barnes & Noble agreed to carry a few copies of my novel since I was from the area. The original plan was for me to come in, sign them, and leave it at that. However, they sold out before I could come in and sign the copies. Impressed with this, the store booked me for a signing—which went successfully, and I was invited back for another signing! Now, DROWNING is available for in-store order at all Barnes & Noble locations.
I have a few speaking engagements lined up, including a high school’s Gay-Straight alliance which is being featured on local news. As for what’s next? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’ll see where tomorrow takes me with my second novel, I AM. All that is for certain, however, is that I want to do good in this world. I want to make a difference and an impact and be the inspiration for those who feel as though they are drowning. I want to write for a cause and have my readers read for a cause. I pledge to donate portions from the proceeds of each copy of my debut novel to The Trevor Project—the leading national organization focused on providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. Every life is worth living. For more information on me or my social media sites, please visit www.matthewdalehubbard.com.