There was only pride when I published my first book in 2013 (yes, 2013!). Even though the first edition was done by someone who never even heard of InDesign, or book design in general—even if the book was only 90 pages, accidentally printed on letter sized paper instead of in any common book dimensions, with online pay-to-print services—it was the first novel-length thing I wrote start to finish. First thing I queried to agents, too, and first thing I tried to edit myself. Naturally, I had to revise a couple years later, when my growing, but still inevitably lacking, writing and editing skills were a bit sharper—and even then, it still wasn’t close to where my writing is now.
I wrote it as a high school graduation project—what my school called Capstone. I wrote it, queried it, got understandably rejected a thousand and two times, and when it looked like it wouldn’t get published in time to meet the deadline (which, frankly, any agent or publisher that would’ve taken this book would earn my scrutiny and bewilderment now), I self-published.
Originally, I used Lulu, and then I found Amazon’s CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing) was a much more user-friendly, flexible, and reasonable platform for actually getting sales. And believe it or not, I did get sales! Not only from friends and family, but from completely random people. At the time, this was a thing of wonder, strangers reading my book of their own volition; as my writing skills grew in my undergraduate career, it was a source of embarrassment. I tried to take it down, delete it, scrub it away from my name—but no service, neither Goodreads nor Amazon, would let anything be lost to the virtual archives completely.
As it stands, the first thing I learned the very hard way from writing that book is that what follows you on the internet is there forever.
Beyond that, I couldn’t leave the thing alone. From when I was fourteen all the way to when I was eighteen, I picked at that manuscript. Added chapters. Deleted chapters. Thinned scenes. Padded scenes. (Still had no real concept of pacing or plot or anything else by then, as I’d only taken about one semester of a creative writing course all through high school and knew everything I knew solely from reading and constantly littering my hard drive with scatterbrained, half-scrawled drafts of things.) The point is, not only was this book written by a youngster, it was written and rewritten enough times that at any point, whoever has this book could have a completely different idea of what happened in it from other readers. Is that good? Absolutely not. But when self-publishing makes it so easy to just jump back into the manuscript and rearrange the whole thing, it didn’t feel so bad at the time. Finally, I had to make myself stop—resigning myself to the fact that the book wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, and taking it out of print.
Second thing I learned was that there’s no such thing as “done” with a project unless one decides they’re done. And I mean done. As in, slapping-knuckles-with-a-ruler-for-even-thinking-of-reuploading-the-manuscript-for-the-fifteenth-time done.
I came across that book again this week, as not only does it sit on my shelf, but it still comes up from time to time on the internet, too. It still haunts me as the first (and no doubt worst) thing I ever published, given my teenage inexperience on all fronts, from writing to editing to designing to marketing. But when that book came up again this week, what came with it this time were reviews I didn’t even know I had on the thing. For all its quirks and flaws, Quarantined actually had three reviews—all of which were four stars. Of course, they had their things to say, and for every bit of praise, there was plenty of constructive criticism, too—as is to be expected of even the best books, really. Even now, I would want my work to be scrutinized properly, praise and criticism being two sides of the same coin. Still, for all the time I’ve spent moaning and wailing about this book, and how it wouldn’t leave me alone since its original launch on Lulu all the way back in 2013, the fact is that to some people out there, it wasn’t nearly so bad as I thought.
One review from 2015, especially, hit me hard towards the end, right where the embarrassment and shame had long since swallowed up my old school-kid pride:
The book has the potential to be even better than it is, and I had to stop myself making copious editorial notes and sending it back to the author because I really loved so many aspects of this book, and so consequently felt the disappointments more greatly. I even read it in one sitting.
I was stunned by the author’s age, and would advise her to seek advice from some established authors about guidance and progressing professionally without being controlled or exploited, because she definitely has talent.
I really loved so many aspects of this book, and so consequently felt the disappointments more greatly. I even read it in one sitting.
The last thing I learned from this book was that it was a start. Quarantined was the beginning of my official writing history, as wonky, choppy, and frankly all over the place as it was—because everything this reviewer had to criticize, honestly, was spot on, and I can say that objectively as a writer who knows much, much better now. Still, my fifteen-year-old self had more courage, and showed more vulnerability, posting that book than my current twenty-four-year-old self does—the self that, completely understandably, throws herself in front of the computer screen when someone peers over her shoulder while she’s writing, and who doesn’t dare let anyone see her work until she’s confident it’s been polished enough to sparkle off the PDF viewer.
I've gone back and forth on this book a lot—liking it, hating it, and feeling dumb for liking it again. But finally, I'm willing to say there’s no shame in this thing, and that there shouldn't have ever been, either. There’s no shame in having started somewhere, and no reason to be embarrassed over the accomplishment of a huge milestone, regardless of what I think about it now.
The Sara Raztresen that existed then wasn't the same one that exists now, after all.
In the end, I can say it was a good story written by a drastically inexperienced writer—and that’s all there is to say about it. Looking back at it, I still love the characters and their voices, and as silly as many parts of it are, I know that if I wanted to, I could go back again and do it justice, with a second rewrite. Whether I ever will remains to be seen, though. For now, the original (“original”) work remains on my shelf, reminding me not only of that Really Cool Thing I did once in high school, but of how far I’ve come every year since then, too.
And honestly, I’m pretty proud of that—of the journey, and of its wonky dystopian starting point.