Paring it Down To Get it Done: How Much Writing Advice Do You Need?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The other day I opened my inbox and nearly had a heart attack.

I had over 600 unread emails.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been doing my best to keep up. I answer the important emails right away, but if there’s something I want to read later, I tend to skim the post and then mark it as unread so I can find it easily in the future.

I have six email accounts. At least five of them have over 500 unread emails sitting in the inbox now. (I know, six is ridiculous, but I have accounts for pen names, fandom names, work, personal, and the LLC…)

And my inbox is full. Emails on marketing. Publishing. Unread author newsletters. Notifications of posts on favorite blogs. Craft emails. Posts about advertising as an author. Emails from lists and organizations I participate in. I have a terrible habit of signing up for workshops and online courses I never finish taking, so my inbox is also filled with posts on coursework I plan to check out someday.

Only some day never arrives. I always have something else I need to do that’s more pressing, and before I know it, when I do have a spare moment, the sight of all those unread emails makes me shudder and close out the browser. I’ve been trying to take an unf*ck your habitat approach to this problem by reviewing as much material as I can in twenty minutes, and then walking away–a method recommended when the problem before you is so daunting you don’t know where to start–but unfortunately, so much material these days comes in a video format, which makes sticking to the 20 minute rule tough.

So this weekend, I took a Marie Kondo approach instead: if it doesn’t bring me joy, the email got deleted.

If the email has been sitting unread in my inbox for over six months, it got deleted. If I haven’t opened at least one newsletter in six months, I unsubscribed from the mailing list. Same for coursework I couldn’t connect with or didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Also, I don’t need ten different courses on “how to make it big as an indie author”.

Do I worry I might be missing out on that one tiny nugget of information that will transform all my writing dreams into a reality where I can quit the day job and write FT? Of course. But how is unread, unfinished coursework any different from deleted coursework? Narrator voice: it isn’t.

What did I decide to keep?

I’m keeping my membership in the Author Transformation Alliance. This community has been a valuable resource, not only with master classes on everything from making book trailers to beating impostor syndrome to building your social media followings (and everything in between) but it has been a font of support and interconnected services as  well. Need input on graphics or a blurb? Help with formatting? Help finding an editor? The ATA is there for me. Not to mention, they do a kick-ass Writer’s Retreat each year. This year the pandemic hit just a few weeks before the conference began, and they seamlessly switched to a virtual experience that was amazing. I highly recommend joining when enrollment is open again.

I’m keeping my Author’s Planner by Audrey Hughey. I’ll be honest, I’m much more a panster than a planner, but if you want to treat your writing like a business, this is the planner for you. It’s like having a coach, an accountant, a personal assistant, an accountability partner, and a motivational speaker all at your fingertips. Well worth it.

I’m keeping my coursework with Mark Dawson and the Self Publishing Formula. Okay, I already paid for the coursework, but the videos are bite-sized and come with written transcripts. I’ve run into a few issues where the presentation assumes a greater background knowledge than I have, but by far and large, these courses have been worth the investment for me in that I’m actually completing the coursework and I can do it on my own time. It still remains to be seen as to whether his methods will work for me or not, however.

I’m keeping my copy of the 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve participated in BadRedhead Media‘s NaNoProMo held each May for the last two years, and it’s full of terrific tips, as well as opportunities to learn from the industry’s best and a chance to win valuable prizes from these professionals.

I’m also keeping Jami Albright’s Launch Plan. Okay, I haven’t dipped into this yet, and I’m already behind the 8-ball because I’m expecting to release a book later this summer and I should have ALREADY STARTED MARKETING IT BY NOW, but there you are. I think it will be useful in mapping out my plans for future releases, and hey! I have this handy planner to keep track of things!

I’m also keeping some of the craft-related emails/coursework I signed up to take. The rest is going in the trash bin, even if I paid money for the course work. If I haven’t taken advantage of the training offered by now, I’m not going to. It’s like keeping work-related articles I save but never read. After a few years, how relevant are they? Or all those exercise DVDs and programs you buy because you’re sure THIS one will be the magic bullet that helps you effortlessly shed those unwanted pounds.

Like any diet or exercise plan, you have to choose the one you think you can do (and won’t hurt you), and stick with it. Like the blank planner, you have to pick up a pen and start somewhere. By paring down my choices, I’m more likely to finish a program.

And I’ll start using my planner to block out a reasonable chunk of time each week to process this information. I’ll chip away at it a little at a time, while vowing not to add to the pile as it stands.

Now if I could just do the same for my TBR stack.

Nah, let’s not get carried away here…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

 

 

Do Writers Need to Attend Major Conferences to Network?

Last summer I attended my first Romance Writers of America National Conference. As a relatively new member, I’d thought about going to a big conference before, and had often looked on with envy as my fellow romance writers spoke of their anticipation and experiences during the conference each year. But I’d look at the price tag of attending a major meeting and realize that I simply couldn’t justify spending the money, not at my current level in my writing career. Instead, I signed up for a lot of online courses and workshops that I never seemed to find the time to complete, and I looked around for smaller meetings where I could still learn about writing, publishing, and marketing, as well as meet fellow writers and well… network.

But two things changed my mind about going to RWA’s national conference last year: first, Ghost of a Chance was a finalist in the Bookseller’s Best Awards, and the winners were going to be announced at the conference. And then, out of the blue, I won a seat a at brunch being hosted by Carina Press Editors–and since I’d tried subbing to Carina during their open submission calls, I thought it was an opportunity to learn more about the process (as well as get a little face time with the editors) that I couldn’t turn down.

And I was right. Attending the conference in NYC was an amazing experience.

I attended all kinds of panels and meetings. I learned I need to manage my newsletter differently and how you can use cover art to rebrand yourself. I made a pitch to a publisher at an open submission thingy (it could have gone better), and took copious notes at various lectures. I caught up with people I only knew from social media, met new people at the various events, and managed to squeeze in some touristy things too, like eating a hot dog from a street vendor (man, that was good!) and taking the ferry out to Staten Island. I had a delightful brunch with Carina’s editors Stephanie Doig and Kerri Buckley, and the rest of the lucky winners in the group. I wrote about my RWA experience here.

And I made plans to go again this coming summer. One of my crit partners lives out west and was planning to attend, and it would have been a wonderful excuse to catch up with her.

But then came the fallout from the special ethics committee report on Courtney Milan and the ruling to censure her, as well as ban her from holding office within RWA. If you’re not part of the romance world, I wrote about this debacle shortly after it occurred, linking to all the relevant parts of the story at the time (The Bodies in the Backyard: Can RWA be Saved?). Since then, multiple major publishers, as well as scads of agents and editors alike have withdrawn their support of RWA, refusing to host events or maintain any support to the upcoming conference this summer. Members have resigned in protest; more are not planning to renew their membership when it comes due again. Chapters have dissolved rather than maintain affiliation with the organization as it now stands. President-elect Damon Suede and Executive Director Carol Ritter, as well as the entire Board, have resigned. The RITA awards for this year have been canceled. Several major papers have written articles trying to get to the bottom of this mess, and an independent audit was released siting numerous serious issues with how the whole thing was handled. Although the audit didn’t conclude there was any malicious intent, it did conclude that conflicting rules cobbled together ad hoc contributed to the poor handling of the situation. Several things came out of the audit that were disturbing, to say the least. The pushback from some authors who want to maintain the status quo is even more upsetting. I’m finding out belatedly that the standard which some people want RWA to uphold is romance should exist primarily between cis het white able-bodied Christian couples. Oh, and preferably excluding books written by digital-only, indie authors.

As a cis het white able bodied Christian woman, I believe everyone is deserving of their HEA. I think it’s past time that we acknowledge the publishing industry as a whole has artificially maintained a kind of romance standard that is exclusionary to many marginalized groups.

Some people are attempting to pick up the pieces in the hopes of salvaging RWA and making it what it should have been all along: a place for all romance authors (and their characters), regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical and mental status to network about writing, publishing, and marketing. I think they have a nearly impossible task ahead of them, based on what I’ve been reading and hearing.

I canceled my plans to attend this summer’s conference. I have mixed feelings about maintaining membership in RWA. I’d just renewed my membership when all this came down, and I decided to let it ride in the hopes of retaining the right to vote in any upcoming elections. But as time passed and more and more things came to light, I’m no longer certain I want to be a member of RWA. I’m definitely certain I don’t need to be a member–at least not at this juncture in my writing career.

See, one of the extremely valuable things RWA allowed was access to agents and publishers. While it would be lovely to think of snagging a big contract and quitting the day job, that’s not likely to happen to me. It would be akin to winning the lottery: a wonderful, but unrealistic dream. What I really need is more individualized instruction, in a setting where I can ask my newbie questions without being made to feel like an idiot, especially if I’m not as tech-savvy as the rest of the audience. I need to learn what I can do to promote my work on a limited budget, finish, polish and publish my work as an indie author without the Big Dream of a major publishing contract some day. Sure, I can work toward that dream, but I need something more geared to delivering information in a manner in which I can digest it and utilize now. A smaller venue where I can have conversations with fellow authors one night and continue the association the next day without having lost them in the convention crowd.

But I recognize that while I’m good at over-committing to online workshops, I’m not good at staying the course. I also desperately need to get away from work and home to avoid getting sucked into other responsibilities that force my writing to the back burner. I began looking at other conferences to attend instead of RWA Nationals, and the vast majority of them were either already sold out, offered at a time of year I couldn’t attend, or were primarily reader events with a few headline speakers. While sorely tempted by MurderCon, (I haven’t ruled it out, but it may be sold out already), it’s geared toward the technical aspects of writing mysteries, with heavy emphasis on police procedurals. Fun, but probably not exactly what I need right now.

Which is why I’m so pleased to be going to the ATA 2020 Spring Writing Retreat. Audrey Knapp Hughey is the founder of The Write Services, LLC and the Author Transformation Alliance, specializing in teaching online marketing for writers. This is the aspect of being a published author I struggle the most with–and Audrey gives me the kind of hands-on coaching I need to wade through setting up my newsletter or maximizing my ROI with Amazon ads. This is my third year attending, and each time I’m impressed with not only the professionalism and expertise Audrey and her speakers bring to the retreat, but I’m charmed by the “whole picture” experience, too. In addition to gift bags for participants, there have been morning and evening yoga sessions, photographers to take author headshots, engaging, encouraging, and sometimes emotional workshops, and plenty of time to–gasp–actually write.

I find that I am desperately looking forward to the retreat this year because I know it will be just that: an affordable, informative getaway where I will come back renewed and enthusiastic about tackling my writing and publishing goals for the year. I’ll spend a lovely weekend getting to know my fellow authors while reconnecting with those I’ve met online or in previous years, and will have peaceful hours to write without interruption. (I’ll even have the luxury of a quiet hotel room with a comfy bed free of pet hair for a change! 🙂 ) I won’t come home thinking, “Man, I’m doing everything wrong and I’ll never make it as a writer.” I’ll come home energized about the things within my power to achieve.

And that’s the feeling a good conference should instill. So the next time you’re looking at conferences and trying to decide how to get the biggest bang for your buck, think smaller and more focused than huge and splashy. Think about the ATA Spring Retreat.

I hope you’ll join me sometime!

Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

Managing Marketing for Authors in 20 Minutes a Day

Are you familiar with the website Unf*ck Your Habitat? I first learned of it on their Tumblr site. It’s a place where people upload pictures of their personal space before and after after cleaning up. It’s very satisfying to see–much, as I imagine, the same kind of fascination people have for Dr. Pimple Popper.

The idea behind UfYH is brilliant, however. This statement is from their page: 

So jump in. Don’t worry about catching up. This is about doing what you can, when you can. 5, 10, 20 minutes at a time. And then back to your normal life.

The beauty of it is that it can be applied to so much besides cleaning up your home–getting back in shape, organizing your photos, sorting your finances, you name it. Any project that seems overwhelming to you, that you keep putting off for lack of time and energy.

I decided to apply it an area of being an author I find frustrating: marketing.

See, I know on some level, I produce a decent product. Not world-class, mind you, but solid writing with good storytelling. But relatively speaking, few people know I exist. In part because I’ve refused to use KU (as a romance author, I’m going to have to rethink that…more on how to use KU without letting it eat you alive in a separate, future post), in part because I can’t produce more than one novel a year with my current workload. But also because I don’t market effectively.

I sign up for marketing seminars, Facebook groups, newsletters, etc all the time. I’m on mailing lists I never open, I’ve shelled out big bucks for workshops that I barely attended, I pay a monthly fee for good advice I never take the time to read or listen to, and in general just sort of wing it when it comes to book launches. I pay for promotional tours and buy ads, but I’m never really sure if I’m just throwing my money out the window. It certainly feels that way to me sometimes.

Ditto with craft. I’ve got all kinds of books on how to be a better writer (yes, I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, thank you). Romancing the Beat. Bird by Bird, etc They line my bookshelves. People love to give them to me as gifts and I appreciate their support by doing so.

But most of them are unread.

That’s on me. But the truth is, most days I feel overwhelmed by my To Do List. And after all, isn’t writing the next story the most important thing I can do as a writer?

Well, yes. But if I keep making the same mistakes, then my launching a new story is about as fruitless as Noah releasing doves every day after The Flood, hoping they will come back with evidence of dry land out there somewhere. It might eventually happen, but I could be more effective, now couldn’t I?

So I’ve decided to take the Unf*ck approach to lots of things. I’m going to tackle my marketing in bite-sized chunks of time. I’m not going to stress about what I haven’t done or read or how full my inbox is or how much time and money I’ve wasted thus far. Ditto with improving my craft. Writing itself. Or exercising, for that matter. Anything I choose.

Obviously, I don’t have endless “twenty minute” blocks of time to devote to something every day, but I can make a point of devoting 20 minutes two or three times a week to anything I choose. I’m prioritizing things into daily, bi-weekly, weekly, and monthly categories depending on urgency and need.

The other thing I’m going to do is take a hard look at the advice given by people who’ve made a successful career out of writing–and resist the urge to jump on every bandwagon that comes down the pike. No more seminars. No more expensive programs. I’m going to focus on the material I already have before taking on any more right now.

It might be like chipping away at stone a little at a time, but it’s better than doing nothing and complaining about the lack of progress. And if I keep at it, eventually I’ll have something to show for it.

First up for me is to read BadRedHeadMedia’s 30 day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve had a copy for several years. Now’s the time to read–and implement–it.

I’ll let you know what I think. In the meantime, what can you do with 20 minutes?

Managing Time–and Guilt–as a Writer

I’ve definitely been struggling lately. Work stuff, home stuff, world stuff–it feels like it’s all piling on at once. Time management is definitely an issue. So is feeling guilty when I can’t do everything on my list. The guilt worsens when I see myself making the same mistakes over and over again. When I waste a day in terms of productivity because I’m so burned out I can’t muster the strength do anything–not even something I enjoy. Everything is a choice between things that must or should get done. If I take the dogs for a long hike, then I can’t go horseback riding. If I try to do both, I can kissing writing goodbye for the day. But the dogs need a daily walk and the horse must be ridden regularly or it’s not safe. Decisions, decisions.

Likewise, I’m feeling guilty right now because I won a terrific marketing package while participating in NaNoProMo this past May–a $300 value–as I won an all-access pass to a marketing group. But I’m already working with another service that I’m struggling to find the time to participate in. I know that videos are all the rage now, but I don’t have 45 minutes to absorb information I could process faster in a post. It’s a fantastic opportunity to gain valuable marketing tips that I’m freaking out over because I don’t have the time to participate.

So I can watch a marketing video or blow off steam watching a little TV. Giving up TV isn’t that big a deal–I rarely watch more than 3-4 hours a week as it is now. But watching a marketing video every day versus writing? It’s a no-brainer. The writing takes precedence. It is, after all, the reason why marketing is even necessary. I’m learning I need to have a bigger back list before I sink much more into marketing and advertising.

Marketing versus social media? Aren’t they the same? Not really. Social media is where you make connections, not the place where you constantly toot your own horn. When you have the connections, people naturally want to share your news about a book release or a sale. But too often social media becomes my way to ‘unwind’ after a stressful day at work. I can spend hours circling from one platform to another reading and commenting. Is it a waste of time? Yes and no. I’m probably making some connections. But when the husband and I are both sitting in a restaurant checking out social media instead of talking to each other–there’s a problem with this picture.

So I’ve narrowed it down: writing should be the priority when I have available time. Marketing is important, but I’m not going to allow myself to feel guilty about prioritizing writing the next story over doing coursework. It will still be waiting for me when I get to it. Maybe my route to success will be slower as a result, but I can’t make myself crazy over this. I refuse to feel guilty for not making the most of this opportunity.

But the real crux of the issue is when I choose writing over being with my family. Over walking the dogs. Over riding the horse. Because as important as the writing is, these other things are not only time-sensitive (in that time is passing at a rapid rate whether I like it or not) but they are what makes life worth living.

These past few years I’ve struggled with depression, but also a growing sense of disconnectedness with the things that are most important to me. I think in part this was a natural reaction to having had so much personal loss–I’m the kind of person who will emotionally cocoon in situations like that. But I was doing it before all that loss too. Again and again, I was choosing time at the keyboard over time with the living, breathing things in my life. And I don’t want to keep making those mistakes.

So what’s a writer with a serious time crunch to do? It might not work for you, but I give myself two hours. If I can’t write something productive in that time frame, I stop and do something different. I walk the dogs, or read a book, or watch a movie with the family. I don’t keep staring at the keyboard–only to take a ‘quick peek’ at what’s going on at Facebook or Twitter that turns into a two-hour time sink.

I’m de-listing. I’m dropping newsletters I never open, and all those diet/exercise/informational updates I never implement. I’m bowing out of groups and cutting back on all my online activity except those platforms I actually enjoy.

I spend less time on social media in general. I exercise. I meditate. I do what it takes to get my brain focused on the here and now and not worrying about what might happen at work, or with the family, or with my country, or the world. Finding that inner peace unlocks the writing mojo for me–suddenly gnarly plot problems unravel and I can see where the story should go next. I’ve developed an idea for a new series with a new set of characters and I’m more excited about this than anything since my fandom days. Yes. That excited!

The hard part it is carving out time to write when you have so many other demands on your time. And not feeling guilty about it when you do. But as Yoda would say, “Do it you must.” Carve out that two hours or ten minutes or whatever works best for you. Give that moment utterly and completely to writing 100%. But if you’re not making progress–quit. Today I read a great quote by Steven Hawking and it’s applicable to writers too: “It’s no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else.”

Yes. This.

I’m going to continue learning what it takes to bring my stories to the notice of the reading public. But not at the expense of the writing itself. And yes, I’m going to continue writing. But not to the exclusion of living. Because I’m already looking at the last ten years with regret as to how I spent my time. I don’t want to compound that problem further.

Because we only have so much time to spend with those we love. Take joy where you can find it. That’s what fills our wells of creativity.