Emotional Writer’s Block: Get Real or Go Home

I’ve been struggling with a WIP for over a year now, while at the same time dealing with a great deal of personal loss. For some time, I thought my inability to punch my way through the barriers in the story had to do with the initial set up: I took two strangers and isolated them on a farm in a snowstorm. For much of the story, it’s just the two of them, with no other characters for interaction.

Now, I confess, that kind of scenario is one of my favorites. Show me a story with ‘snowed in’ as a premise, and I’m one-clicking that baby. It was only a matter of time before I wrote one myself. And I’ve written novels before in which the two main characters were the only speakers onstage for much of the story. So I couldn’t understand why this story felt so wooden and dull, why the protagonists seemed to have little chemistry or sparkage.

I knew my creative energy was down because my emotional well was depleted. But I’ve written in those circumstances before, so I just didn’t get it. Why was this story being so difficult?

It finally dawned on me that the problem was I had two characters that were walled-off emotionally and unwilling to communicate. Well, let me tell you having one such character is pretty standard in romances. It’s usually the hero with the stiff upper lip,  who doesn’t share anything with the heroine until she breaks down his emotional barriers. It’s my favorite kind of hero, to be honest. But you can’t have both main characters walking around with a stick up their ass, saying “I’m fine” whenever someone asks how they are doing. Two taciturn and uncommunicative characters isn’t just difficult to write, but they’re boring to read as well.

My critique group tried to point this out early on, but I wasn’t having any of it. I was defensive of my characters and their inability to vent their emotions. I had my reasons for why they behaved in a certain way–and yet I felt the lack of connection and complained about the dullness of their interactions. Now, I don’t confuse bantering with bickering. The first is a witty, sometimes playful back and forth between the two main characters. Think Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies or the early days of Castle. Banter isn’t mean. It doesn’t snipe at one another, taking nasty potshots along the way. I don’t want my hero to be a jerk–especially if he and the heroine are trapped together in the same house for a while. But there has to be that spark between them. And with both of my characters being tight-lipped and suffering-in-silence, that wasn’t happening.

I frequently joke that when I don’t know what to do with the plot, I blow something up or burn it down. It’s a great way of getting unstuck from a plot point, or when your characters are wasting time getting coffee or putting on makeup instead of moving on with the story. I was pounding my head on the desk trying to figure out how to get my characters to engage without turning one of them into someone I didn’t want to be around, when it suddenly hit me.

I needed an emotional fire. I needed for them to get real or go home.

There’s a lovely scene in Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers, in which Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are discussing this very same problem with one of her stories–and Lord Peter’s suggestion is to get real with the murderer–give him a true reason for committing the crime as opposed to being a vehicle for posing a pretty mystery puzzle. Give depth to the story beyond what the genre called for. Harriet, having just been acquitted of murder recently (thanks to Lord Peter), is reluctant to do this because it may hurt too much. Lord Peter essentially says, “What difference does that make if it makes for a better story?”

(Lord Peter really gets Harriet on a fundamental level. My goal is to one day create a romantic couple with that kind of dynamic in their relationship.)

In many ways, I believe writer’s block can be boiled down to this: an inability or unwillingness to get real with the characters. For the writer to strip themselves naked and stand on display in the form of their fictional creations. Not that characters are necessarily stand-ins for authors, but when you read that one sentence that utterly rings true for you, when someone details an experience, and you nod knowingly because you’ve had that experience yourself–that’s getting real.

And that was what was wrong with my WIP. To fix it, I went back and re-wrote all the dialog and interactions, taking out the silent, simmering refusal to emote and putting back in the emotions I’d been afraid to experience myself. 

So far, early word from my beta readers is promising. They love the WIP and think it’s better than my previous book, which is a relief, let me tell you.

So much so, it’s going to be my new motto: Get Real or Go Home.

 

Dear KU: Why I’m breaking up with you

Dear KU:

This is going to be hard for me to say, but I think we should stop seeing each other.

I know that the time-honored tradition is to say it’s not you, it’s me, but I can’t. The truth is, it is you.

See, I think you’re an abuser.

You come in with great promises. I confess, they sounded fantastic. And others sang your praises. It seemed like such a loving relationship between a distributor and an author. Writers were making money, enough to quit their day jobs and concentrate on writing full-time, and in this profession that’s the Holy Grail of promises. Who wouldn’t leap at that?

Sure, the clause about exclusivity niggled a bit. Since we’re being frank here, it bugged me a lot. But my fellow authors told me that if a book wasn’t in KU, it had little hope of reaching bestseller status within a genre, and a quick glance at sales rankings seemed to support this. I worried I was giving you too much power in this relationship, but there weren’t a lot of good options out there. Besides, the risk that you’d abuse that power was all theoretical, all down the road. Some day. Not today.

But the thing I didn’t count on was the need to feed you more and more stories in order to make your magic work for me. That’s my fault, not yours. I’m incapable of cranking out a story every couple of weeks, and the idea of collaborating on a large scale with other authors under one pen name just wasn’t a good fit for me for that reason as well. So I shouldn’t have been disappointed that my stories haven’t done well in KU. There’s a lot of competition. I’ve waffled back and forth on whether I should stay in or not. I’ve put books in and taken them out. Either way, it seemed to make little difference. The reported success stories of other authors and their exclusive relationship with you would seem to suggest that it’s more me than you.

Or that could be you, gaslighting me.

Either way, I’m done waffling. I’m saying goodbye. 

The scammers are collecting the lion’s share of your pot, and it’s obvious the system is frequently manipulated. I fully believe #cockygate wouldn’t have existed without the favorable environment created by your system. The author in question is a KU All Star. I think protecting that status is what drove the author to TM the word “cocky” and prevent any books with “cocky” in the title from being sold. Not because Amazon doesn’t have a generous return policy for those people who accidentally get a book by mistake, but because people reading other books with ‘cocky’ in the title aren’t reading hers.

Because it’s all about that page count.

You know, the page count that’s been affected by glitches that you refuse to fix. The one where you can’t tell us exactly how you determine page counts, but that’s the criteria for which we get paid–fractions of a penny for every page read, by the way. Slivers.You know, the system that  benefits us until you release your bots in an attempt to get ahead of the scammers, and then lops off heads at will with little room for recourse.

Now, I’m hearing fellow authors saying they’ve been shut out of their accounts because you have accused them of manipulating the system when they only thing they’ve done is run a promotion through your own service. Not just one or two, but widespread. I know, I know, you’re trying to get the scammers, but you keep netting the innocent instead. (Any author who would like to appeal can reach out to content-review@amazon.com if they have additional questions. The Indie Author Support Network is also seeking documentation. A quote from them: 
We are continuing to compile information and ask that anyone who has had their account suspended and/or books removed from sale on the Kindle platform, to please provide any documentation you have to indie@indieauthorsupportnetwork.com. We are looking for cases of ACTUAL suspension and content removal at this time. We understand the loss of page reads is also a major concern, but the account suspension matter has our top priority.)

Here’s the thing. It’s not worth it to me. Even without KU, 80% of my sales are through Amazon. The reason is clear–the Kindle is amazing and the website is superior. I get most of my own books (and nearly everything else) through Amazon. One of the factors in Barnes and Noble’s failure to compete is that their website is horrible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to redeem a coupon or credit and have been unable to do so. Or I follow the link to B&N to check out a special deal, only I have to log in at least three times before I can get to the page I want. I give up. Every time. I shop Amazon because it’s so easy.

So why not give Amazon the whole 100%?

Because we as authors can’t afford to have you shut down our accounts over some KU nonsense. Boom, the decree comes down and we are out of business. It’s hard enough to be an indie author without risking the ire of an impersonal god whose army of bot minions do all the dirty work. Like hiding works from buyers because they fell into an algorithm black hole. Or deciding to decrease the visibility of erotica and then mislabeling many romances as erotica. Your decisions are arbitrary enough without the exclusivity clause. I can’t afford to give you that much power over me.

We should all be thinking about what will happen to the publishing industry once Amazon owns it all. We’re already at a state where books have been devalued to the point of slivers of a penny.

Which is why I circled back to my original impression of you, KU. You’re bad for me. You’ve created a mindset where readers demand stories faster than I can produce them for ‘free’, a price I can’t afford. And while I’m not the world’s best writer–not hardly–I love stories too much to burn them as fodder for your KU fire.

When my run ends on my current promotion, we’re done, KU. We’re done.

 

 

 

Oh, What a C*ck-up!

For those of you who haven’t yet caught up with the events associated with #cockygate, this is a great post on it here, and a Twitter thread here. 

Both sum up matters nicely, as well as bring up the implications and legal questions such an action raises.

Disclaimer: I am not a copyright lawyer and do not pretend to understand the ins and outs of the case. I am only presenting the information as I understand it.

The short version is this: Kindle All Star Faleena Hopkins (who also has written under the name Sabrina Lacey) filed trademark claims for the word ‘cocky’ as used in her series of stories surrounding a never-ending family known as the Cocker Brothers, as well as the specific font used in the titles of her books. The trademark now gives her the right to send cease and desist orders to every author with a book containing ‘cocky’ in the title. They are given the choice of changing titles or facing a potential lawsuit.

Author Jamila Jasper received a C&D email from Hopkins, which she then shared with social media.

 

Ms. Hopkins does not deny sending this email, and in fact responds to the sharing of it in various places on social media. It begs the question as to why Ms. Hopkins sent this email herself and not through her lawyer. The answer may lie in the fact many authors might choose to comply with the implied threat rather than face a lawsuit they cannot afford to defend. And it costs Ms. Hopkins zilch in lawyer’s fees to do so. This cover change is being held up as an example of one compliant author. And the recent title change of another book makes readers question if the author was forced to do so or chose to do so rather than be embroiled in the current debacle.

Ms. Hopkins states in a Facebook post that she is not out to take author’s livelihoods but to prevent her brand from being diluted and that changing a tile is no big deal to authors and costs them nothing. She also has claimed it is necessary to protect her readers from sadly buying the wrong books by mistake. (Um, you’ve noticed that Amazon has a very generous return policy on books, right?)

In her view, changing a title is no big deal. Unless it comes just before the romance convention season, when banners, swag, and advertising have already been ordered. Not if you count the cost of redoing entire pages if you’re a graphic artist, or paying for new covers. Re-recording audio files. Not to mention, losing readers who are looking for a title that no longer exists–but oh look, happen to head to the CockyTM author’s works.

Indie publishing is NOT cheap, by the way. It can cost somewhere between $1-2 K per story and there’s no guarantee you’ll see your ROI back.

Though not directly related, except as it goes to show the mindset behind the brand, Ms. Hopkins alleges her readers were also upset at seeing the cover models she’s used (stock industry images) appear on other covers. And that as a result, she was one of the first indie authors to photograph her own covers. (Spoiler: she’s not)

Then there is also this:

Ironically, the font she trademarked is copyrighted by the creator, so trademarking it may be in violation of copyright here, according to the creator’s Terms of Use.

Irony number two: Same author apologized to the romance community for titling a book “Cocky Solider” when the MC, a Marine, would never refer to himself as a solider. Marines are Marines, thank you very much. Even after being informed of this by an actual Marine, Ms. Hopkins apparently stuck by her original title, stating in her apology letter that it was not possible to change the title as books had already been pre-ordered and it would cost too much to make the switch at the last minute.

Irony number three: Same author allegedly has a MC whom she depicts as a member of the Atlanta Falcons football team. Which is trademarked. And the NFL has a history of strongly defending their trademarks.

Let’s set aside whether or not the TM commission should have granted the TM. It’s being contested. You can sign the petition here

Trademarking ‘cocky’ would be the equivalent of J.K. Rowling not trademarking “Harry Potter”, but just “Harry” and forbidding anyone to use the word Harry in the title of a story ever again. Harry Potter is a distinct entity created by Rowling. Harry in the generic, is not. This would be like E.L. James trademarking “Shades”.  Fifty Shades of Grey is trademarked. It’s a franchise. The word “Shades” is not. There is no special brand associated with that. Not even Ray Bans. The word has existed and been used long before FOSG made it a household name. To make the example truly ridiculous, it would be as if I attempted to TM ‘shifter’ and banned the use of the word in every paranormal romance title featuring the same.

Speaking of E.L. James, that author appears to have thrown some shade at Ms. Hopkins by suggesting her bank holiday read would be a popular book with “Cocky” in the title that pre-dates Ms. Hopkin’s series.

The implications of this maneuver are huge. Not just in the romance genre but across the board in the entertainment industry. Romance Twitter is being utterly inventive and vicious with their #byefaleena and #cockygate hashtags, with authors are retaliating by posting remade covers of their stories ALL renamed with “Cocky” in the title, and changing their Twitter handles to include “Cocky” in their name. There’s currently a request for stories for an anthology: The Cocky Cockers. They are soliciting romance stories from all genres, that must feature a cocker spaniel, around 5 K words and submitted by 5/31/18. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted.

But the underlying concern is real. The petition to cancel the trademark was started. The Romance Writer’s Association has asked any members (and now non-members too) who have been contacted by Ms. Hopkins to get in touch with them, and they are currently talking with an IP lawyer.

Imagine if someone decided to TM “Duke”. The impact on Regency historicals would be unreal. Or what about “Love”? Can you imagine having the gall to email Elizabeth Gilbert and tell her she has to rename Eat, Pray, Love?

Sadly, for the hundreds of people I see outraged, I am also seeing people nod and say what a great idea this is–and you can see them considering being the first to ‘snag’ a popular word to claim for their very own. I’m also hearing readers say they no longer search Amazon for romance titles because the system is so gamed. Some authors have been known to place their books with all-white characters in ‘diverse’ categories because it is easier to get a ‘bestseller’ label in a smaller niche. This practices goes along with page-stuffing in KU–something I didn’t understand until I read this description on one of the KU boards:

Page stuffing is the practice of putting additional, full-length novels in the back of another novel to inflate page count (for the purposes of increasing KU payout) – usually paired with some kind of inducement for readers to click to the end, past the content they likely own already (as it’s novels already on sale in the Kindle Store). This inducement often takes the form of an exclusive short story, or special offer.

Of course, this only works if the book is enrolled in KU. And it is definitely against Amazon and KDP’s TOS, so if you come across something like that, it’s not allowed. From my understanding, authors may tuck as many as three to four other books in the same series in a KU book in this manner. Supposedly, Amazon has fixed the ‘skipped pages’ thing that was making this profitable, but I’m hearing that’s not necessary true.

What IS allowed is a sneak-peek excerpt, or a first chapter of another work as a teaser. Most authors do this. It’s considered normal.

Why do I bring this up? Someone on Twitter explained that a successful KU author–even if the name was unknown to the general population–could be looking at grossing 20-50 K a month writing romances. A month. (Quite possibly spending 1-15 K in advertising to hit Kindle All Star status, but still…) Obviously, I’m going about this writing romance business all wrong.

It explains why someone might choose to go this route, even though they have earned the enmity of Romancelandia–and possibly destroyed their own writing career. To go “Full Faleena” has already become a catch-phrase on how to shoot a successful career in the foot.

Author Jenni M Rose on Twitter related what happened when she realized she had  named a book after a popular series and reached out to the author, Mari Carr. This resulted in #BeAMari becoming a hashtag. This is the classy way to deal with perceived competition.

 

I confess, I had to laugh when I saw this post. Someone has already taken a Chuck Tingle approach in response.

Right-o, then. The object lesson here? Be a Mari.

If you have issues with the ramifications of being allowed to TM a word to prevent it from being used in romance titles, I suggest you sign the petition to cancel the trademark as listed above. Don’t berate the author on social media. Don’t one-star her books. The author has every right to TM her series, especially, as it seems, she has hopes of making movies based on them. My problem stems from trademarking a word that has been used in titles long before Ms. Hopkins laid claim to it. The Cocker Brothers might be her brand, but I dispute that she should have the sole right to use ‘cocky’ in a book title.

Hopefully, the TM commission will see this as well, cancel the TM, and we can all move  on.

UPDATE: Author and retired lawyer, Kevin Kneupper, has filed a challenge to the ‘cocky’ trademark.

The Key to Success is Persistence

Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.

I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.

I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at the going rate of eighty-nine cents a pound. He was the world’s homeliest Saddlebred, a high-stepping breed designed to move with its head up in the air and back curved so that riding feels like you’re sitting in a rocking chair. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion, and when I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.

The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. However, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market Saddlebred because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.

So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. Over a three year period of time, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new set of skills.

Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day. That’s what it’s like to be a writer, too.

One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. Every day, without fail. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.

What Happens When You Run Out of Virgins?

Digital Illustration of a Dragon

This post could also be titled: Why Amazon Needs Competition from Other Publishing Markets.

Because it does.

Last week, I posted a question to one of my indie publishing support groups, asking for a show of hands for those who used KU or went wide with their distribution. The vast majority of people went with KU. Certain genres do quite well there, and most authors did have their books enrolled in KU. Many said they would release wide the first week before pulling their books from other platforms and going with KDP select from then on. The vast majority of authors said they just didn’t make enough money on the other platforms to justify not doing KU, and they did make money on KU. Not much, admittedly, but since it was the only game in town…

The other day, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, pleased at how many companies had pulled their support from the NRA, and seeing the calls for boycotts of companies that hadn’t done so. And then I saw that Amazon not only supported the NRA, but they advertised with Brietbart. 

Well crap.

Because a) Amazon is big enough not to give a rat’s ass about public opinion, even when the tide is turning on the matter of sensible gun control here in the US and b) virtually every author I know would be crippled by an Amazon ban. Myself included.

Just this morning, I was chatting with my critique group about the state of publishing in general and signs that Barnes and Noble is going under. B&N, who gobbled up Borders, and now is falling victim to Amazon. The chain bookstores crushed all the smaller competition, and are now getting killed themselves. When I first moved here, we had a Waldenbooks, a Books A Million, B&N, and a fantastic used bookstore. They are all gone, with the exception of B&N. And now it looks like B&N will be folding soon.

Hopefully it will get bought out by someone else, but that seems less and less likely in today’s market. I like my local B&N store. I don’t go there as often as I used to because I buy mostly digital books now. My first e-reader was a NOOK, but it was heavy and had a pitiful battery life. But the real reason I bought a Kindle and began getting all my ebooks from Amazon was that B&N’s website sucks. OMG. It is so terrible. I get a coupon or a book link, log in, attempt to buy the book, and the site kicks me out multiple times, requesting I log in again or redirecting me off the page where I am trying to redeem my coupon. My experience was so consistently bad, I actually thought ebooks would never catch on. Hah.

The ease of being able to get a book on my cell phone’s Kindle app converted me. The superior functionality of my Kindle Paperwhite gives me so much more than the NOOK that I don’t miss the fact my book covers aren’t in color. B&N is falling victim of its inability to keep up.

Recently I heard Wal-Mart is getting into the e-book game, and along with Kobo, Apple, and Google, are pursuing the ebook market. What this means for indie authors, I don’t know, but I suspect they will not do any publishing. They are more likely to serve as a distribution center. Are they willing to take a loss on book sales the way Amazon is? Amazon is not a publisher. It sells products, including e-readers. If selling books brings people to the website, they are more likely to buy other things too. At the moment, Amazon is content to lose money on book sales. So maybe that’s what Wal-Mart is ultimately hoping for–books driving people to their site (which I didn’t even know existed until now).

Competing distribution sites is all well and good, but I think we need someone else in the field who will allow self-publishing on the scale Amazon has done. I think we as authors need to think carefully about letting Amazon be our sole distributor as well. Because relying solely on KU feels a little bit like sacrificing a virgin to keep the dragon happy for a year–and what’s going to happen when the town runs out of virgins?

Amazon will call all the shots then. And authors, who have never been a priority for them, will be eaten up along with the town.

 

 

Reclaiming Your Time as a Writer

Representative Maxine Waters has made the phrase ‘reclaiming my time’ a viral meme for her refusal to allow Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to squander her floor time with a meandering, meaningless response designed to avoid answering her question about Trump’s ties to Russia in the time allowed. For every woman who has been ignored during a meeting, spoken over, had their own work mansplained to them and endlessly interrupted, this cool invocation of House rules was a delight to behold.

But for writers, there are other time-sinks besides someone deliberately wasting your time. Many of these activities are actually good things, activities we’re encouraged to do. Networking, participating in Facebook groups, interacting on social media, marketing, etc–all things we’re told we must do and must do daily. All part of creating and promoting our brand.

I see friends doing cool hashtag things like #FirstLineFriday or #TeaserTuesday and I think, wow, I should be doing that. I participate in weekly Twitter conversations such as #RWChat  and #TipsyChat and I’ve met new people and been introduced to some new books as well. I’ve joined some busy, organized Facebook groups that cross-promote each other. I’m writing this post now for #MondayBlogs, something I try to do each week.

But frankly, I’m finding it hard to do anything else but keep up with these activities.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy doing most of these things. I get a lot out of participating in the chats or batting ideas around on Facebook. More than just putting myself out there and making my name recognizable–I’m making real connections. Sometimes brainstorming too. There are times putting my thoughts into words crystallize them for me and make my own goals easier for me to understand.

But frequently I find myself spending more and more time in these activities when I could be writing. Sometimes I choose to do the social media thing because it’s easier in a fatigued state to do something like catch up on social media duties than it is to write new material. But I suspect there is a more insidious reason I rotate from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and back again.

I think it’s an addiction.

Most of us have read articles stating sites such as Facebook and Instagram make us dissatisfied with our lives, or that Twitter is a source of outrage. We know that people tend to post about the biggest events in their lives, making our own lives seem paltry and boring in comparison. And yet we check our timelines obsessively, making our own posts, and hoping we’ll get likes and comments. We live for that hit, whether we realize it or not. In some ways, that worries me the most.

I check my social media first thing in the morning and last thing at night, even if doing so starts or ends my day unhappily. I check my feeds during every free moment–when I used to read a book or listen to the radio. I check it at night while sitting on the couch, catching up with my comments and sharing other people’s book releases. To the exclusion of doing anything else. Of paying attention to what’s on TV, or chatting with the family. From interacting with the pets, and yes, writing. I’ve been known to take social media breaks for my mental health before, but this is different. I think we all need to take a step back from our need to be connected, our need to post Instagram-worthy images, our inability to put our phones down.

I’ve been taking a lot of online classes and workshops. I’ve been reading books on marketing and promotion. I read a lot of articles on writing, branding, you name it. I’ve joined a LOT of groups. Due to the changing algorithms on Facebook, I’m thinking about starting my own group. But the truth is, I’m feeling the pressure to keep up.

And I’m starting to question my need to do so.

One of the things that has been pounded into me from classes and workshops is that a lot of what I’m doing now would be to greater purpose if I had a bigger backlist. I’ve been going at it with both barrels when I only have one book out. While making connections and interacting with readers is important, I’m rushing the gun. Most of advice boils down to this: your best advertisement, your best marketing ploy, is writing and releasing the next book.

And it is slowly dawning on me that everything I’m reading is aimed at the writer who hopes to Go Big. That, as far as I can tell, means being prolific on a scale I can’t match at this time.

So I’ve decided to reclaim my time.

I’m going to drop my participation in Facebook groups to the three I think the most useful–one genre group and two author support groups. I’m going to scale back on workshops and classes. No more money on ads or promotion for now. I’m also going to put the phone down. Take long walks. Photograph things for the joy of taking the image and not with an eye as to how it will look on Instagram. Appreciate my animals. Interact with friends and family.

And write. As I sit here watching the Olympics, I find myself comparing daily writing to the work these athletes put in toward reaching their goals. I’m never going to be an Olympic caliber author, so I’d better enjoy the process. I also want to be happy with the end product–even if it takes me a year between books. It’s okay to watch the Olympics, or spend time with your family, or do any of the other things you enjoy.

That means while all the things I’m learning are valuable, I don’t need to do everything all at once or right now. We talk about writing being a marathon vs a sprint–but that holds true for the rest of it too–the networking, the marketing, the branding–all of it. 

So reclaim your time as an author. Or an artist. A crafter. An actor. A singer. A photographer. Put the phone down. Your validation isn’t online. Remember the things that were important to you before social media consumed your life. Take pleasure in the act of creating. You don’t have to do it all every day. Don’t fall victim to the feeling you’re falling behind. The most important thing you can do is write the next story. The best story you know how to tell.

And if that takes you a month, great. If it takes you one, two, or seven years, that’s okay too.

Reclaim your time.

 

The Power of Creating Your Own Talismans

Long before it ever became a thing, I was in the habit of declaring “This would be my year of living ____________.”

One year it was fearlessly. Another was without doubt. Once it was passionately. As with most things, I would start out with good intentions that will fizzle along the way.

I tend to do a bit better if I can put my intentions into a form I can keep in front of me as a frequent reminder.

I also firmly believe in the power of talismans. Even more so if you create them for yourself.

Even as a child, I had a vivid imagination. My parents, imminently practical people, would come into the bedroom once to show me there were no monsters hiding there, but after that, it was up to me to deal with my fears. I used to lie awake quaking with terror over the hump of clothes piled in a chair (which I was sure was a gargoyle, just waiting for the lights to go out) or the shadow in the corner that was probably a burglar.

I finally conquered my fears when I decided I had the power to seal the monsters in my closet. Each night when I was sent to bed, I would round up the imaginary horrors, chase them into my closet, and cast a spell to contain them there. Problem solved. I was able to go to sleep without fear. The funny thing is, to this day, I’m unable to get a good night’s sleep unless my closet door is closed. If it is open even a crack, I have nightmares.

It illustrates the power we have within ourselves to overcome certain kinds of fears and doubts if we put our minds to it. Not everything. But many things. Especially the kinds of restrictions we’ve put on ourselves in the first place that keep us from being all that we can be.

As an adult, I find I still reach for objects I can imbue with strength when I need something to carry with me as a reminder. I love polished stones with words carved into them. As a child, I used to assign words to stones and carry them in my pocket as I needed them. One day I might carry courage. Another, hope. Today I carry joy.

These days, it’s much easier to find stones with words carved into them, but I still have the stones from my youth. I can grant them any word I wish. I love putting my hand in my pocket and coming across the smooth stone, rubbing it as a reminder of the word I wanted to keep near my heart that day. I’m not particularly religious or spiritual. I just find comfort in these small acts.

As an adult, I’ve frequently found strength in fandom, in a favorite character’s courage or behavior. I’ve taken to having iconic quotes made into bracelets or necklaces to remind myself the kind of person I want to be. I seem to need a lot of reminders! I think this is because my negative self-speak is so strong and has been honed over a lifetime of insecurities. So yes, I need to create my own talismans. Not as wards against evil, though sometimes they feel that way, but to offset the self-hate that’s been in place for so long.

For a while I had a ring that said Never Surrender. I bought a bunch of them and wore one until I found someone who needed it more than I did and then I gave it to them. I’ve given them all away.

So imagine my delight when I found out that declaring your intent for a year is a thing now. I noticed people on my timeline talking about what their word for the year might be. And then too, I’ve been seeing people get encouraging phrases stamped on aluminum bands like the one I’ve shown above. I love what I’m seeing. The Etsy store The Broken Circle has all kinds of great phrases on metal bracelets–like “Doubt Not” and “Slayer of Words”. And I recently discovered a website called MyIntent.org that will make a custom bracelet or necklace with the word of your choosing. How cool is that??

So what are you waiting for? You can assign a word of power to ANYTHING. Or you can search for the right phrase that will lift you up every time you see it and create your own talisman–or have someone make one for you. I ordered a bracelet from the My Intent project that said “Persistence.” That’s my word for the year. It’s to remind me of my favorite Calvin Coolidge quotation.

A Little Writing Advice for 2018

I don’t know about you guys, but I was glad to see the backside of 2017. In some ways, it was one of the most difficult years of my life. There was a lot of personal loss, and I finished out the year sick with a respiratory bug that has knocked me flat.

I just saw a tweet from George Wallace that read:

Sorry 2017. It’s not you, it’s me… Okay, fine, it’s you. Asshole.

It made me snort out loud. Yeah, that’s how I feel, 2017. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Yesterday was the first day I woke up without a fever and feeling remotely human in almost a week. Thank goodness I was off for the holidays! I began reflecting, as one does, over the past year. What I’d learned. What I would have done differently. How I intended to move forward into 2018.

I wasn’t yet coherent enough to put together a blog post. I just hammered out some thoughts on Twitter. Later, I thought it would be nice to turn them into a blog post, but I believe storify isn’t an option for Twitter threads any longer, so I decided to screencap them here instead.

I hope you find it useful. Here’s to a better 2018 for us all.

 

What I Learned from Failing NaNo

First, let me start off by saying I didn’t officially sign up for NaNoWriMo. I wrote about my reasons for taking the best of NaNo without committing to the event in an earlier post. Suffice to say, after a terrible year for me personally, I didn’t need the additional stress.

But even with the extremely modest goal of 200 words per day, I failed. How lame is that, right? 200 words EVERY DAY and I failed to meet this low bar.

In my defense, it wasn’t entirely my fault. As most of you know, I have a young puppy. He’s about 8 months old now, and full of beans. One ear up, one ear slightly floppy. Legs that go in all directions and a tail that spins like a helicopter when he runs. He’s a big goofball with little sense of personal awareness.

Last week, he was under my workstation when he got caught in the power cable to my laptop. His movement jerked the laptop sideways into my glass of wine. As the wine tipped over, I snagged it with catlike reflexes–we’re talking WINE here–but some of it slopped over the brim into my keyboard, shorting it out.

I wasn’t going to let this defeat me, however. I knocked the dust off the desktop, one I had inherited last year but never set up. I met each setback with grim determination. The monitor was missing the power cable–no problem, I found an old one that still worked. The mouse wouldn’t interface with the system? No problem, I found a wireless one that did. The ethernet cable didn’t work even when directly connected to the PC? Got it covered–we’ll connect to the modem wirelessly. I’m listing these things because normally tech issues like this have me pulling out my hair and cursing a blue streak. But I refused to give in to these issues. I solved them.

And then I discovered the inherited PC didn’t have Word on it. Seriously?? Who doesn’t have Word??

Not wanting to mess up my WIP trying to integrate some alien word processing program with it, I pulled out one of my many lovely notebooks and wrote by hand while the SO worked on my poor laptop. Take that, One Ridiculous Setback After Another!

Only the words ground to a halt. I couldn’t muster even the measly 200 words per day I’d set as my goal.

Why? Because the story was a hot mess, that’s why.

I had 39 K written by the time of the Wine Incident. Very respectable for 3 weeks, NaNo or No NaNo. But to my dismay, those 39 K words only covered the first 24 hours of action… and my story was supposed to take place over a six month time span.

*facepalm*

Obviously I had a serious pacing issue. Not to mention a ‘bogged down in minutia’ issue. The story might have had good bones (and I still think it does) but it was seriously flawed. And it took being forced into inactivity for me to admit it.

I could have kept plugging away at it and reached 50 K easily. I would have unofficially ‘won’ at NaNo but I still wouldn’t have a usable story. Worse, I would have continued to build on an unstable foundation. It would be like laying down railroad tracks with an incorrect map. The tracks would have gotten progressively off-course, needing a much larger correction than if I’d just stopped and regained my bearings.

So in short, what I learned from failing (once again) at NaNo:

  1. NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. There is no shame in this. Sure, when everyone else around you is constantly posting and tweeting about their NaNo experience, you might feel left out, but ask yourself if NaNo is really right for you. If not, there is nothing wrong in not participating. Seriously.
  2. There is one very important lesson to be learned from NaNo: park your butt in the chair and write. I can’t emphasize enough how much this matters. All the writing courses in the world, all the marketing advice out there, they all boil down to this: you must commit to writing on a regular basis. You must create and publish no matter what, come rain or shine, in order to build your audience. More than anything else, the next story is your best marketing plan. So shut your browser, stop checking your social media or sales rankings, and sit down at the keyboard.
  3. Writing is a muscle you must exercise in order to make stronger. But just like with your own muscles, you have to mix things up to prevent injury or strain. Yes, you’ll go farther with daily training. Want to get good at something? Practice, practice, practice. But just like with your own body, you have to learn to respect your creativity. You don’t weight lift every day–you alternate weight training with cardio in order to give your muscles a break. You need time to rest and rebuild your creativity too. I recommend do something every day with regards to your writing–but remember that reading and watching movies–exploring how other people tell stories–is part of the process. Sometimes the story you’re working on needs to marinate a while during which you figure out what the next move might be. Don’t rush that process just to bang out words.
  4. Don’t just bang out words. Not unless that’s part of your process. I’m a pantser by nature, but with the current WIP, I can see I’ve gone off the rails. I could just keep pounding away at it, but I think it’s better to take a little time to solve my pacing issue before I go any further. Either I need to shorten the projected timeline, or introduce time jumps that don’t jar the reader after detailing every minute of the current time frame, or both. The trick is not letting too much time pass while you let a story mature. Give yourself a deadline: set the story aside for 48 hours and come back to it. If you can’t solve the problem by then, maybe the thing to do is shelve the project until such time as a solution presents itself to you. Or slog your way through it. Only you can tell which is the best course of action.
  5. I saw a Tweet today from Chuck Wendig, in which someone asked him for ‘advice you wished someone had given you when starting out as a writer’. He said, “That every book takes the time that it takes, and the writer you are when you begin is not the writer you are when you finish.”

Some stories are more complicated than others. Some stories you’re not ready to tell, even though you think you are. Some stories practically write themselves–but that doesn’t mean they are any better or worse than stories that someone slaved over for ten years or more. Give your story the time it needs to grow up. NaNo is a wonderful concept with many good things to offer, but it is not the only path to writing a story. That’s different from author to author and from story to story.

The current WIP is a hot mess. It’s up to me to decide if it is salvageable or not. I think I know how to fix it, so I’m going to give it my best shot. But for me, the worst thing I could have done would have been laying tracks in the wrong direction.

Sometimes ‘failing’ is the right thing to do.

 

 

You Don’t Have to Wear All The Hats: The Indie Author’s Secret to Staying Sane

I’ve worked with publishers and I’ve published on my own. One of the biggest differences between the two is how much work the publisher does on your behalf: cover art, editing, sending your book out to review sites and so on. There’s also the advantage of the built-in audience your publisher already has, the value of a larger group newsletter, as well as networking opportunities with other authors in the same publishing house. Sure, when you go indie, you retain more control over every little detail of your work. You get to set your production schedule, retain complete control over cover art, have the last word on editing, and get a bigger share of the royalties. But there’s a reason publishers take the lion’s share of sales earned. 

You have to wear a lot of hats to be an indie author.

There are some people who love this. They relish having all the control. But there are others who are overwhelmed with spinning all the plates at once: finding a good cover artist and editor. Scouring the review sites to find ones that will accept your story. Lining up beta readers and ARC readers. Designing eye-catching graphics and running Facebook groups. Scheduling posts across the board to all your social media sites. Holding giveaways and writing guest blog posts. All the while working on the next release because we all know the next story is your best advertisement.

Where does anyone find the time to do all of this? Especially if you haven’t a freaking clue how to set up a newsletter or your attempts at  website design or graphics look as though a second grader created them.

The good news is you don’t have to wear all the hats. (Do you like my image above? It was from a Peggy Carter cosplay photo session I did last month 🙂 ) You are allowed to delegate.

The bad news is you might have to pay for that delegation.

Here’s my take on where you can and cannot skimp.

  1. Pay for an outstanding cover. No, seriously, you can’t let your BFF with Photoshop make your book cover unless he or she is a graphic artist and is looking to expand their portfolio. For one thing, you can get in a lot of trouble if your cover artist isn’t using royalty-free images (or images they purchased) that have been licensed for cover art. But even more importantly, if your cover art looks like it’s been done by an amateur, if it doesn’t match genre expectations, then readers will give your story a hard pass. People DO judge a book by its cover. And a crappy cover will sink even the most amazing story. You have a nano-second to catch a reader’s eye and make them take a second look with your story. Don’t blow it with a crappy cover.
  2. Pay for quality editing. Yes, good editing is expensive. There’s a reason for that. An editor doesn’t just correct your grammar and punctuation, though that is important. A good editor tells you when you use repetitive phrases or actions. When your story has continuity errors or plot holes you could drive a truck through. When you are writing outside genre expectations. A good editor meets deadlines and does more than give your story a cursory read. It may take time to find an editor that’s a good match for you, but when you find him or her, cling to them for all they are worth because they are worth their weight in gold. Readers will notice crappy editing and comment on it in their reviews.
  3. Formatting: if you can’t figure it out, pay someone to do it. There are lots of people out there who offer formatting for all the major outlets for reasonable fees. Nothing pisses a reader off more than weird formatting on their e-readers. Yes, there’s software out there like Calibre that will put your book in the different formats, but if you want elegant formatting–pretty chapter headers or reliable reading across the different file formats–pay someone. If you have to cut costs (and believe me, I’ve been there) teach yourself how to do it.
  4. Graphics: Social Media Posts and Teasers. This is a tough one for me because there are some great options out there for creating your own, like Canva. However, I simply don’t have the time right now to learn how to make sophisticated graphics. I can make a serviceable image, but an elegant one? Not so much. If I have to chose between spending 3 hours messing around with Canva to produce an image that looks cheesy or write 3 K on the WIP, I’m going to choose the WIP every time. Eventually, my skills will improve. But in the meantime, I’ll pay someone to give me this:It doesn’t have to be expensive. Talk to your friends. You probably have friends who would love to make something like this for you without charging you an arm and a leg. Or again, find that graphic artist looking to expand their portfolio.
  5. Marketing: You have to do it. You can’t simply launch your book like Noah releasing a dove from the deck of the Ark, hoping it will eventually return with evidence of dry land. I wasn’t able to nail down exact numbers but read that in 2014, Amazon reported at least 5 K new releases each day. You might think that’s insane, but what’s really crazy is expecting your book to get singled out among the pack for notice if you make no effort to call it to anyone’s attention. I highly recommend Bad Red Head Media’s 30 Day Book Marketing Challenge. Get it. Read it. Do it. If you want to pay someone to promote your book you can, but this is one area if you’re willing to do the legwork yourself, it will pay off.
  6. Create a Book Bub account for yourself. If someone follows you, boom. They get notified every time you have a new release. Post that link on your website so people can find and follow it. Easy. Free.
  7. If you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, consider hiring someone to teach you the ropes at first. Yeah, you hear me say ‘hire someone’ a lot, and believe me, I know what it’s like not to have the funds to do that. But you only have a couple of options: Teach yourself or pay someone to do it for you or pay someone to teach you to do it yourself. I’m a big believer in hiring the right help to teach you how to do it for yourself.
  8. Don’t have the discretionary funds to pay for the right help? I get that. Then join groups/lists/sites where you can learn what you need to know for free. Consider offering your services to another newbie needing to learn the ropes. I like the ‘watch one, do one, teach one’ philosophy because I think (aside from being a cool thing to do) sharing what you’ve learned helps you retain those lessons. Face it, if you only ever set up a newsletter once every few years, you’re going to forget how to do it.
  9. Decide what’s really important to you and what works best. Don’t waste your time on things that frustrate or annoy you. If participating in every Facebook group or wasting hours on Tumblr is not your thing, don’t do it. You only have so much time and most of it should be spent working on the next story. Because even though it isn’t sexy or cool to say it, THE NEXT STORY IS YOUR BEST ADVERTISEMENT. Sure, there are lots of people out there willing to take your money to teach you how to make your next book a bestseller but if you aren’t writing and releasing on a regular basis, it’s all for naught. Readers are like stray cats: feed them and they will come. Stop feeding them, and they will drift off in search of food elsewhere.
  10. Check out the time-saving options for scheduling posts across various sites. Crosspost whenever you can. This post will automatically appear on my Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr pages. When I use Hootsuite to schedule a post, I can set it to post to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook simultaneously. Simplify your life whenever you can. But pick a schedule and post regularly. Your audience, like stray cats, will expect you at certain times once you establish your schedule. Don’t disappoint them.

One other thing I would add: be authentic. I confess, I struggle sometimes to balance the author side of me with the part that is enraged about world events or just wants to post pictures of my pets. Don’t work so hard at presenting your brand that you show your readers someone who doesn’t actually exist. Yeah, there’s a risk in revealing your real self. You might lose readers. But truthfully, your real self is revealed in every word you write. So what do you really have to lose?

Bottom line: if you have the time, energy, and skills to teach yourself what you need to know to be a successful indie author, go for it. But in those areas where you have doubts, where your skills are subpar, hire the right help until you can master those skills. There are some things I believe should always be left to the experts–cover art and editing being the biggies–but be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you’ve been skimping on services because you can’t afford them, consider saving up to give your story the best launch possible before releasing it into the world. After all, you want that dove to bring back an olive branch.