The 2021 Author Planner You Must Have

If you really want to show the writer in your life you believe in them and take their work seriously, show them how to take their work seriously too. Last year I was fortunate enough to win one of Audrey Hughey’s The Ultimate Authorship Planner, and I couldn’t wait to get started with it, having decided to start off fresh in 2020 with it. It’s more than just another notebook or calendar. SO MUCH MORE. You can track your daily and weekly goals, your expenditures (to make doing your taxes so much easier!), plan your marketing and social media campaigns, newsletters, you name it! What I love about it is it’s large enough for me to work in without cramming tiny notes everywhere, and the coil-bound cover allows it to lay flat while you’re working on it. It’s a bit like having an organizer, an accountability partner, a cheerleader, and a coach all rolled up into one.
 
The 2021 Author’s Planner is designed to be your all-in-one day planner and writing-career coach, helping you organize your writing life and get on a clear path to reach your goals.
 
“I absolutely LOVE this planner. In my opinion, it’s a must for any author who wants to stay on top of their book production and author career with minimal stress and anxiety! (And who doesn’t want that?!)” — J.R. Frontera
 
Finally, you’ll have ONE planner where you can:
– Track your daily and weekly word counts.
– Map out your writing and publishing plans for an entire year.
– Manage and track your monthly expenses so you’re ready for tax season.
– Develop your editing checklist and evaluate potential editors for your manuscripts.
– Plan your social media marketing, book promotions, and advertising.
– Sketch out ideas for your author newsletter and track your open and click-through rates.
– Have the space and flexibility to plan your days and weeks according to your own unique lifestyle and schedule.
 
Are you ready to get organized in your writing life and empowered to reach your goals? Apply method to the madness of writing and publishing with The 2021 Author’s Planner.
* This planner is dated for 2021.
 
“If lack of organization is holding your writing career back, this Author’s Planner will be your salvation. Everything you do, from your writing schedules to tracking submissions you’ve sent out, to keeping tabs on your earnings, you can track in this amazing book. Wow!” — Jimmie Bise Jr.
 
“This isn’t just a planner; it’s a reflection and goal-setting tool, a finance tracker, a social media planner, and a manuscript organizer. Combined with additional online resources, this planner has everything you need to get organized in all aspects of your author career, from the day-to-day actions to the big vision for your authorship journeys.” — Jen Stephan Kapral
 
“As a busy author and mom, I am disorganized to a fault. Thankfully, the charts and calendars in The Author’s Planner organizes my social media, promotions, budget, and, most importantly, writing. There is no better planner available for the self-published author.” — Jen Pretty
 
Seriously, take it from me, McKenna Dean–the most disorganized person on the planet! If there is ONE tool to buy as part of your author journey for 2021, this planner is it!

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!

A Good Story vs Good Writing

I learned to love books at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both read to me, and the time spent in their laps, following the words on the page, soon taught me how to interpret those words on my own. Growing up in a house full of books, I was never at a loss for something to read. By the time I was six, I was reading books on the sixth grade level. From loving books, it was only a short step to wanting to tell my own stories.

And I did. I wrote stories similar to those I’d read about things I loved, illustrating them with laboriously colored drawings as well. Well into my teens, going to a library was an exciting event. The Scholastic Book Fair was the best day of the school year. To this day, my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to go to a bookstore.

But somewhere along the line, I gave up on my dream of becoming a writer. It seemed something impossible for the average storyteller to achieve. By the time I left college, I was focused first on my career, and later juggling a family with being a professional. I wrote short stories for fun every now and then, but they were few and far between.

Then one day, I discovered online fanfiction archives. Suddenly I realized there were thousands of people just like me who loved to tell stories about their favorite characters. I became obsessed with fandom, cranking out story after story. After a lifetime of suppressing my creativity, the stories poured out of me in a flood. I wrote for the sheer joy of it and the fun of interacting with like-minded fans. For years I read nothing but fanfic, completely immersed in the delights of finding stories that were tailor made for me.

I never let the fact I was a neophyte storyteller stop me. I wasn’t swayed by the fact there were far better writers in my fandoms. I was in love with my characters, and that joy carried me through any confidence of crisis.

The confidence I learned in fandom gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction after a lifetime of doubting it was possible to become a writer. It just so happened that this was about the same time when e-readers suddenly made publishing within the reach of a lot of people, and small presses were eager to take a chance on new authors. When I made the transition to writing original stories, I continued writing fanfiction at first, but gradually I began leaving fandom behind. My shows went off the air, and I had trouble finding other shows I wanted to write in. More importantly, however, I became invested in my original characters. I only had so much time to write and it seemed stupid to “waste” good ideas on fanfic when they lent themselves to the original stories bubbling inside of me.

But as I’ve said before, when you’re learning a skill set, every time you move up a level, the work gets harder. There’s less fun, especially when you know things should be done in a specific way and what you did before no longer passes muster. These days I’m working with critique partners and tough editors who push me to write cleaner prose and with more efficient style. Don’t get me wrong; I love the input from these sources. I’m a better writer now than when I started ten years ago.

But those same critical voices, the ones that tell me to eliminate adverbs and cut out unnecessary verbiage, and strive for active constructions in my writing are the same voices that often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time, struggling to create a sentence that won’t embarrass me. I find myself massaging the same text over and over again because my natural style is wordy and breezy and it needs a fair amount of editing to be presentable to the public at large.

It’s a bit like taking a pony out for a gallop across an open field once you know all the pitfalls and dangers of doing so. When you know about the rabbit holes, and you think about how breaking an arm will mess up your life, it makes it a bit harder to simply clap your heels against your pony’s flanks and let her take the bit in her teeth and run.

Back when I was learning to ride in group lessons at a barn, once a year when we trooped into the arena, we were told it was Broom Polo Day. Instead of trotting sedately around the ring, following one another in line as we popped over a little cross rail or practiced our equitation, we were handed brooms and directed to chase down a large rubber ball, smacking it between goal posts that had been arranged at either end of the arena.

It was insane. We became fiends as we clung to our ponies’ necks, throwing ourselves into a vicious melee, bouncing our ponies off each other as we crowded in for a hit. We chased the ball from one end of the arena to the other, howling like demons. The ponies got into it too, running flat out at our direction, spinning on a dime to make a course change, letting us hang off their sides as we swung down for a stinging hit. I suspect never in a million years would we be allowed to play Broom Polo these days, but back then we loved it. And the best part was we never knew when Broom Polo Day would appear. One day we were practicing our positions, remembering to keep our heels down and shoulders back, and the next, for one glorious hour a year, we rode like we were Centaurs–at one with the horse. It was a sneaky way of teaching us riding wasn’t always about looking pretty.

This past weekend, instead of struggling with the barely started WIP that already needed to have a plot hole fixed, I accepted the plea of a friend to pinch hit in a fandom fest. Though rusty as hell and not convinced I could even portray the characters I loved so that a fan would recognize them, I sat down at the laptop to pound out the required word count for the fest, only to end up with twelve times as many words as I needed. I won’t say it was effortless, but it might as well have been compared to the difficulty I’ve had writing lately.

What was the difference?

I was having fun. It was Broom Polo Day, but for writing.

And it taught me something very important. Sometimes it’s okay just to play. To throw off the restrictions of rules and “this is what you should do” and just let ‘er rip. And no, I’m not going to go back to reading and writing fanfic the way I did at the height of my obsession. But I will remember sometimes you need to focus on telling the story first before you worry about how well you’re telling that story. That the first draft is galloping toward the ball and smacking it with glee across the arena. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts that let us look pretty while sending that ball through the goal posts.

So my advice to myself in these coming weeks? It’s okay to bang the story out sometimes without paying as much attention to the rules. Sometimes it’s the best way to get back in the groove when you’ve lost your mojo. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun and ride like a demon. You can always go back to sitting up and pretty when the time comes.

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?

Will Audiobooks Replace the Written Word?

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Let me start this post by saying I’m not against audiobooks. I’m listening to an audiobook right now, as it was started on a long car drive and I hadn’t finished it by the time I returned home. A well-done audiobook is a delight, and some of my favorites include the Poirot books read by David Suchet, the actor who has played Poirot in some of the Agatha Christie screen adaptations.

My husband has a two hour commute to work each day, and has become a big fan of podcasts as a result. My current commute is much shorter, so I tend to listen to music instead. I get frustrated when I can’t listen to something in large blocks of time. I also tend to use walking the dogs and riding horses as a writing brainstorming time, and as such, would prefer music or simply appreciating nature to listening to an audiobook anyway. Ditto the rare times I clean house. 🙂 Since I tend to listen to an audibook when I’m doing something else, I’m usually not able to devote my full attention to it, and as such, I don’t feel as though I’m getting the maximum amount of enjoyment out of the story as I would if I were reading it instead.

But I don’t begrudge people the right or ability to access their reading material via audio over the printed word. For many, audio represents the only way they can easily access books, especially for the visually impaired. Many more simply prefer audio to print. Perhaps like everyone else, they’re so busy it’s the only way they can fit “reading” into their schedule. Or maybe reading presents challenges for them that listening does not. I’m all for people accessing fiction any way they can get it, and it is one reason I’d like to create audio versions of all my works.

As a reader, however, I can rarely afford to buy audiobooks. Death on the Nile as read by David Suchet is almost $30 US dollars. Newer cars are no longer including CD players, so checking out books on CD from the local library won’t work for me either. Sure, I can subscribe to a service like Audible.com but we’re back to another subscription service. Do I really want to pay for cable, Netflix, Hulu, CBS All-Access, Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Audible, too?

The answer is no.

Yes, I have a smartphone, but it’s an Android, not Apple. I don’t have a tablet. I have an elderly iPod Nano that is on its last legs and I don’t want to lose it because they aren’t freaking making them anymore and that’s how I listen to music in the car. *weeps*

But that’s okay, right? I don’t have to listen to audiobooks if I don’t want to.

Only the buzz I keep hearing is that in the not-too-distant future, everything is going to go the way of audiobooks and podcasts. I haven’t been able to pin down the source of this information, but I keep hearing it repeated over and over. Certainly articles such as as in Forbes, calling Audiobooks Officially 2018’s Publishing Trend would seem to support this notion. Sales of audiobooks were up 43% in 2018. I keep getting advice to make podcasts, or short video presentations on Youtube. Every time I open a news article, it pops up with video. Whenever I click on a link for marketing information these days, it is only available in a video format.

I have to say, as a consumer, this pisses me off a bit. I can read an article–and retain the information in it–faster and more efficiently than it takes for me to watch a 45 minute video. I can read articles on my lunch break–or when I have five minutes between appointments. Presenting everything in video format also assumes the viewer has perfect hearing, which isn’t necessarily the case. Moreover, I can’t watch videos until I’ve finished my 10-12 hour workday and am at home with the headphones on so as not to interrupt anyone else’s activity, and let me tell you, I have more pressing needs to take care of by then. Am I going to take 45 minutes to watch another video or spend that block of time writing a scene? Writing is going to take precedence every time.

As a writer, this notion that everything will go to audio format in the future disturbs me greatly. For starters, creating quality audiobooks is expensive. I experimented with creating an audiobook for one of my older stories, and I found that while I could lower production costs by sharing royalties with the narrator, the top-notch narrators wanted payment up front. Also, for the costs involved, the payout is skewed. Despite the high costs of production, only a sliver of money earned gets paid in royalties. I have as yet to recoup my ROI for my one attempt at producing an audiobook. I may never earn back the investment at this rate.

But it’s possible I’m just doing things wrong. Perhaps my tech is out of date. Maybe I’m uninformed because I’m behind the times. So I’m curious: how do you consume your fictions these days? Ebook? Print? Audiobook? Do you pay for a subscription service? Are you finding limitations on the books you’d like to check out because it doesn’t come in your preferred format? If you preferentially consume audiobooks, does this dictate what other books you may or may not read?

If you’re an author, what cost-effective methods are you using to invest in audiobook production? Are you seeing a ROI? What service are you using? How are you finding your narrators?

Drop a comment here and let me know what you’re doing. I’ll select someone at random from the comments to win their choice of one of my stories (though sadly, they will only be available as ebooks).

Editor vs Writer: Adversaries or Critical Partnership?

Eight years ago, when I first got the bright idea to submit a story for publishing, I was extremely lucky. 

The Kindle was taking off, making e-books easy to produce, and small digital publishers were popping up everywhere. I submitted a story on a whim, and not only did a publisher snap it up, but they wanted everything else I wrote too.

In the beginning, my only job was to write stories as fast as possible. Everything else, including cover art, editing, and marketing was handled by the publisher. I was so thrilled to be published, I didn’t question anything either–not when the cover didn’t meet my expectations, or when the editing didn’t seem as rigorous as it should.

As time passed, I became more savvy about these aspects of publishing–and the audience demanded more as well. The successful publishers were the ones who developed house guidelines and standards, but as self-publishing became easier, more and more small presses caved under the inability to compete with Amazon. It’s no wonder many authors chose indie publishing. Some writers prefer the greater creative control over their work. For me, it’s a matter of scheduling: as a self-publisher, I’m my biggest client–and I can alter deadlines based on my work demands. For others, there wasn’t a choice in the matter. It was self-publish or stop writing.

Which means many of us have had to learn the ins and outs of what makes a good cover, and how best to promote our own stories–particularly on a tight budget. One of the hardest aspects of going indie for me, however, was finding an editor to work with.

Toward the end of my working with a small press, I was assigned a new editor. When I got back my first round of edits, barely legible for all the suggested corrections, I was stunned. Not because I thought my story so precious any suggested cuts or alterations had to be wrong. Not because I was getting a far more rigorous edit than I’d previously received.

Because it felt like someone had run my story through an editing program without even reading it.

There are a lot of great editing programs out there now: Grammarly, Hemmingway, and ProWritingAid come to mind. Depending on the program, they’re going to catch spelling and punctuation errors, but may also point out passive voice, how many times you use adverbs, and so on. But these programs should never take the place of actual eyes on the draft. Many of these programs aren’t specifically designed with fiction in mind. Over-use of these kinds of programs can strip the author voice out of the story. My beef with my new editor was that her suggested changes seemed utterly arbitrary. Across the board recommendations to exchange one type of phrasing for another doesn’t enhance the story. It merely scrubs individualism from the prose.

In the end, I wrote a three page email to my publisher giving examples of the recommended changes and why I disagreed with them. After review, the publisher decided to assign a new editor to me. She took the same story that the previous editor had shredded, and came back with recommendations I could work with–and we continued to work together on subsequent stories.

Did the press accept that I was right and my previous editor wrong? Probably not. What they did was realize we weren’t a good fit and assigned me to someone else in the hopes we’d get along better. I’m okay with that, to be honest. You shouldn’t expect every editor to mesh with you. It’s important that they see your work the way you do and be willing to help you polish it until it shines. If they don’t, then you need a new editor.

The partnership between editor and writer is a special one. A good editor is like someone who helps you set the table at an elaborate dinner. You’ve cooked the 12 course meal. You’re impatient to serve it to your guests. A good editor is going to taste the food and suggest additional seasonings, look at the table and suggest alternative china or flowers, and check the seating arrangements and suggest moving some of the guests.

But you are the one who cooked the meal. The editor shouldn’t scrap your meal and produce one more to their own liking. Remember that.

Finding the right editor has been one of my biggest challenges since going indie. There are two areas of indie publishing where it doesn’t pay to skimp: cover art and editing. Cover art is crucial to catching a reader’s eye and getting them to check out your story. But no matter how good your cover is or how intriguing your story, if your book is riddled with typos and basic mistakes, readers will notice. If you have plot holes big enough to drive a truck through–readers will notice. If your story drags, if there is too much exposition, your readers will notice. And they probably won’t pick up another one of your stories.

Editors are expensive, which is why many indie authors choose to skip professional editing. I get it, really, I do. If you have to pay anywhere between $500-1200 for editing, you have to sell a LOT of books to recoup that. (Something I like to point out to those people who argue it doesn’t cost anything to produce an e-book, so therefore, they have no problem accepting an illegal download–but I digress…)

But you really shouldn’t use that as an excuse to skip professional editing. 

I make sure I send the cleanest possible copy to an editor. That means it’s been through a critique group during the writing process and beta readers before editing. If there are big, glaring problems, I want them caught before going to editing. I also run the draft through an editing program, knowing the limitations of said programs.

I’d never assume that was sufficient to publish without professional editing. That human screening and input is invaluable, in my opinion. If you want to produce the best story possible, that is.

But finding the right editor can be difficult. When I went indie, I did all the right things: I sought the recommendations of fellow authors. I submitted test chapters to editors to audition them. Price wasn’t my only consideration, but it was a factor. I simply cannot afford to spend $1200 on a book edit with no guarantee of recouping that in sales. But even after doing all my homework, I struggled to find a good fit for me.

On the advice of a fellow author, I hired an editor that worked with my old publisher but freelanced on the side. This seemed like a win-win for many reasons, not the least of which was that we’d have a familiarity of what to expect from each other. But this proved not to be the case. Despite being on a deadline to publish by a specific date to tie in with a specific event, this editor missed the deadline by EIGHT WEEKS, and produced a shoddy edit to boot. The edit was so late I ended up accepting it with only a cursory read-through–my bad–and it wasn’t until I began the process of creating an audiobook that I realized how rife with errors the manuscript was. To this day I’m still embarrassed at releasing it in that form.

After submitting chapters to numerous editors by way of auditioning them for the next book, I found an editor I thought would be a good fit for me. I booked his services, spelling out what I was looking for in advance. As he’d done a great job on the sample chapter, I was prepared to receive a decent edit. Instead, I received an edit that I could have done myself with Grammarly.

Grammarly is going to catch some things, but only what it is programmed to catch. It won’t, for example, point out repetitive actions (like the fact that far too many of my characters shrug or raise an eyebrow), or note when the action drags. That’s what a real, live editor does.

I have to say, I was beginning to think I’d never find affordable editing that was a good match for me when a former beta reader offered her assistance. I was skeptical, I admit. I’d been burned by too many freelance editors. I was concerned that as a beta reader, she wouldn’t be firm enough, that too many things would slide.

I was wrong.

She provided exactly the kind of edit I was looking for: encouraging without being unwilling to suggest changes, ruthlessly cutting unnecessary exposition while not trampling on author voice, catching continuity errors and questioning possible plot holes without making me feel like an idiot, nailing the SPAG that is critical to a polished, finished work and yet at the same time tossing out accolades in the form of the kinds of comments that are like crack to an author.

I can’t sing her praises enough. She truly gets the author-editor relationship, and though she is new to freelance editing, she has an excellent grasp on what it entails. You’d be wise to get in on the ground floor, so to speak. She’s working on her website and creating a Facebook page, but you can email her now at CAPSediting@gmail.com

You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Threat to Your Creativity Isn’t What You Think It Is

All my life, I’ve been a daydreamer. So much so, my parents despaired of my ever being functional in society. There were even times when I decided that daydreaming was bad for me, and counterproductive to my goals in life, and that I should do my darnedest to quit. To stop inserting myself into my favorite books, shows, and movies, having grand adventures throughout the day as I went about my daily tasks.

I was never successful at eradicating this behavior, and eventually I embraced it for what it was: a rich fermentation vat of ideas that would bubble and simmer until they produced a story of my own, something original and unique to me. I’ve always been a writer at heart.

The good news is I managed to be a productive member of society despite the relative ease with which I could drop into another universe. I discovered online fanfiction archives, wrote over a million words of fanfic, and then began writing my own original stories. In my fandom days, I wrote the equivalent of a novella a month. The words just flowed out of me. The transition to original fiction wasn’t without its bumps in the road, and my productivity slowed down as the stakes became higher. Without a built-in audience, world-building and character development had to be stronger. It wasn’t sufficient to have beta readers–you need betas, critique partners, and a good editor if you want to turn out quality work. You can’t just throw down words and have everyone applaud because they love your pairing and they’d leave kudos on a story where your characters read from the back of a cereal box. Writing for fun is lovely, but the more you write, the greater the drive becomes to do better than the last story. You begin seeing where you failed, and how your craft doesn’t measure up to your favorite artists. You can either quit at this point, or buckle down and do the hard work. But hard work takes time.

So I just assumed my new glacial pace of story production was pretty normal. After all, I have a stressful day job and a home life that’s heavy on commitments. Some of the people turning out a book every month are actually writing teams, which makes me feel a bit better about only getting out one or two stories a year. 

But the other day, a realization struck me like a bolt of lightning out of a cloudless blue sky.

I don’t daydream any more.

Could that be why my production is way down?

I used to play scenes from potential stories in my head at every free moment–outlandish, outrageous self-insert scenes to occupy my mind as I walked the dogs, or did some sort of mindless task (like the dishes, or folding clothes), or commuting to work, or just before I fell asleep at night. I’d replay the scenes over and over, polishing the dialog, perfecting the action, trimming the worst of the excesses, eventually removing myself as the heroine and replacing the lead with one of my characters. When I sat down to write, the scene was right there before me–I only had to smooth off the rough spots and blend it into the story I wanted to tell. Even better, if I was stuck on something, entering that day-dreamy state of mind often allowed me to untangle a thorny plot problem, causing me to suddenly shout “Eureka!” and grab the nearest pen.

But I don’t do that any more.

My daily commute, which used to be over an hour, is now less than 15 minutes most days. While I’m delighted to get two hours of my life back every day, I actually made good use of that time when I was driving by plotting and daydreaming about my stories. I rarely listen to music these days, as I mostly did so when driving. Music has the power to send me to that dreamer’s state more quickly than almost anything else, and without the pleasant background noise, I find it hard to get in the zone. But I rarely have the time to just sit and listen to music the way I did when commuting.

Getting a good night’s sleep is tough for me these days as well, so I usually read until I fall asleep instead of daydreaming. To be honest, I’m almost afraid to let my mind ‘go’ when I’m trying to fall asleep because instead of exciting adventures or romantic encounters, my brain is most likely to circle at the base of the Anxiety Tree, worrying at problems out of my control for the moment. So yeah, I’d rather lose myself in reading.

Worst, now when I’m walking the dogs, I’ve got the phone in my hand, checking my social media sites. That used to be a BIG source of my plotting time–I’d enter the theta brainwave zone and happily organize plots, scenes, and time lines while getting some much-needed exercise for both me and the dogs.

But now that phone is out and I’m checking to see what fresh outrage is occurring on Twitter.

I used to be the sort of person who carried a book with them everywhere, so if I had to wait somewhere, I could happily read. Reading served as fuel for my own story ideas, creating a lovely cycle of creativity. Now I scroll through timelines. An obsessive thumbing of bite sized pieces of information that frequently has a negative impact on my mental well-being.

The other night, my husband and I were out at dinner, and after we’d placed our orders and caught up with each other’s day, somehow we both drifted into scrolling on our phones. If this is something a middle-aged person that addictive to a middle-aged person, I fear for the minds of our kids. I really do.

I’m not saying don’t be informed. We need to be informed. We need to share information: about natural disasters, government atrocities, mass shootings, lost pets, you name it. We also need to share the good things: our wins, both big and small, the things that encourage us and make us smile, that give us hope when all hope is dying. But we shouldn’t let the constant NOISE of information drown out our creative voice.

We’re told we as creative types must maintain a presence on social media, and I believe this to be true. But I think our utter dependence on our phones to keep us occupied AT ALL TIMES is extremely detrimental to the creative mindset.

Blonde girl with retro camera

I recently read an article that said taking photos of a trip makes your brain forget the memories of the trip itself, and while that appalls me (because I love taking pictures), I can understand it too. Because you’re ‘capturing the moment’ on your device, your brain doesn’t feel the need to do so in the same detail. Think about it: do you remember phone numbers anymore? I don’t. I know where to find someone’s contact information on my cell phone, but I’d be out of luck if I had to call someone if my phone was damaged or the battery was dead. (NTS: make a list of important phone numbers and keep it in your car)

So while I see the need to keep feeding content to my audience, wouldn’t the better use of my time be to write actual, real content instead of snapshots of the boring life of a middle-aged woman? I can answer that one myself: yes.

And while I’m still going to take photographs, it won’t be the first thing I do when I arrive somewhere new. I’m going to take a deep breath and appreciate the scenery. I’m going to memorize what the air smells like, and what sounds I hear, and how I feel at that moment before I pull out my camera.

I can’t leave my phone at home when I am out and about because I need to be available 24/7. But I can choose not to take it out when I’m walking the dogs, or bringing the horses in from the pasture, or waiting in line at the DMV. I’ve deleted most of my social media. I’ve gone back to carrying a book or an e-reader. I’m making a point to listen to more music–turning off commercial radio and just playing the songs I want to hear. Because it doesn’t matter how much content I feed an audience if there isn’t a book to go with it eventually.

And you know what? I’ve started daydreaming again. Without any attempt on my part to make it happen. I just had to open the window to let it in.

 

The Language of Romance Novels: Sweet and Sensual vs Hot and Steamy?

I’m in the process of making up a bunch of promotional posts in advance for a fest I’m doing in July, and one of the prompts was “Sweet and Steamy or Hot and Heavy?”

Which got me to thinking about the kinds of things I like in my romances.

I live for the slow burn romance. I want to watch the characters get to know each other, overcome obstacles (personal or otherwise) to be together, work for the reward–which is usually a sex scene but not always. Sex can take place at any point in the story, but I tend to prefer the slow burn where the characters lead up to it over time. I also enjoy it when sex doesn’t prove to be the magic solution to their relationship issues–that it frequently complicates things before the characters get it sorted out. As both a reader and a writer, it’s part of the payoff for being invested in the relationship.

But I was a bit bothered by the terms here: sweet vs hot. Or sometimes it’s ‘clean vs spicy’. These are terms the romance industry uses to help readers determine how much sex is in their stories, and most of the time, that subtle warning system works for me. Kind of like how I know what to expect when I go see a Star Trek movie in terms of violence and sex (which is why I’m a HARD PASS on a Tarantino-directed R rated Star Trek Movie. No Just. Ugh. No.)

“Clean” to denote a romance where the sex takes place behind closed doors/off-stage makes me stabby. I resent the implication sex is somehow dirty if depicted on page. “Spicy” makes me stabby too. It’s feels like a euphemism because we’re not grown up enough to say the ‘naughty’ words. Mind you, I understand why authors feel compelled to use these terms–it’s because even if the audience doesn’t explicitly know what they mean with reference to the story, the meaning is implied well enough that they can guess.

“Sweet” is marginally better. It’s clear where the industry is going with this–a one-word term to instantly identify the heat level of a story to a reader–especially since heat levels mean different things to different people. Sweet doesn’t mean there can’t be any sex at all during the story (though sometimes that’s the case). It’s just when it does occur, it takes place off-screen. There are times when that’s exactly the kind of story I’m looking for, and it’s nice to know nice to know in advance what you’re getting. Likewise when I read a blurb for a Regency romance that states the heroine is a widow, it’s pretty much a given there will be sex between the main characters. As long as there isn’t a bunch of teasing with long, complicated reasons as to why the characters never have sex at all, I’m okay with the fade-to-black scenes. If the characters are demonstrably showing passion for one another but that passion never takes place–either on screen or implied–then I tend to get a little cranky. Unfortunately, “sweet” as a term to describe stories with no on screen sex makes me think of a vapid, usually blonde heroine who hasn’t a clue–or else a story so full of saccharine it makes my teeth ache to contemplate reading it.

But recently I’ve read some wonderful stories that could have technically described as sweet, but the lead-up to the closed door was so romantic, so passionate, so sensual that I didn’t miss the actual sex at all. And yet “sweet” is hardly the term I’d use to describe these stories. The scenes were as hot as any graphic sex scene I’ve ever read–right up to the point where the door was closed and we return the following morning.

Are there better terms out there? I wonder because my own feelings toward the sex scenes I’m writing is evolving. Paranormal romance is a genre that tends to demand a lot of sex scenes, in some cases, the more raw and “hot” the better. Being a slow burn kind of gal, I include much less sex than some readers expect. I lean more toward the sensual than “hot”. But I suspect those lines blur for many readers, as do writers, too. Sometimes sensual becomes hot and vice versa. If a story is described as “sensual”, will readers know what to expect?

Which is why writers tend to fall back on industry descriptors. But if you’re wondering, I go for sensual every time.