Self-publishing: red-headed stepchild, or golden opportunity?

The idea of publishing work sans any sort of professional assistance is alternately thrilling and horrifying. I recently got deeply immersed in researching and learning more about the world of self-publishing, and without further ado, I found myself deep in a state of flow. For those not acquainted with this New-Agey, term, “flow” is defined as a state of productivity also known as zone. It’s the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. (I stole that definition from Wikipedia.) But it boils down to being so lost in something that you’re trying to understand or master, that time passes almost unnoticed.

I’ve written, queried, gotten rejections/requests for partials/final rejections over and over for the past 15 years, and have always looked at self-publishing as a last resort. But with the access we all have to the internet, ebook publishing tools, and platforms like this little blog I’ve got going here, we have the power to make our own destiny as authors. I’m fully aware that it takes more than just writing a solid book (oh, believe me, the things I’ve read in the past few weeks have made it crystal clear that luck, professionalism, talent, and hard work are all equal parts of this equation!), but with some self-awareness, patience, and gumption, the possibilities are endless. There are some great resources if you’re interested in finding out more about people who’ve done it successfully (J.A. Konrath’s blog; David Gaughran’s blog as well as his excellent book for newbies: Let’s Get Digital), and lots of opinion and how-to info from others who’ve gone the self-pub route themselves.

In an effort to understand how to turn a word processing doc into ebook material, I compiled four of my own short stories that I’m fond of, and then I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I commissioned a cover that I liked from goonwrite.com (I’m a sucker for tropical colors and flowers), and attempted to put together a mini-ebook. I did it this way first because A) I had no idea what I was doing and a short book seemed like a good way to figure it all out, and B) I was hoping that by the time Holly and I were ready to publish our story together, I’d actually have it all figured out. (I’m sure I won’t have it all figured out, but hey–a girl can dream. And I’m lightyears ahead of where I started.)

After a full day of caffeine, confusion, and confounded frustration, I got my first book of short stories up in the Kindle store. I messed around with a bit, had some people download it, and then realized that I don’t love having it linked to the author page that I have with my daughter. I think I learned enough from the experience to make paying for a cover worth it, but I want to get our first collaboration up there and available, so I really need to focus on that!

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Take off your pants!

Haha–I really just wanted to shout that into the interwebs. Honestly: keep your pants on.

So I’ve been reading voraciously (and not just fiction–I’m branching out!) on the topics of writing and self-publishing, and I’ve come across a real gem. It’s called “Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Better, Faster Writing”. If you aren’t a writer, you’re probably thinking, “Duh, of course an outline comes before you write anything.” If you are a writer, then you’re probably already sitting on one side of the fence or the other: plotters (people who outline first) versus pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants while they’re writing).

No matter how much I’ve dreamed about being a meticulous, organized plotter, I’ve always been a full-blown pantser. (For some reason this term makes me think of someone who’s always late wherever she goes. You know, someone who drives around putting her mascara on at stoplights with a clutch of dried-up car fresheners swinging from the rearview mirror as the cars behind her honk at her for holding up a green light. This girl might even have a few empty, sticky Slurpee cups rolling around under her seats, and she never bothered to take the carseat out of the back even though her youngest kid is nine years old. Not that there’s anything wrong with that girl, but absolutely NONE of those things apply to me, so I kind of feel like, “How in the heck am I a pantser? By nature I should be a plotter!” And I probably should be.)

In my quest to get better at every aspect of writing and the biz, I’ve got several books/samples of books going on my iPad right now, and I’m bookmarking blogs and websites as references like a crazy woman. But I really wanted to share this book as a solid foundation for writing for those who might be drifting out there in Pantser-land like I’ve been. I think I write pretty decent, character-driven stories, but I definitely fall down on the job a little bit when it comes to ramping up the protagonist/antagonist drama, making my character arc really clear (and interesting) and picking a flaw for my main character that is more than just a superficial stumbling block. (Er, that little declaration there just made me sound like a terrible writer. I don’t think I am, but I know I have a lot to learn; I think most of us do!)

So I’m spending this gorgeous, summer-like spring Saturday thinking and re-thinking the foundations behind my two works-in-progress, and finishing up “Take Off Your Pants!” I just wanted to throw that book out there for anyone who might be struggling with creating a solid writing skeleton to hang the meat on. Check it out: Libbie Hawker. Great book. Now go put your pants back on!

http://libbiehawker.com/take-off-your-pants/

My little partner in crime.

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Every morning on my way to work I drive down into a mini-valley that seems to have a weather system of its own. One one side of the 4-lane highway, cows and a weathered barn sit under the diluted early morning sun; on the other side, a wide open field with one solitary tree. Most mornings I leave the house and set out in either ran or sun, but no matter what the rest of our town looks like, this particular spot has a low-hanging fog that circles the tree like a tutu around the waist of a ballerina. It’s ethereal. I’ve envisioned getting up early on a Saturday so many times as I’ve driven through, thinking that some weekend I’ll drag myself out of bed with the sun, get Holly ready, and drive down there to snap some pictures. And during spring break, I finally did it.

I didn’t quite get up with the sun, but it didn’t matter: on that particular day the fog was heavy and pressed up against the windows of my house, so I knew the valley would be swimming in haze no matter what time we got there. My husband kindly drove us to the muddy field, parked on the edge of the grass, and waited in the car with the panting, excited dog as she watched us tiptoe through the sludge and wet grass. We got a few pictures of Holly wearing a scarf from Africa (a gift from our lovely, world-traveling neighbors from Lebanon), and while it wasn’t the dreamy, golden, early-morning light that I’d dreamed of on my way to work so many times, the fog had a magical beauty all its own; I love how the images turned out.

It’s so satisfying to pull those little bits of inspiration from the corners of your mind, breathe a little life into them, and turn them into something that pleases you. And I do love my little muse (even if she did complain a little about the way the mud squished under her sandals!)

E-spiration, Part 2.

In addition to the writing, planning, and dreaming that goes into this project, I’m really enjoying the level of engagement I’m seeing in my child. She truly gets joy from every part of this process. Over spring break she discovered an awesome website that lets you design houses (all on her own–how do they do these things? They learn to navigate and seek out their interests right under your nose…and the next thing you know, your 11-year-old is a mini-architect. Amazing.) Anyway, she stumbled onto a site called homestyler.com, and then proceeded to devote hours to imagining what the house of our next protagonist looks like.

Already underway, book two is set on Oahu, and our main character, Mai, and her family have moved from Tokyo to share a home with Mai’s aunt, uncle, and cousin. So with the help of homestyler.com, Holly now has a visual rendering of the walkway leading up to the little yellow house that we’ve written about, complete with bedrooms for each character, shared living spaces, and a lanai that’s decked out with furniture and landscaping. I love that she knows what it takes to inspire her own creativity, and while I’ll admit that I’ve never needed (or at least never had) an architectural layout of my characters’ homes, I kind of love it. To be perfectly honest, I’m hoping that her organization, visual inspiration, and preparation, rub off on me a little as a writer because I tend to just dive in. My whole story universe generally lives inside my head (and on my old-school cut-and-paste inspiration boards, as mentioned in a previous post), so to have all of these colorful, dynamic, well thought out pieces of the puzzle is pretty cool for me.

And on another note, report cards came out the Friday before spring break, and guess what Holly’s note from the teacher said? “I’ve really noticed huge improvements in her writing skills this trimester.” (**insert big Mommy Smiley Faces here**) That was certainly not my sole intent when we started this journey, but it’s absolutely a welcome side effect of our collaboration!

Spring Break.

We’re currently enjoying a rainy spring break in the Pacific Northwest. This afternoon we’re taking three pre-teen girls to see “Home” at the movies, but for now, I’m enjoying a little pre-lunch quiet time in our writing room next to the garden. I’ve got a query to re-work, editing to do, and my own story with which to get reacquainted (because, well, it’s been a while). With a cup of coffee, a space heater, Pandora, and my dog to keep my company, I just might get inspired to do some work. I probably should be working on my lesson plan for next week so that I’m prepared for my principal to observe me teaching, or maybe pecking away at the cumbersome online process that is the formal year-end teacher evaluation for our state, but…it’s spring break, so that’s all gonna have to wait.

It’s time to write. Happy Tuesday–I hope inspiration finds YOU!

Writing a Solid Query Letter is (fill in the blank) _______.

Oh, fill in the blank? Okay. Writing a solid query letter is frustrating. It makes me sweat bullets. I think it’s a task akin to a dog chasing its tail until it gets dizzy and throws up. Writing a query letter is about as much fun as the extreme waxing I subjected myself to before a spring break trip to Mexico a couple of years ago. Which is all to say that writing a query that is snappy, concise, and eloquent is painful. 

Because I save all of my queries and responses in a file for my own reference, I’ve been able to go back and see what’s worked and what hasn’t. Some attempts were so horrid that I’ve read slushpilehell.tumblr.com through the web of my fingers in fear that I’d see my own words being mocked and shredded for giggles. (If you’re a fan of snark and haven’t read slushpilehell, please do.) Others weren’t as cringe-worthy, and some even netted me a request for a partial or a full. One of my more solid queries was one I wrote for a book where the protagonist was a 15-year-old boy. I had this crazy idea that maybe it would sound more authoritative if the author wasn’t immediately identified as a woman in her 30s (AKA, someone who has never been a teenage boy), so I wrote a short, clipped, funny query that I signed off with my first and middle initials followed by my last name. Within a few days I had a request for a full manuscript from an agent. Ultimately she passed on it, but it was my first experience writing a query that truly felt spot-on. (I probably ruined the initial effect by following up her request for a partial with an email that spewed verbal butterflies at her, like: “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited! Thank you!” instead of a cooler, more manly, “Great. Here’s my manuscript. Thanks for the interest; looking forward to hearing back from you.” But…one can only cover up one’s true identity for so long.)

Last weekend I toiled and fretted over a query for our new manuscript, and I tried in vain to whittle it down to something that didn’t immediately elicit an eye-roll and a “TL;DR” from the recipient. But as I skim it again today, I’m feeling a little deflated. What I want it to say to a prospective agent is that we’re funny and creative and hard-working, that we dream big, laugh hard, and have caring spirits. We want to write about girls who matter; we want to create characters with strong ties to their native cultures who have interesting adventures when they move to America. I want it to be clear that we’re open to suggestion and criticism and editing, and that it’s not just this one book that they’d be representing, but these two wild, dreaming girls.

But that’s really, really hard to do without sounding hokey. So I’m back to square one, wondering if I’ve just mistakenly sent our dream agent a sub-par query that will hit the slush pile at warp speed, but secretly hoping that she’ll see through the formality of the greeting, and the slightly bloated book description, to realize that on the other side of that query letter are two chicks who have stories in their souls.