When it starts to feel like a real series.

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Putting out the fourth book in my Christmas Key series feels amazing. It was a long time coming, as this year got away from me with travel and work and life, but when I hit “publish” the other day,  I realized that I’ve actually got a four book, two novella series on my hands. With more to come.

I also made the decision (after always being exclusive with Amazon) to go wide with my books, so now I begin the slow process of taking them all out of KDP Select. To non-indie authors, this means that rather than being tied to Amazon and reaping the (sometimes decent) rewards of that arrangement, my book will now be available everywhere: Kobo, Nook, Google Play, iBooks, etc. The timing happened to be right for the first book in the series, There’s Always a Catch, so I quickly yanked it out of KDP and got it set up to go wide. At this point, my plan is to follow the time-honored tradition of making the first book in a series free so that new readers might give it a chance and–ideally–get into the series and want to read on. It should be available for free everywhere within the next week.

I’m not sure why Fall feels like such a productive time for me (one might think that summer would be a super-productive writing time for a teacher, but…travel and relaxation always seem to edge out massive progress, and this summer I took on an added writing project with a former student of mine, so that’s been an entirely different writing adventure!) but here we are at the end of September and I’m up early, cranking out story-related stuff, ready to put my fingers to the keyboard any time I can!

Anyhow, More Than This is out now on every sales channel imaginable (it’s my first time seeing my work at B&N.com or on iBooks!), and I love the feeling that I’m slowly building this story and these characters. Time to start thinking about Book Five!

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Writing with my mom.

I’m two years into my self-publishing journey, and as I’ve talked about exhaustively here, it’s a whirlwind of writing, editing, promoting, and–hopefully–selling books. But there’s another fun angle that keeps developing for me in new and unexpected ways: writing with other people.

For years, my mom has had a journal and a box of letters detailing her solo trip to Europe in 1969. A couple of years ago, she gave it to me with the idea that I might be able to “turn it into something interesting.” And I tried. I read the first third of the diary, organized the letters she wrote to my grandparents and received from them in chronological order, flagged them with post-it notes that had the appropriate dates on them (with the idea that I’d read them at the right intervals as I read the journal and compare what was happening in her diary versus what she was willing to disclose to my grandparents), and tried to decide whether it should be straight memoir-style writing, or if I could somehow morph it into a fictional tale that would bring in the excitement of being in London and traveling around Europe during one of the most interesting times in recent memory.

But it wasn’t working for me. I was pumped to get started, and then…I went back to my own projects. My mom asked about it occasionally, and I always told her that I “wasn’t in the right frame of mind” for it yet. Until this year, when I decided to give it all back to her and encourage her to tell her own story. We booked a weekend at the beach over Spring Break in April, brought all of her writings and the photo albums that went along with that time in her life, and started to pour over her words, thinking about the possibilities. And she got excited. For the first time in years, I saw my mom passionate about something that really grabbed her attention, and (of course) I patted myself on the back for bringing someone else into the fold, watching from the sidelines as she fell down the rabbit hole and spent hours and hours typing, dreaming, and thinking.

And it went faster than I thought it would. By June, she had the entire journal and all of her letters typed up in a Google doc, and she was ready to step back from the project and take a breather. Our original goal had been for her to have it drafted, edited, titled, finalized, and publishable by 2019, which would be the 50th anniversary of her trip, but I think she’s actually going to be ready by next year. (In her mind this is the perfect timing to start building momentum and promoting it in advance of the 50th anniversary…she’s got visions of morning television shows, radio interviews, and perhaps a world-wide tour, because–why not?) And I’m really, really happy for her. Every step of a project is a new and thrilling one, but the feeling of a completed first draft is a particularly happy sensation.

When I see her today, she’s going to have several hundred pages run off for me to start poring over, and I can’t wait to fall back into her adventure, reading about my twenty-year-old mother as she falls in and out of love in Spain, tries to navigate friendships, relationships, and international travel, and casts her surprisingly wise words into a future that she couldn’t possibly have dreamed of at twenty. And, speaking of first drafts, I just finished my own first draft of the fourth full-length novel in my Christmas Key series this week, so I’ve got plenty of editing on my hands to last until I go back to work in a month!

Happy Summer!

The magic of instant friendship.

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I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

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And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

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“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

Lose plot. Ramble a bit. Find plot again.

After putting out the third book in my Christmas Key series, The Edge of Paradise, on January 31st this year, I got stuck in a loop where I wasn’t sure what to write next. I started a book that would have probably qualified as a romantic political thriller (?), got 20,000 words into it, and then realized there were way too many things happening and I had no idea how to tie it all together. It may come out of my iCloud file at some point and get a re-read, but ultimately I put it aside and started pondering my next move.

It’s a common refrain in indie-author world that once you have three books out in a series it’ll take off (if it’s ever going to), so my thought was to put out Book Three, diversify a bit, and start a new series so that I would have a few things going on at once. I planned a free run for early February for Book One of the series, There’s Always a Catch, paid for a ton of advertising, and stacked it up for a single week. The downloads came in like gangbusters, and I gave away almost 8,000 copies of the first book. There’s all sorts of conventional wisdom about what percentage of free book downloaders will go on and read the rest of the series, but I felt hopeful. It’s been a pretty slow burn so far. I’ll have days where a single person buys the next book in the series, or the third book, or a novella, and then a random day happens where ten or fifteen people will move on to the next books. There’s Always a Catch got a handful of new reviews (some positive, which is–of course–what you want, and others less wonderful, but hey–you can’t win ’em all), and it’ll most likely just keep moving in that direction until something falls into place or until I do exactly the right thing at the right time and start making my own magic.

As for the next writing project, when I decided the political romantic thriller thing wasn’t going where I wanted it to, I started a cozy mystery that was actually pretty fun to write. But I got about 20,000 words into that and had a minor panic attack: why wasn’t I working on Book #4 in the Christmas Key series?! What was I thinking wasting my time like that when I only have an hour or two a day to write? By the time I finished one of these new books, I’d have squandered any momentum I’d built up so far! So I put that aside and started the next book about Mayor Holly Baxter and the other islanders, which I’m almost halfway done drafting now. I also put out a second novella in the Christmas Key series, which gives the reader insight into Coco, Holly’s mom, and fills in some of the blanks about how she got to be the way she is. Writing the novellas is lots of fun–the pace is faster, the details easier to keep track of, and the ability to focus entirely on one character’s journey frees me up to really explore their minds rather than just seeing things through Holly’s perspective.

So it’s been a busy Spring so far, with lots of writing–some of which might never see the light of day. But that’s okay. Never one for detailed graphs, data-tracking, or set-in-stone outlines and plans, I’m trying to let the ideas flow and make getting up at 5:00 in the morning to write before work a fun thing, not a pressured “must get this done immediately!” grind.

June will be my two-year anniversary of being an indie author and I’ve hit some great milestones–some things I never envisioned or dreamed could happen. Wonderful people–total strangers! Not my mom!–have reviewed my books and given me kind words; my whole life has been enriched by disappearing into the stories inside my head and giving them life; and there have been months where I’ve made a thousand dollars or more from my books, which totally blows my mind. I’ve learned a ton about everything self-publishing related, and the as-yet untitled Christmas Key Book Four will be published by the beginning of summer. It may have taken a couple months of stumbling around during my dark, quiet, early morning writing sessions, but I’ve definitely found the plot again!

So you want to write a book…

They say everyone has a book in them, and I think that’s probably true–at least based on how many people have asked me how to publish one! It’s flattering that anyone thinks I’m a solid enough source to approach for advice, and I’m happy to give a condensed version of what’s worked for me so far. I only published my first book in June of 2015, so I’m not exactly a seasoned vet here, but I’m seven books in, and I’ve essentially turned writing and the pursuit of information about this world into my full-time hobby and part-time job, so I’ve got a few things to share.

First of all, there is a ton of information out there. Books, websites, blogs, vlogs, web boards, Facebook groups, courses you can take for free, courses you can pay for…anything you can imagine that has to do with how to become a successful indie author is out there, so you just have to start researching. However (and this is a big “however”), none of it is guaranteed to make you a success, but much of it will give you insights that you can weave together to forge your own path through the jungle of this creative pursuit.

Here is my personal roadmap to the joy and moderate success that I’ve seen so far:

  1. Join Kboards. It’s the web board for Amazon authors and it’s like a rambling antique store full of valuable treasures just waiting to be unearthed. Any question you can think of has probably been asked and answered there, and if you use the search function, you can dig up threads upon threads of other authors sharing their wisdom. There are some rather successful and helpful indie authors on there (as in people pulling in a 7-figure annual income from their books alone), and you can easily fall down the rabbit hole and spend an afternoon reading about other people’s journeys. I check it every day.
  2. Buy some books. There are a gazillion out there, but I prefer the ones that include both technical how-to advice (how to run promotions, how to find visibility in the slushpile of self-pubbed books) and real stories of other indie authors who’ve hit the jackpot, so to speak. A little knowledge plus a little inspiration equals a book that makes me want to grab my laptop and start writing! My favorites:
    1. Six Figure Author: Using Data to Sell Books by Chris Fox
    2. Blue Collar to No Collar: From Trucker to Bestselling Novelist in Two Years by Wayne Stinnet
    3. Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should by David Gaughran
    4. On Writing by Stephen King
    5. Write. Publish. Repeat by Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt
    6. Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books by David Gaughran
  3. Start reading blogs. Some of the authors who forged the initial paths through the Wild West of self-publishing have been kind enough to share the details on their blogs. Some of my favorites to follow:
    1. The Creative Penn
    2. Goins Writer
    3. JA Konrath
    4. David Gaughran
    5. Hugh Howie
  4. Write. A lot. You can use Word. You can use Pages. You can use a pen and paper. You can also use Scrivener to compile your chapters and then export to a Word doc if you prefer something fancy with a lot of bells and whistles. You can block distractions by buying an app to keep you from using the internet. I like Freedom because I occasionally end up distracting myself with nonsense instead of writing, and it works for me.
  5. Join some groups and form a support network with other writers. There’s always Kboards, which I mentioned above, but I’ve been a part of the Curiouser Author Network on Facebook for a long time, and you can share info, commiserate, find friends, and chat about writing in a group like this. Very handy.
  6. Research self-publishing versus traditional publishing to make sure you really, really want to do it. I’ve tried the trad pub route (which still entails sending out long, painful queries to agents who either send you a form rejection, ask to see more work and then sit on it for up to six months before rejecting you, or ignore you altogether–and this has only improved moderately with the advent of email. I spent a small fortune in the 90s mailing out 50 pages of my work to various agents who probably rolled their eyes and immediately recycled the whole thing…if it ever even got past their assistants.) After fully digesting what was going on in the publishing world in 2014, I realized that the freedoms and opportunities of self-publishing made it a much more exciting option for me. But you can decide that for yourself!
  7. Figure out how you’re going to make an amazing cover. Honestly–this is important. Some people create their own, but the sharpest-looking books are usually commissioned from someone professional. I use Natasha Snow and she’s amazing–nice, fun to work with, and talented. But there are lots of options, so look around, find out who other people use (Kboards is a good place for this), and if you have any graphic design talents, you can definitely give it a go yourself. Just keep in mind that your cover is the first thing people will see, and if it sucks, then you might lose them on the spot.
  8. Find a formatter if you don’t know how to format yourself (I found it cumbersome and annoying, and quickly decided it was something I’d rather pay for than waste time on). I’ve used Jesse Gordon from A Darned Good Book for all of my books, but I recently found Vellum, which is the most amazing thing I’ve discovered in a while. You can easily drop your Word doc into Vellum and get a file ready for any of the distributors, and it’s really simple to manipulate and make changes to your ebooks. I still use Jesse to format my print versions (something Vellum doesn’t do), but I did the ebook version of my latest and am really happy with the results.
  9. Decide whether you want to publish exclusively on Amazon (including signing up for Kindle Unlimited) or whether you want to go wide through the other distributors. Also, are you going to only publish an ebook, or will you offer print copies as well? I went exclusive with Amazon and I publish my print copies through Createspace, and then both options are available to customers for purchase in the same place on Amazon.
  10. Research the keywords and categories that you should use on Amazon (or other vendors) to make your book visible, create the best book blurb you possibly can (this is hard–almost everyone will tell you that writing a blurb is harder than writing a whole novel–and it’s as important as a good cover. Grab your readers. Make them want to buy your book. And do it quick.) Get it all uploaded to your chosen vendor(s), review it, approve it, set your prices, and then PUBLISH!
  11. Okay, your book is out there. If you do nothing, it’ll disappear fast. I’m no master of algorithms, but I know you’ve got a 30-60 day window before your book starts to sink to the bottom of the pond like a boulder. If you just tell family and friends about your book then you’ll sell a few copies, but if you want to make a bigger impact, you need to push that tome up the charts. This is where advertising kicks in. I’ve done sporadic ads here and there and had some success, but a series of stacked ads is better–set your book to free or .99 and run a ton of ads for a week or so to get some visibility on the charts. If you’re going to go with a freebie, then it’s better if you have more books in the series so that your customers will have something to buy after they’re done reading your free book. A free book with nothing to follow it up is a bit of a dead end (although I’ve done that, too). Some of the sites I’ve used for advertising:
    1. Robin Reads
    2. The Fussy Librarian
    3. Ereader News Today
    4. Buck Books
    5. Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy
    6. OHFB
    7. Book Hippo UK
  12. Write your next book immediately. Or, better yet, write two or three before you even release the first one so that you can capitalize on momentum–if I had it to do over, I’d definitely do that. Keep advertising, keep posting to your blog, your Facebook page, your author Instagram, your Pinterest or Twitter…whatever you use to keep interacting with fans and other authors. It’s a hobby, it’s a job, and for the lucky few, it’s a full-time career. But keep treating it like a business. Take it seriously and set up a separate bank account for your book royalties. Keep all your receipts and plan on paying taxes. I can’t stress this enough: this is a business.
  13. Have fun–keep having fun, no matter what. This has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life, and I plan on doing it for a long, long time.

 

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Part 2.

Last December I posted about my favorite hobby aside from writing: taking pictures of my daughter in my wedding dress every year around her birthday to mark the passage of time (the original post is here). This December we went to Europe to spend the holidays with my dad and stepmum in the U.K., and we traveled to Paris and Amsterdam as well as to London and the English countryside. It was two and a half weeks of wearing the same jeans and boots, cramming the beat-up pile of pink tulle and satin that was my wedding dress into a camera bag, and offering to buy my 13-year-old a pregnant puppy if she’d let me strip her down to jeans and a tank top in public (and in freezing weather) yet again to yank the dress and a jacket on and snap some shots of her in front of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. She was a trouper. (And I totally reneged on the puppy, which I’m sure will come up in therapy when she’s an adult.)

Her dad had to run interference between us on several occasions (how many times can we both retreat our separate corners and point our fingers at each other–me accusing her of not seeing the long-term vision of the project, and her demanding that I act like a normal mom for once…as if that’s ever going to happen–before we just bag the whole concept and I start to vacation with a point-and-shoot camera and forget all about the wedding dress that’s shoved into the back of my closet?) But we got it done. And even though it was cold–sometimes teeth-chatteringly so–we got our shots. I made some blunders with a couple of days of photos (didn’t realize I had my ISO set too high), but my husband acted as my trusty assistant, snapping back-up pictures with his iPhone and helping me to coax my mini-me into re-shooting a couple of our locations in Paris. It was a real family effort this year.

And now my baby girl is 13. A teenager. Her braces are off, her self-consciousness is in full-swing (“Mooommmm, there are people staring at us!”), and she is still the absolute light of our lives. Happy 2017–here’s to another year of adventure and joy!

 

 

I was going to do a year-end wrap-up, but it was boring. Here’s this instead.

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I spent the summer before my senior year of high school in Paris. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, and I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B every day with just a Metro card and a small map of the train system that looked like a tangle of rainbow-colored veins. I learned to feed myself on a few francs a day (lots of baguettes and liters of Pepsi with chocolate bars for dessert–thank God for youthful metabolism), and how to ask people for help in the rudimentary French I’d picked up from my pocket-sized dictionary. It was a challenge and an adventure, and an incredibly formative time in my life. Without the freedom to explore and to either succeed or fail on my own terms, and without the faith of my parents that I was a capable enough seventeen-year-old to survive for a summer without them, I don’t think I’d have the same sense of my own potential that I have as a grown woman. The notion that I could get a master’s in my late-30s and become a high-school teacher (a teacher! I don’t even like to talk in small groups, much less in front of a room full of petulant teens!), or that I had the ability to dive headfirst into something as complex as writing and self-publishing and give it a go in my spare time…where did that sort of self-belief come from? I have to blame it on that summer abroad, but there are a few other things I learned about in Paris, too.

Like the kindness of strangers. One day I climbed off the Metro train at my stop during rush hour, clumsily bumping my way through the crowd just like everyone else. It’s pretty safe to assume that I had those old-school foam headphones on my ears, my yellow Walkman cassette player in hand as I listened to the Thompson Twins (my soundtrack to that summer–even now I can’t listen to King for a Day without thinking of the City of Light), and that I was already worried about where I’d buy that night’s baguette and cheese. Anyway, I knocked into a man in a business suit, and the rolled-up poster under his arm fell to the ground and started rolling…and rolling…right to the edge of the platform…and then off the concrete and onto the train tracks. I was horror-stricken. I apologized–in English, of course, though it’s possible I uttered a few excusez-mois, as I had added excuse me, can I have a ham and cheese sandwich without butter, please? and where is the restroom? to my limited French vocabulary. But my apologies in any language weren’t registering, as he was already screaming at me–in French–about what a dumb idiot careless American girl I was (I’m guessing here, but I don’t think I’m wrong), and I stood there on the platform in my patchwork denim skirt and those backless cowboy boot half-shoes/half-slip-ons that were so popular (and impractical) in 1992, looking stunned and embarrassed.

It’s possible I even considered climbing down onto the tracks in my jean skirt to retrieve the rolled-up poster (at the time I imagined it was an architect’s drawing of an important renovation at a museum, but it could have been anything: a cheesy image of the Eiffel Tower that he was mailing to his girlfriend in Portugal? The “Hang in there!” kitten poster, but, like, in French? A Def Leppard album cover print he’d just picked up at his favorite record store? I’ll never know…), but as I moved in that direction, another man–older, calmer–stepped between me and the angry Frenchman and put his hand on my shoulder. “Go,” he said in English, “just go.” He physically turned me around and gave me a light, encouraging shove. So without a backward glance, I went. My assumption was that he was offering to go down onto the tracks himself to save the poster from certain death-by-train, but I don’t know what happened after I climbed the steps out of the station, all I know is that a stranger had been kind–he’d done something he absolutely did not have to do, and he’d done it for me.

I feel the same way now about my writing: people–strangers, more often than not–read my blurb and buy my book. They leave reviews, follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, send messages of support to say they liked it, and then buy the next book. They don’t know me–they don’t have to encourage me or my writing–but this is the kindness of strangers. In a world where we focus our ire at someone on Twitter we’ve never even met, and during a time when we shout at each other in cyberspace and call one another out over political beliefs and misinterpreted comments about everything under the sun, I still believe in the kindness of strangers. It’s out there. I like to see it, and I like to write about it.

And now I’m hungry for a baguette.