It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Part 3.

December 2003, Naples, FL

My baby girl is turning fifteen this month, and as always, I’m left wondering where the time goes. Over the years, people have jokingly given me a hard time about giving birth the day after Christmas, saying things like, “Well, you didn’t plan that very well, did you?” (wink wink, nudge nudge), but I feel like I planned it just right. So far she loves having her birthday wrapped up with Christmas, and we’ve never encountered the “Oh no–her birthday and Christmas gifts are wrapped in the same paper!” drama. Not that she would mind–she honestly loves Christmas. 

But in addition to her being the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten, doing my photos with her each year has become my best gift to myself. (In case you missed parts one and two of my “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” posts, they can be found here and here.) Since she turned three, I’ve been taking photos of Holland in my wedding dress each year for her birthday, graduating from a point-and-shoot camera to a much nicer one, and moving from my bedroom or the park in our neighborhood to destinations like L.A., Miami, Disney World, Amsterdam, London, and Paris and now, this year, to New York City. It’s been an amazing journey so far. 

The downsides of this particular project are as follows: extreme nostalgia on my part; cold weather in our chosen locales that require her to wear her jeans under the dress and to let her teeth chatter dramatically as she assures me that there is no way I could possibly love her, otherwise I’d never make her put on a frilly pink dress in public and pose in front of strangers; and the inevitable squabbles between the two of us that go something like this:

Me (theatrically): “Someday I’ll be gone and you’ll be sorry that you couldn’t just pose on the Brooklyn Bridge in twenty degree weather like I wanted you to.”

Her (with eyes rolling): “But why aren’t we done yet? I’m not doing this anymore today. Seriously, Mom. I’m done.”

Her father (sternly): “Do this one thing for your mother. She never asks you for anything.”

And then, in the end, I have the photos I wanted. Some days we’ll go out and I’ll feel like I got nothing that’s even worth editing (and every December I flog myself for not taking a photography class at some point during the year that would make me more technically adept so that I wasn’t relying on luck and creativity alone), but in the end, I find that I’m thrilled with the crazy things we’ve captured and the amazing places we’ve gotten to go. If 18 ends up being the last year we do this, as planned, then I’ve only got three more years to go…and I can’t believe that.

Other than writing, this has been the biggest and most creative project I’ve undertaken, and whether or not the photos are “technically” on the mark or not, it’s something I’m really proud of. It’s a true labor of love, and I know someday she’ll look at these photos and smile fondly, forgetting that I made her stand on the steps of a church in Paris in December in a tank top while I pulled the dress on over her head, and forgetting that I made her wear the dress around Disney World and weather the stares of curious onlookers. 

Someday she’ll think it was cool and creative and fun, and maybe someday she’ll even do something similar with her own children, should she choose to have any. But at the very least, she’ll appreciate the hard work we both put into this project…hopefully while I’m still around. 😉 

Happiest holiday wishes to you and yours! 

Brooklyn Bridge 2018
Chinatown 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Grand Central Station 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Central Park 2018
Statue of Liberty 2018
Manhattan Skyline 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018
Times Square 2018

Living the dream…halfway.

I’ve been working on writing and self-publishing now for about four years, and I want to be the first person to tell you that it’s not as easy as it seems. The writing part is easy–that’s the fun stuff. But the editing, the advertising, the nuts and bolts of it…that takes work. I started by looking up as much information as I could, reading message boards (I still do), buying books about self-publishing, and searching for other people’s success stories. So now whenever someone tells me they want to publish a book and asks if I can just “give them the basics,” I take a deep breath and sigh. The basics are: write, dive into the indie author world, research, and go for it. 

All I ever wanted to do when I was a kid was be a writer. Well, that’s not entirely true–my mom used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my first response was always “happy.” But my second answer was “a writer.” And now that I’ve published my 10th full-length novel, I think I can officially say that I’m a writer. Some people love what I write (thank you, wonderful people!), and some people hate it, but that’s okay. That’s what it means to be a writer or to create anything, really. For every person who gives me a review that feels way too personal (“I hope she’s not really a teacher–her grammar is horrible!” or “This feels like a middle-schooler wrote it. It’s trash!”), there are a handful of other people who ask when the next book is coming out, follow me on social media and say nice things, and buy whatever I put out. And this is thrilling! What an amazing feeling to have humans I’ve never met enjoying the things that I make up in my brain! And they’re so supportive and friendly…it’s wonderful. It makes it all worthwhile.

So now I can officially say I’m a writer, and I love that. But I feel like I’m only living the dream halfway, because I’m not doing it full-time. That’s the next goal, and it’s a “someday” goal. I deeply love my day job (in spite of the people who think my writing is so bad that I shouldn’t be a teacher! *insert a million laughing/crying emoji here so you can see what I think of that*) and I don’t want to quit that to write all day long yet, but…it’s in the future. I can see it: sitting in coffee shops with my laptop and the characters in my head; working in my writing room in the backyard with my storyboards and handwritten notes; books and books and books to my name. That’s when I’ll be living the dream all the way. 

But for now–this is incredible and totally satisfying. I just released Book Six in the Christmas Key series this week–Baby, It’s Warm Outside-and that felt like an incredible accomplishment. To think that I’ve somehow taken a story that started in my head ten years ago and turned it into nearly half a million words over the span of six novels and two novellas is…wild. To anyone who has read my books or just cheered me on–thank you from the bottom of my heart. It means everything to me to be living my dream even halfway, and it means even more that people care enough to be supportive! Thank you, thank you, thank you! ❤

When life gets in the way of writing.

Now that 2018 is wrapping up, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As far as years go, it’s been as fast as any other and reasonably productive in terms of writing (I’ll have one more book out around Thanksgiving, and I’ve got two others actively in the works). But it’s been a year that reminded me of where I am in life. It hit me in the face with the news that yes, I am forty-three. I’ve got two aging parents with different ailments. My only child is about to turn fifteen. None of my current students were born before the twenty-first century and none of them seem to know who The Golden Girls are. It’s been…topsy-turvy.

I had lots of plans for my writing projects this year. I always do. I took my computer with me to the U.K. for the month of July, prepared to both care for my father, who has Parkinson’s, and to write in my spare time. But I underestimated the amount of work it takes (emotional and physical) to truly put in quality time with someone who is almost totally reliant on others, and I don’t know that I even opened my computer once. But it was a glorious month nonetheless. I got to take long, slow walks with my dad along the river that winds through the property where he lives, and we spent countless hours listening to the songs he used to play for me on his guitar (“Catch the Wind” by Donovan and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals). As I tucked him in each night, I’d kneel next to his bed and talk to him for a long time, just laughing about jokes we have together and reminiscing about everything.

At one point, he was searching for something in his nightstand (when a person has dementia, you often don’t know what they’re looking for and sometimes, neither do they) and he came up with a journal. As he can’t really write anymore, I knew that the pages were filled with thoughts he must have jotted down when he was first diagnosed. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages, watching as his distinctive handwriting changed and sloped with the progression of the disease. I saw that there were pages and pages of detailed phone messages–as if he’d written down what he would say in case someone’s voicemail picked up when he called them: “Hi, Steph. It’s Dad. I’m sorry I missed you. I’ll call you later. I love you.” And his thoughts about having Parkinson’s: “It’s like I still have 10,000 messages floating through my brain, but only about ten messengers to deliver them.”

It was a challenging and beautiful month, and I had talks with him that reminded me of the old days. There were times when I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about things, and I don’t care if you have Parkinson’s. I just need you to be my dad.” And of course–as he always has–he listened. He patted my back in the halting, measured way he has now. He found the words and put them together and offered them to me as best he could, offering advice and consolation. And it was wonderful.

Those will be memories I take with me to the end. I have no regrets about not writing this summer.

I came home and got into a minor car accident right on the heels of that trip, then ended up in bed for a week with an MS flare-up. I normally give little thought to my own health condition, but when MS knocks you on your ass, it says, “Hey! Psst–hey, you. Climb into bed. I’m about to hit you with a wave of fatigue that feels like nothing you’ve ever known.” And it did. You’d think that a week in bed might equal thousands of words written in a story, but it doesn’t. The days pass in a blur of naps and food that people bring you and take away, and then eventually you emerge from the fog and you’re ready to put your feet on the floor again and face the world.

School had barely gotten going this fall (delayed by a teacher’s strike that set us back to mid-September), when my mother suffered a medical emergency while in Reno. She’d driven there to care for my godmother–her best friend of 40+ years–who had been diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Unfortunately, my mom had driven herself down there and was unable to drive home, so my brother and I booked a last-minute flight and went down there to get her. What resulted was a totally unplanned week with just my mom and my brother (something I haven’t had since the three of us went to Disneyworld together in about 1994). There were serious things to talk about and more than 500 miles for us to travel together with me in the backseat of a Subaru listening to my brother’s wacky music (a combination of alt-folk-country stuff that makes me gag, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Prince–my mom asking us, “But why did this guy want to put Kim in the trunk?” about Eminem is a definite highlight for me). The trip was draining and challenging and eye-opening in terms of my brother and I realizing that our parents both have needs that are escalating rapidly, but it was an unexpected gift to get to run around “The Biggest Little City in the World” with my brother, eating sushi while the chef coaxed fire from oil on the grill, running into little metaphysical shops to buy crystals and dream catchers, racing each other up and down the stairs in casinos, and brushing our teeth next to each other in our shared hotel room like we were a couple of kids again.

As it turned out, my stubborn Jewish godmother had opted not to tell us when she’d come up to visit in June that she was already battling cancer, so by the time she was hospitalized in the fall it had metastasized and spread everywhere. There was no turning back. Being able to see her in Reno (as she and my mom were in the same hospital, only in different wings) was a gift. At one point she was only eating through a tube, but she really wanted a Whopper from Burger King, so I brought it to her even though I figured she’d never be able to eat it. Unfortunately, by the time I got there she’d been readmitted to the ICU and was having trouble breathing, but she told me in a stage whisper to hide the cheeseburger in her bag for later, which I obviously did. The fact that we were in cahoots over something as silly as a Whopper while she struggled to catch her breath will be something that makes me smile forever. She was a huge, mythical figure in my life–a gorgeous, successful journalist with a long history of traveling the world to report the news–and the first person to really tell me to roll up my sleeves and write. She mailed a book to me when I was living in Miami twenty years ago (Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”) with the inscription “For my dearest Stephanie–Let’s check out this one and talk. Love, Aunt Beverly.” She read my books and sent me Hanukkah gifts, gave me advice on situations with all of her love and wisdom, and laughed every time I said “Oy vey!” She died on Halloween just before midnight. I already feel the loss of having her in my life.

So now, here we are, fast approaching Thanksgiving. I’ve got another book in the Christmas Key series ready to release in the next few weeks, and two other projects that I’m chipping away at. Sometimes life gets in the way of writing and that’s okay, but sometimes writing is there as an escape when life gets to be too much. It’s a gift to be able to put my fingers to the keyboard and disappear into a world of my own creation–a place where my crazy, creative mind can roam free and invent people and things that amuse or entertain me. And it’s a huge bonus that other people are willing to come along for the ride.

As 2018 winds down I can say that I’m really grateful for all of it: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, and the gift of the written word. Life is challenging. And beautiful.

The novel I wrote with a former student.

DSC_7684

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: some of the best humans on the planet walk through the door of my classroom and into my life. I’m blessed to know them all, but every so often you have students who become friends, and that’s a truly magical thing.

About a year ago, my friend Omar and his twin brother were about to graduate, and we’d been talking for a while about the things I’d written and about how the boys are interested in writing and directing screenplays. Omar said, “Hey, we should write a book!” To which I said (of course–because I never turn down a good writing project), “Yeah, we totally should!” And from there, the idea for a young adult time travel novel was born.

We started it on May 15, 2017 with just a few ideas about how the story would go. Omar graduated in June, and we’ve spent the past year collaborating in all the ways that modern technology allows. Last summer we spent countless hours working on the book via FaceTime from different time zones while I visited my ailing father in the U.K.; even more hours working on the story in a shared Google doc while I soaked up the sun on my back deck; and we’ve made many, many trips to our favorite Barnes & Noble over the past year to collaborate face-to-face as we created characters and hammered out scenes. In fact, we’ve been to that particular bookstore so many times to work on the story that not only do the café workers know us, but we have our own favorite table by the window.

This book has been a real labor of love for both of us, and it’s gone off in different directions than we’d originally planned. I never plot anything too intricately when I write, so that took some getting used to on Omar’s part. I like to just see where the story takes me, and he was kind enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes we agreed on details, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes I understood the crazy loops we were making with time travel in our story, and sometimes he had to draw exasperating diagrams for me that left me more confused than when we’d started.

But in the end, we have a finished product. A book that started with him not knowing how to put in his two cents politely with his former teacher, and ended with us debating plot twists and being creative equals. We got to take a trip to the 80s with this book and incorporate some of the bands we both love (The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs), and–most importantly–we got to be friends. Real friends.

Just like his twin brother and their two older sisters before them, Omar is one of my favorite people to ever walk through my classroom door. He’s smart and funny and kind, and he’s taught me way more than I ever taught him.

So even if we sell zero copies of this book, writing it is something I’ll always cherish. But hey–if we sell a million copies and become time travel gurus and world-famous authors, then that’s okay, too. We’d be honored if you’d check out our novel and support us, and if you felt like leaving us a good review, that would be even better! It’s available here on Amazon right now, and in the next couple of days it’ll be available in both print and through every other major bookseller as an ebook!

IfYouWereHere-f500 copy

 

 

How I made $6,635.12 by daydreaming about a tropical island…

Okay, now that I got you to look, I’ll admit right off the top that my “daydreams” had to flow from my brain and onto the computer screen in order for me to get paid, but that’s essentially all it was. I started writing my Christmas Key series simply because I liked the concept and enjoyed the way I got lost in my own stories, but when I finally self-published the first book in March 2016, I definitely had visions of making money from my writing.

In the two years since then, I’ve published four full-length novels in the series and two novellas, and I’ve paid for countless advertisements. But–like most other indie authors–I was holding out for the Big One…for the advertising opportunity that we all dream about because of its massive return on investment: I was hoping for a Bookbub. And on Halloween, I finally got one.

Bookbub ads are notoriously hard to land, and there’s a lot of information floating around out there about how to score one. Some people claim it’s pure luck, but I feel like the key for me was taking my books out of Kindle Unlimited and making them available on every site possible. When I finally got a Bookbub in October, I’d already applied for a Featured Deal six different times. But it wasn’t until this last submission when my books were already available everywhere that it finally happened.

And that’s where the $6,635.12 comes in. I set the first book in my series to “free” on all channels (There’s Always a Catch: Christmas Key Book One) and watched as the downloads started to roll in. After the first four or five days, I’d successfully given away over 23,000 copies of my first book. Now, not every single person who downloads your book is going to a) read it, b) like it, or c) buy the next books in the series, but when you give away that many free copies, you bank on a good chunk of them hopefully doing all 3 of those things.

I’ve tracked my returns starting November 1, 2017, and I have them through January 31, 2018. So for those three months, based on my initial investment of $149 to give my book away to a portion of the 1.2 million readers who’ve signed up for Bookbub’s Chick Lit deals, I made over six thousand dollars just watching people buy the next books in my series. Of course sales will taper off in the coming months until I put out the next book and find a new way to advertise (hopefully a Bookbub ad again in the near future!), but for the time being, I’m ridiculously happy that my hobby has finally yielded a return that makes me feel like I’m not just writing for an audience of one!

When it starts to feel like a real series.

MoreThanThis-f-web copy

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!

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!