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!

RRBC Book and Blog Party 2016!

Blog Party 1

Welcome to this stop on the blog tour! This is our first time participating, and we’re really excited to join you from Vancouver, Washington. We’ll have two winners today here at Redbirds & Rabbits, and all you need to do to enter is comment on this blog post. Our two prizes today (both randomly drawn by the RRBC team) are:

  • One $25 gift card to Old Navy (perfect for back-to-school shopping!)
  • One paperback copy of There’s Always a Catch, the first book in my Christmas Key women’s fiction series. Along with the book, I’ll send you some “book swag” like a magnet and my own homemade soundtrack of songs inspired by There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, which is book #2 of the series!

It’s exciting to have you join us from wherever you are on this beautiful planet, and we’d love to tell you a little bit more about ourselves. My name is Stephanie, and I’m the mom. Holland is my 12-year-old daughter, and we’re the co-authors of a series that Holland dreamed up two summers ago. From her original idea, we decided to write books about what it might feel like for young girls to move to America. Each book is about a girl from a different country, and the main character’s story follows her as she moves to our country and gets assimilated. We published our first book, Iris, about a year ago, and we’re incredibly excited to announce that we just put out our second book, Mai, a few days ago.

Iris-FINAL.jpg          Mai-f

In addition to the books I write with my daughter, I also pen a women’s series based on a fictional island off the coast of Florida called “Christmas Key.” The main character, Holly Baxter, is the 30-year-old mayor of a tropical island where the only traffic comes from slow-moving golf carts driven by retirees; the commute to work involves getting sand between your toes; and happy hour means salty margaritas with a view of the ocean. The only drawback for Holly is the lack of romantic options on Christmas Key! Book one, There’s Always a Catch, came out in the spring, and book two of the series, Wild Tropics, will be out in September.

TAAC-CK-BK-ONE-f          WildTropics-TAAC-f

And finally (as if two series and being a full-time teacher wasn’t enough!) I write YA under the pen name Reed Hall. My first YA book, @Robertopancake, came out last year, and it was a book that I absolutely loved writing. The whole thing was inspired by an exchange about music that I had with a kid on Twitter back when the site first became popular, and it moved me to write this book from the perspective of a teenage boy. The real @Robertopancake kindly gave me permission to take his (often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) teenage boy tweets out of context and use them in my own fictional tale. The result is a book that I’m still incredibly proud of, and the main character is someone I love as if he’s a real, live boy (and many of my readers have said they wished he was real!).

Robertopancake - High Resolution

Thank you for stopping by today–we’ve loved being a part of the Rave Reviews Book Club the past few months, and this blog tour has been a great example of what a wonderful, supportive community it is. Happy reading and writing, everyone!

~Stephanie & Holland

The magic of words.

We all know by now that I’m on this writing journey with my pre-teen daughter, and I can confirm to you all that it’s been one of the best things I’ve done in my life. My girl turns 13 this year, and we’ve just spent the summer together doing a variety of things (which, I’ll admit, includes a fair amount of time spent re-viewing Gilmore Girls on Netflix), but most importantly, we’ve sat together and finished our first draft of the second book in our American Dream series. It took us a year to get that done (those are the realities of working with a hormonal adolescent who would sometimes rather watch Barbie furniture building how-to videos on YouTube than read through a section of a manuscript again to get it just right), but last night, as we sat in her bed under the Christmas lights that she has draped around her room, we emailed the edited draft out to our beta-readers, and it felt AMAZING to say we’d completed this project.

And by “completed” I mean we’ve written it and taken turns reading the chapters out loud, making our changes and haggling over word choice and description (the final editing will be mine to do once we get feedback). But that’s the magic, really: the words. The ones we wrote together, the ones I listen to her read, and the ones we debate over. They’ve kept us working together, side-by-side, like glue. They’ve kept us from drifting into a land where she holes up alone in her room like a typical teen, keeping her words to herself or only sharing them with friends. Instead, she shares them with me. As we write, we talk about other “stuff”–boys, mean girls, fashion, music. I mean, we talk a lot anyway, but this gives us a safe place to make silly jokes and to apply the situations we write about to real life. This book we’ve just finished gives us the chance to talk about what mean girls are like in middle school in 2016, and lets us ponder what sort of messages we want each book to impart. (For the record, she talked it through as I listened, and we ultimately decided that this book is about believing in yourself and overcoming whatever obstacles or limitations life throws in your path.)

Writing also gave us something to talk about on our road trips this summer. We sat next to pools in Buffalo, Wyoming and talked about our next book: who will our main character be? Where should she be from? (Russia, we’ve decided.) What state will she move to in America? (While driving to an abandoned gold-mining town outside of Bozeman, Montana, we determined that she’d definitely be moving to a horse ranch in the “Treasure State”.) And as we power-walked through a pool in Spokane, Washington like a couple of middle-aged retirees on a water aerobics mission, we even got to daydream about a time when we had enough books published that we could go on an indie bookstore tour, setting up tables and autographing books for our rabid fans. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)

I know there are a few more weeks of summer and I shouldn’t be mourning its end just yet, but teachers go back to work three weeks from today, so…the end is near. I have some final editing to do on my own book, and I’m hoping to have both of our books out in early September (it always takes longer than you think it will!) The covers are done, the drafts are written and in their final stages, and–as always–I’m eternally grateful for the magic of words.

Turning your e-book into a print copy.

The whole point of going digital and publishing a manuscript as an e-book is to keep up with the fast-paced world of indie publishing. Publishing your work as an e-book means you can jump back in, make changes, and re-upload it at any time. On the flip side of the coin, there’s quite a bit more involved in getting your book ready for print if you want to hold a paperback copy in your hands.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s cool to open the Kindle app and find your book there with its pretty cover and your name splashed across the front, but there’s still something missing (and there’s an empty spot on your bookshelf where that book would just look so good…) To remedy that, I decided to use Createspace (the print-on-demand service associated with Amazon) so that my books can be ordered as paperbacks instead of offered only via Kindle. All you have to do is click on Iris or There’s Always a Catch on Amazon, and you now have the choice to order them either way, which I think is pretty much the bee’s knees. Of course, it costs more to put a tangible book in your hands than it does for the book fairies to stitch together some pixels and send it zinging and pinging through outerspace, so the price is a tad higher, but I’m told some people still read physical books and don’t mind the inflated price, so…there you go! I have no expectation that I’ll sell tons of hard copies, but  am looking forward to having some on hand to give away (through Goodreads, in particular) and I’m going to use my hard copies on Instagram, which has a pretty active community of book lovers and bookstagrammers (yep–that’s a thing).

Speaking of giveaways, my printed copies are coming in the mail as we speak, and I’d love to share them. If you’ve read either Iris or There’s Always a Catch and you haven’t had a chance to leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, then I’d love it if you would! To say thanks, if you post a review and then shoot me an email at redbirdsandrabbits@gmail.com to let me know you did, I’ll put you in my drawing to win a free copy of either book. And, hey–if you’ve already read it, no big deal…you can just pass it on to someone else who might like it, because when it comes to books, chocolate, or wine, sharing is caring!

How I draft my novels.

Unlike Donald Trump’s nature-defying comb-over, writing becomes less and less mysterious as time goes on. At first there’s a mystique about the whole process of Writing A Book, but then you manage to bleed sixty or eighty-thousand words onto a page (or into a word doc), and you realize that, Hey, I can do this. It’s just words!

Only it’s not. It’s plot and character and setting and detail and…so much more. And it always feels as if, when you’re done, you’re missing one of the main ingredients. For me, writing has been a series of light bulb moments: aha! I think I understand how to make characters come alive with their actions and their words. I’ve got it: I know that I need to hit major plot points by moving my characters from point A to point B! But putting everything together into one story? That’s hard. And I haven’t mastered it yet.

The other part of my writing (aside from discovering each time I write something that there was some huge piece of the puzzle that I was previously missing) is the fun I have with my first drafts. I’m a pantser through and through, which means I write whatever comes out with no plan, and Draft One is always the part where I have the most fun. I usually start with a very basic idea (example: Christmas Key, an island off the coast of Florida where the locals tool around on golf carts and where the lights and tinsel stay up year-round.) Then I add a couple of characters whose eyes we get to see the setting through (Holly Baxter, 30-year-old mayor of the island. She inherited the island when her grandparents passed away, and she’s struggling to gain the approval of her mostly-retired neighbors as she plans for controlled progress.) I throw in some sort of key element, like romance (Holly has recently broken up with hunky Jake Zavaroni, the island’s only cop, and they’re trying to figure out how to live together on a tiny island without actually living together), and then I figure out how to make it interesting (a group of fishermen from Oregon books a trip to Christmas Key, and among them is former baseball player River O’Leary. He and Holly hit it off immediately. But will their island romance turn into something more? And how will Jake handle seeing his ex move on right under his nose?) It’s just basic stuff, really, but it’s like laying the foundation for a house.

Then, to frame out this metaphorical house, I have to figure out how many rooms (books) I want–in this case, I’m thinking at least five in this series. I have ideas for the romance element as well as the growth of the island, the obstacles to both, and how to intertwine other islanders’ stories as well. Now, as a pantser, I have no idea how or when that will all play out, but I can picture some of it in my head (hints: reality show; murder-mystery weekend; a challenger for the office of mayor) so I know it’s possible to wring several books out of these ideas. And then I just write it. All of it. Whatever comes out. I build the rooms during this first draft, and throw in a few windows and doors. It’s hard not to go back and edit yourself as you go, but I resist it as much as possible.

After the first draft is complete (and I know it’s complete when I hit a point that feels like an ending–exact science, this stuff!), then I go back and decorate my rooms. I add color and texture, use all of my senses, try to create a picture that my imaginary readers will see in their heads, and then I basically second-guess things, make changes, tweak, delete, add, and mold until it feels…done. Voila. A book. Granted, one that still needs lots of editing, reading by other eyes, and probably more changes, but a book nonetheless! As we speak, I’m about ten thousand words away from finishing draft one of the second book in my series–so here’s to a 3-day weekend and the chance to get it done!

Advertising: money spent, lessons learned.

I’m playing hooky from work today because otherwise I might not make it to the end of the year so that I can work on the first draft of my next book. It’s going to be 85 and sunny today, and I’m on the deck pecking away, but I thought it might be a decent time to recap my first foray into advertising. I’m sure I’ve spent way more than I should have based on my ROI so far, but some things you just can’t learn without trying, so here’s what I’ve done lately on my latest book:

For There’s Always a Catch: Christmas Key Book One, I’ve run the following promos:

  • A BKnights Fiverr ad for $21 (the basic is just $5, but I went with the upgrades to see how that would work out)
  • Another Fiverr ad where the person promised to advertise in something like 80+ Facebook groups for readers. This was $5 (which is the premise of Fiverr, if you’ve never used it. Someone does a job for you for five bucks.)
  • On the same day the Fiverrs ran, one of my best friends, first readers, and all-around favorite people (Jaime!) wrote a post about the book on Facebook. Last year when Holly and I put out Iris together, her FB post gave us the best day ever in terms of downloads, so clearly she has some pull with her friends when she suggests things!
    • TOTALS FOR THOSE DAYS: 18 paid downloads. Since I was running the book at 99 cents, my take-home on those 18 purchases was a whopping $5.50 (give or take.)
  • I ran an Amazon giveaway that cost me $3.21 where people could click for the chance to win one of three copies of the books. The only caveat was that they had to follow my Amazon author page (which means that if I put out an announcement at some point, I’ll have a “fan base” to actually speak to via Amazon).
    • TOTAL FOR THOSE DAYS: I ran the promo for 10 days and gained 244 Amazon followers. I also sold a few books at $2.99 in that window of time, so I probably made $8.00.
  • The book was available for free on Amazon for 2 days (with really no promotion–I just wanted to see what would happen if I made it free for a weekend).
    • TOTALS FOR THOSE DAYS: 267 downloads (but still no reviews from those downloads, which is pretty much what you’re hoping for when you give a book away for free…gotta get those reviews!) Money made those days: $0
  • Another promo I’ve read a lot about is the E.B. Brown Facebook group. That one cost me $15 and is scheduled for May 1st, so I’ll have to wait to see if there’s an uptick in downloads after that.

I’ve also tried a few free/low-cost things on Iris: The American Dream Series Book One and @Robertopancake, but nothing has panned out there that’s worth mentioning (though I did drop $25 for a BargainBooksy ad–which other authors swear by) and I got a total of 3 downloads, so…$6 in the bank. Definitely not a great investment, but worth trying.

So far, my big takeaway is that the little blips on your book sales page happen when your friends are kind enough to rave about and tell other people about your work. I have another friend from high school (Hi, Elaine!) who has done multiple posts about my book and was even kind enough to chat with me on the phone about There’s Always a Catch. That was really awesome. I loved hearing her excitement about the characters and what might happen next…and I even used one of her Facebook posts about the book as the photo for today’s blog. It feels really good to have people supporting my work (special “hi” to other friends and moms of friends who have bought, reviewed, and talked about it!) and it makes me want to keep going when I hear that other people are curious about the next book.

And to that end…I’m off to enjoy my work-free afternoon on the deck–I’ve got some writing to do!

Finding your niche.

To write to market, or to write for pleasure? It’s the question that all indies have to ask themselves at some point–particularly if full-time authorship is a goal. I’ve toyed with writing to market, and to be perfectly honest, I just can’t. I hate sci-fi and fantasy, and anything with werewolves, vampires, or the undead just puts me off completely. Zero interest. So genre-wise, I’m in the position of writing what I know I’d like to read myself. People have widely varying opinions on this subject, but I think what you write rings more true if you enjoy the process and if you’d read the product yourself, so I’m not even considering dipping my toes into a genre that bores me.

I’ve had one story in particular that I’ve written and re-written a number of times since I started it back in 2009, and its current incarnation barely resembles the original draft, save for the location and genre. The characters’ names have changed, the idea of it being a single title romance has faded–I’ve even gone back-and-forth with present or past tense (and settled on present tense, which feels more immediate to me.)

What I have now is the first book in what I hope will be a long series, as I get lost in the place and the people every time I open my laptop and start to write. It’s set on a fictional island off the coast of Florida (a holiday-themed island called Christmas Key) and is populated with eccentric retirees, a young, handsome cop named Jake, and Holly Baxter, the island’s thirty-year-old mayor. Holly’s late grandparents bought the island when it was nothing but an untamed jungle floating in the middle of the sea, and over the years it’s developed into a rustic community with plans for expansion and tourism. The only real fly in the ointment is Holly’s mother, Coco, who handed her baby over to her own parents to raise when she was a teenager so that she could sow her wild oats. Coco doesn’t have the emotional ties to the island that Holly does, and now she’s got plans of her own to sell the island and turn it into a massive commercial resort–something that the full-time islanders are completely opposed to.

With my final edit still to do and another week or so in the hands of my formatter, I’m trying to be realistic and imagine publishing by April 15th. But in the meantime, I started drafting Book 2 the other day where Book 1 left off, and I’ve never been more happy to be writing the kind of contemporary women’s fiction that I personally enjoy reading. I’d love to hear from other writers–do you ever step outside your own reading area to write what you know will sell, or do you strictly write for the pleasure of turning out work that could stand up next to your favorite authors in your favorite genres?