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.

 

 

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.

 

So I changed my book covers.

I’ve been reading a lot about how important it is to always be aware of the market and to not be overly stubborn and precious about your work. I loved the retro feel of my old covers and I really thought they worked with the series, but they just weren’t selling the way I knew they could. So I went back to the cover artist and asked her to work with me on something that looks more like the other books in my “categories” (women’s fiction/contemporary romance/humorous chick lit) and we came up with the above. My daughter has deemed the first one “too much butt” and I’ll admit I felt a little hesitant about making such a big leap, but it’s been a great choice so far. The book is moving again, and at one point, I hit the top 2,500 on the Amazon Kindle charts, so…I think it was a solid decision.

I also put out the first novella in the series, which offers some backstory about Jake, Christmas Key’s only cop and Holly’s ex-boyfriend. It gives some perspective on how a guy like Jake ended up on a tropical island full of old timers and expats, and hopefully sheds some light on how he and Holly fell for one another. It’s a much shorter read (only 20k words), but I’m working on the third full-length novel in the series, so I thought it was a fun little in-between story.

I’ve also punched up my advertising big-time and gotten some good results. I can’t attribute the jump in the Kindle charts entirely to my new covers (though I think they helped), so after my promo run ends in a week or two, I’ll do an update on the results. It’s cost me a few bucks, but I think the returns are good.

In the meantime, Wild Tropics is in a multi-author Halloween promo through Monday night for just .99, so if you’re interested in checking that out (or finding some other great Halloween reads this weekend), click HERE to grab a book or two on the cheap. And if you do, don’t forget to help out my fellow indie authors by leaving a review! Happy reading!

When ‘Christmas Key’ comes to the Big Screen.

**insert laughing emoji face with tears streaming**

I mean, a girl has to dream, right? Because whether I’m reading or writing a book, the characters and places come to life in my head, and at a certain point it really is like watching a movie, isn’t it? This has been a busy month so far, with school starting up again (our school district decided high school needed to start an hour later, so not only is our schedule bumped back, but I took on an extra class at the end of the day, which means I’m now getting home at 5:00…not exactly teacher’s hours anymore!), and I also managed to get Book 2 in my Christmas Key series, Wild Tropics, published and out into the world. I’m really proud of being in the middle of an actual series now, and I’m currently working on a novella about Jake–one of the main characters–that will give some background information about how he ended up on a tropical island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

But as I work on my stories, of course I have ideas about who the characters are, and who they look like. So, without further ado, allow me to cast the Hollywood version of Christmas Key:

Holly Baxter, Christmas Key’s 30-year-old mayor: I see her as sort of a blue-eyed Keira Knightly. Pretty, but kind of serious. A little quirky.

Jake Zavaroni, Christmas Key’s only police officer and Holly’s ex-boyfriend: Jake Gyllenhaal. Good-looking. Honest eyes. Looks like he’d be a tough but good-hearted cop.

Bonnie Lane, Holly’s assistant at the B&B: 50-ish, a Southern belle who loves men. A real saucepot–like a Golden Girls era Rue McClanahan, with a thick accent and a Blanche Devereaux sense of humor.

River O’Leary, Holly’s love interest who visits the island from Oregon: 30-ish, tall, good sense of humor, ex-pro baseball player for the Mets. Paul Walker–no question.

Maria Agnelli, the island’s resident cantankerous octogenarian: 86, a widow with a sharp tongue and a kooky streak. This is where my love of the Golden Girls becomes obvious (okay: we can call it an obsession)–Maria Agnelli is 100% Sophia Petrillo.

Cap Duncan, owner of North Star Cigars: looks like a pirate who walks around with a parrot on his shoulder. A little grumpy with a lot of secrets. I picture him as Donald Sutherland with slightly longer hair and a gold hoop earring.

Leo Buckhunter and Dr. Fiona Potts, Holly’s uncle and his girlfriend, Fiona, who is both the island’s only doctor and Holly’s best friend: Buckhunter is a grizzled, tattooed Matthew McConaughey in my mind, and that never wavers. Fiona is a petite, smart, funny woman in her 40s, and although I think of her with more strawberry blonde hair, she’s definitely a Reese Witherspoon.

Coco Baxter, Holly’s mother: late 40s. Self-involved, self-centered, self-serving. She and Holly aren’t close, and while she doesn’t technically live on the island, she visits all the time and her negative presence is always felt. I see her as a crisp (though not British) Kristin Scott Thomas. Remote and with an attitude, but beautiful.

I’ll be sure to let you know when the movie premiere is so you can be there! **insert another laughing/crying emoji again here**

Happy fall!

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

And now we can officially call it a series.


Mai-f

It feels like it’s taken an eternity, but we finally hit ‘publish’ today on the second book of our middle grade series. I’ve gone into writing both the American Dream Series and the Christmas Key Series with the understanding that they would be multi-book ventures, and I’m constantly working on one or the other. But at a certain point, time starts to drag on and it feels like those who know me best are wondering whether I’ve just given up on publishing more. I have not.

The journey from idea to actual finished product is a long one, and the edits alone are enough to make a sane person crazy (how many times can you actually re-read the same scenes before you start dreaming about your characters like they’re real people? How many times can you tweak and re-tweak your dialogue and description? Doing it several times more probably wouldn’t hurt the final version, but it does start to hurt your brain!), however, the excitement of getting something completed and sending it out into the world never gets old.

And so we now present to you the story of Mai Nakahara, a Japanese girl who moves from Tokyo to Honolulu with her family. By the time Mai’s family moves to America to help run her aunt and uncle’s restaurant in Hawaii, she’s pretty much gotten used to living without the arm she lost to cancer. But life in Honolulu presents its own challenges: a giant ocean she’s too afraid to swim in, mean girls to ignore, and horrible sports to play in gym class. Fortunately, there are also some good things about Mai’s new home, and with the help of her cousin, her new friends, and a famous one-armed surfer named Chloe Hayes, Mai discovers that the only real obstacle to her own happiness is believing in herself.

You can check out Mai: The American Dream Series Book Two on Amazon.