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!

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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.

My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

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!