So it’s out…and I’m jittery.

Somehow putting out a book that you write with your young daughter feels fun and not the least bit self-indulgent, but publishing something on your own is mildly terrifying. I just texted one of my BFFs to tell her my new book is out, and she said, “I’d be nervous too…not gonna lie!” But she also swears that it’s a good read, so I’m going to latch onto that as I gnaw the nails off of all ten fingers.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I started working on a book called “There’s Always a Catch” back in 2008 or 2009, and I loved everything about the characters and place so much (it’s set on a fictional island in the Florida Keys called “Christmas Key”) that I’ve taken it out and re-tooled it a number of times over the years. I finally got serious about it last year and re-wrote the whole thing so that it’s less of a standalone romance novel and more of a start to a women’s fiction series, then I sent it off to several people to read and give feedback. I ended up doing a mind-numbing five drafts over the next six months, and just finally finished editing last month.

I’m trying to keep myself busy by thinking more about promotion and advertising than I have in the past, and I’ll have plenty to say about all of that in my next post after I see the results of spending my spring break doing research and placing ads. For now, “There’s Always a Catch” is set at 99 cents on Amazon (it’s available only as an ebook, but you can easily read it on any device by downloading the Kindle app) so that it qualifies for some of the advertisements that I’ve chosen. I’m really hoping the bargain price will drive some sales so that I can (hopefully!) garner some of those golden reviews that all self-published authors live for.

If nothing else, I can honestly say that I’m really enjoying everything about the indie-author process after a full year of learning and working at it, and I’m excited for every new step of this writing adventure!

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?

The hero’s journey.

We’ve started a movie unit in my English classes that’s based on the idea that the hero’s journey is at the heart of every good story. We’ve got the 7 steps of the journey committed to memory, we’ve watched Big Hero 6 and talked about its important messages, and we’ll soon be watching some of the greatest movies of the 80s (Breakfast Club; Ferris Bueller’s Day off; Stand By Me; Goonies) so that I can feel like I actually brought something of substance to these young people’s lives when they leave my class in June.

But now that we’ve turned the theory of the hero’s journey inside out, I’m left wondering how I’ve been missing something so big for so long: my current WIP needs a stronger, more defined hero’s journey. I mean, I like it, it’s okay, I love the setting, the characters are nice enough, but…duh. I’m on the fourth draft, and I just hit the spot where I realized that this is my main character’s “call to adventure,” and it’s not very much of a call at all. She sort of stumbles through this story without ever completing a discernible hero’s journey, and that has to happen. Whether we know it consciously or not, we don’t invest in a story where no one grows and changes. We aren’t interested in a main character who (however flawed) isn’t even the hero of her own life story. So even though I have the cover done and had hoped to publish this one by February 1st (which clearly did not happen), there’s still more work to do. Before I can call it a wrap, my main character needs to slay a dragon or two and return home with an elixir. Her romantic interests and the other people in her life need to clearly be allies or enemies, and there need to be more tests and obstacles.

It’s kind of frustrating when you realize how much more there is to do, but it’s also a relief to discover what’s missing. Bring on the 5th draft!

 

 

What I’m working on now.

Other than surviving the first month of school (which is a whole other story for a different time), I’m trying to finish the first draft of my current work-in-progress. About six years ago I wrote a traditional romance and shopped that around. At the time I got a decent response. There was some positive feedback, and lots of, “The centerpiece of the story needs to be the romance itself, but instead you incorporate a really interesting location and secondary characters, which makes it not just traditional ‘romance’…” And that was fine. Getting a personal letter back from Harlequin with an invitation to submit future works was pretty exciting, but I’ve never been hung up on just writing romance (as I don’t really read straight romance), so I took a moment to appreciate the feedback, and then I moved on.

I’ve re-visited this story a few times over the past six years, coming back again and again to the fact that I really liked the place and I wanted to explore the potential of the other characters more. The setting is a fictional island in the Florida Keys called Christmas Key, and the residents are mostly retirees with interesting backstories (think “The Golden Girls” meets “Cocoon”), but the mayor of the island is a thirty-year-old single woman whose grandparents bought the land and devoted the last years of their lives to developing it. I’ve got ideas for about five books in this series, and I’m closing in on the completion of book one’s first draft, and I’m getting ready to share it with my first readers for feedback and input. This is the time with any story where I get antsy and ready to put it out there so I can start thinking about changes and revisions. It’s also the point where I question whether anyone but me is going to enjoy what I’ve written!

I’m also toying with the idea of entering this book in the Kindle Scout publishing program, which is essentially a crowdsourced form of publishing. My impression is that it’s a fairly new option, but the gist of it is that you submit a complete work with a cover, and then people can vote on books that they’d like to see in print. If your book is selected (through the most votes/support), you get a deal of sorts with Amazon, and while the royalty rate is a bit lower than when you do it totally solo, you get the opportunity for more visibility via Amazon’s advertising and promotion. I don’t really see the downside at this point (unless it was going to become a breakaway hit that would net me millions on my own), as the rights revert to the author under certain circumstances, and you retain the rights to various publishing options. Anyway, I’m still exploring that and reading up on it, so get ready for me to implore you to vote for my book if I decide to go that route. Honestly, I still view writing and being able to get my words out there as a pretty freaking awesome and fun thing, so really, at this point it’s all gravy!

I am looking for some first readers who would be willing to give honest, constructive feedback, so if you’re into that sort of thing and you think that women’s fiction set on a tropical island sounds like a fun read, shoot me an email–I’d love your help! redbirdsandrabbits@gmail.com

Now I need to go and plan what I’m doing with my juniors and seniors in English class this week, because…errr…I still have a day job!

On turning 40.

For all the years I’ve wanted to be a writer (which is as many years as I can remember), I’ve cut myself a bit of slack by saying, “Well, it’ll happen someday. Someday I’ll be a real author.” But when you have a big birthday like I had this week, it forces you to assess and reassess all that you know to be true about yourself and your life. This birthday–more than any other–has been one of personal growth. For the first time ever, when I said, “I really don’t want anything for my birthday–I already have it all!” I really meant it. I do have everything I want or need, and if I don’t, the responsibility to obtain those things is mine and mine alone.

Holly and I are just a couple of weeks away from publishing the first book in our series, and we’ve got a summer of writing ahead of us. We’ve been super-creative lately, thinking of story lines, picture ideas (she took the one above in our neighborhood park yesterday after I brought home all of the balloons that my wonderful coworkers and students gave me for my big day). It’s an exciting time, as she’s also wrapping up her years in elementary school, growing about two inches a day (or so it seems) and turning into a young lady who makes me so very proud. This journey we’re on together towards publishing has been the very best writing adventure I’ve taken so far, and I know I will always hold it in my heart as one of the most successful things I’ve done as a mother, even if we aren’t ultimately the world-famous authors that we imagine ourselves becoming!

But for as scared as I was of turning 40, I have to say it’s been fabulous so far. If I could share a few words with my younger self–the one who always wanted to be a writer, but beat herself up for not making it happen–I’d tell her so many things, first and foremost that she should keep cutting herself some slack, and that someday will come…and all too soon.

And I’d tell her this: You’ll do okay–I promise. You’ll marry your high-school sweetheart, move across country to Florida with your childhood dog, your 1983 Toyota Tercel with no AC, and your new husband. You won’t have jobs, and you’ll discover that the modeling you moved to Miami to pursue isn’t what you thought it would be.  That the agencies and clients don’t love you as much now that you’re old enough to call your own shots, and you don’t want to do all of the things they tell you to do.

You’ll stay in Florida for ten years, get your Bachelor’s degree, live through an incredibly challenging stint as a child welfare caseworker, try your hand at grantwriting, and meet some people along the way who you’ll carry with you always. You will give birth to the most wonderful creature you’ve ever known (no bias there, of course…), and while holding your infant in your arms, you’ll be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because the combination of these two things bring uncertainty and fear, you and your husband will decide that moving back across country to be with family is your best option, so you’ll make that leap–with a baby and two cats in tow (and everyone on that cross-country flight will despise you, but so be it.)

Back in the northwest, you’ll be a stay-at-home mom, manage a non-profit for a few years, and will ultimately get your Masters in Education so that you can take on the biggest challenge and most enriching job of your life. Being a high-school teacher will bring you immeasurable joy, and some of the most amazing people you will ever know will come into your life simply because a counselor assigned them to your class. They’ll walk through the door of your room, unsure about who you are, but prepared to teach you about heartache, patience, humor, and loving other humans even if you can’t “fix” them. Stay strong–you will be rewarded.

So all of these things will conspire to make you who you are at 40, and they are all things that should thrill you and make you proud. You are here, you are (mostly) healthy, you have love, and–most importantly–you have learned to give of yourself without expecting anything in return. The rest is gravy. Now go and write that damn book, girl! Someday is now!

E-spiration, Part 2.

In addition to the writing, planning, and dreaming that goes into this project, I’m really enjoying the level of engagement I’m seeing in my child. She truly gets joy from every part of this process. Over spring break she discovered an awesome website that lets you design houses (all on her own–how do they do these things? They learn to navigate and seek out their interests right under your nose…and the next thing you know, your 11-year-old is a mini-architect. Amazing.) Anyway, she stumbled onto a site called homestyler.com, and then proceeded to devote hours to imagining what the house of our next protagonist looks like.

Already underway, book two is set on Oahu, and our main character, Mai, and her family have moved from Tokyo to share a home with Mai’s aunt, uncle, and cousin. So with the help of homestyler.com, Holly now has a visual rendering of the walkway leading up to the little yellow house that we’ve written about, complete with bedrooms for each character, shared living spaces, and a lanai that’s decked out with furniture and landscaping. I love that she knows what it takes to inspire her own creativity, and while I’ll admit that I’ve never needed (or at least never had) an architectural layout of my characters’ homes, I kind of love it. To be perfectly honest, I’m hoping that her organization, visual inspiration, and preparation, rub off on me a little as a writer because I tend to just dive in. My whole story universe generally lives inside my head (and on my old-school cut-and-paste inspiration boards, as mentioned in a previous post), so to have all of these colorful, dynamic, well thought out pieces of the puzzle is pretty cool for me.

And on another note, report cards came out the Friday before spring break, and guess what Holly’s note from the teacher said? “I’ve really noticed huge improvements in her writing skills this trimester.” (**insert big Mommy Smiley Faces here**) That was certainly not my sole intent when we started this journey, but it’s absolutely a welcome side effect of our collaboration!

Writing a Solid Query Letter is (fill in the blank) _______.

Oh, fill in the blank? Okay. Writing a solid query letter is frustrating. It makes me sweat bullets. I think it’s a task akin to a dog chasing its tail until it gets dizzy and throws up. Writing a query letter is about as much fun as the extreme waxing I subjected myself to before a spring break trip to Mexico a couple of years ago. Which is all to say that writing a query that is snappy, concise, and eloquent is painful. 

Because I save all of my queries and responses in a file for my own reference, I’ve been able to go back and see what’s worked and what hasn’t. Some attempts were so horrid that I’ve read slushpilehell.tumblr.com through the web of my fingers in fear that I’d see my own words being mocked and shredded for giggles. (If you’re a fan of snark and haven’t read slushpilehell, please do.) Others weren’t as cringe-worthy, and some even netted me a request for a partial or a full. One of my more solid queries was one I wrote for a book where the protagonist was a 15-year-old boy. I had this crazy idea that maybe it would sound more authoritative if the author wasn’t immediately identified as a woman in her 30s (AKA, someone who has never been a teenage boy), so I wrote a short, clipped, funny query that I signed off with my first and middle initials followed by my last name. Within a few days I had a request for a full manuscript from an agent. Ultimately she passed on it, but it was my first experience writing a query that truly felt spot-on. (I probably ruined the initial effect by following up her request for a partial with an email that spewed verbal butterflies at her, like: “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited! Thank you!” instead of a cooler, more manly, “Great. Here’s my manuscript. Thanks for the interest; looking forward to hearing back from you.” But…one can only cover up one’s true identity for so long.)

Last weekend I toiled and fretted over a query for our new manuscript, and I tried in vain to whittle it down to something that didn’t immediately elicit an eye-roll and a “TL;DR” from the recipient. But as I skim it again today, I’m feeling a little deflated. What I want it to say to a prospective agent is that we’re funny and creative and hard-working, that we dream big, laugh hard, and have caring spirits. We want to write about girls who matter; we want to create characters with strong ties to their native cultures who have interesting adventures when they move to America. I want it to be clear that we’re open to suggestion and criticism and editing, and that it’s not just this one book that they’d be representing, but these two wild, dreaming girls.

But that’s really, really hard to do without sounding hokey. So I’m back to square one, wondering if I’ve just mistakenly sent our dream agent a sub-par query that will hit the slush pile at warp speed, but secretly hoping that she’ll see through the formality of the greeting, and the slightly bloated book description, to realize that on the other side of that query letter are two chicks who have stories in their souls.

How We Write.

Writing in a partnership is a roller coaster. I find that sometimes it makes the whole process more exciting, like when you have an idea that you share with the other person, and you both end up shouting, “YES! That’s perfect!” and falling all over each other with praise. Other times it can be challenging: you’re in the flow of writing, and the other person has something to add that brings the whole thing to a screeching halt. Or you don’t agree on something fundamental, which means you have to talk it through–something you don’t have to do while working alone. But the feeling of doing something together is incomparable.

The way we write is especially sweet for me: Holly is our idea guru, and I bring the ideas to life. For instance, when we start something, we come up with a theme for the book, then we talk about characters, scenes, locations, etc. (Can you imagine how proud a mother who majored in English is when she listens to her 11-year old debate the merits of realistic versus science fiction? When she starts kicking around terms like ‘universal themes’?) From there, she goes bananas–she researches, finds pictures and maps, and then she creates a slideshow for us that serves as inspiration as we go forward. She did one just this morning for our new project that was set to music and included a picture of what she thinks every character in our book should look like.

Next, we sit down together, side-by-side. (This is my favorite part.) Sometimes we work on the couch, other times we lean against a big pile of pillows on her bedroom floor. And if the weather is nice, we head out to the backyard to work in our little casita, surrounded by pink walls, inspiration boards, my collection of rabbits and cardinals (stuffed, wooden, and porcelain), the sunlight streaming through the miniature windows with their cheery pink and white checked curtains. Then she leans her shoulder against mine or puts her head on my arm as I write so that she can read every word as I’m typing. That means she can stop me when I use a word that’s ridiculously out of character for our heroine, or when I need input on something “cool” or “young” to keep our heroine living in the 21st century. But in the end, I know that no matter what–whether we’re successful at this endeavor, or whether it’s just a fun hobby–I’ll never forget the times we spent together, lost in the process, her soft, fragrant head on my shoulder, easily within kissing distance.

Because that’s just how we write.