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!

Right foot, left foot, right foot…keep moving.

As I wade through a sea of dirty floors, bills to be paid, dinner dishes, and a week of long days between now and Spring Break, it’s so easy to lose the plot with writing. After all, inspiration (and energy) sometimes vanish when high schoolers bury me under their personal dramas and intense home situations all day long, my baby cries to me at night because she hates math and is “too hungry to pay attention” by the time lunch rolls around at 1:15, and the cat needs to go to the vet again because he has tumors that require more steroid shots. Sometimes life just gets in the way. And it’s precisely at these moments that writing should be an escape and not a chore, but somehow when I’m mentally and physically depleted, it’s easier (and more fun) to let someone else’s words entertain me. And so I read.

I’ve been a little obsessed lately with the books that amused me in my youth. Remember that feeling of coming home from school with no responsibilities or big decisions to make? That freedom of having no homework to do, when your most pressing concern was how many grilled cheese sandwiches to make before disappearing into your room with a book? I loved the creepy and well-written soft-horror of Lois Duncan, and am currently reading Killing Mr. Griffin simply because it called out to me from my bookshelf at school. And I won’t lie: I’ve considered revisiting Sweet Valley High just for fun, and I even googled a series I remember loving called Sweet Dreams–it was a collection of standalone romances with torrid titles like P.S. I Love You, Summer Breezes, and Programmed for Love. (I think it was the different characters and places in each of these books that made me love a good series with standalone titles, which is part of what I’m loving so much as Holly and I work on our books together.) Sadly, my copies of these favorites were all lost in the Great Waterbed Tragedy of 1989, but I’m sure I could replace that waterlogged, pulpy mess of teenage drama and romance if I really wanted to. I mean, with just a few strategic bids and some last-minute maneuvers, I clobbered my eBay opponent in a war to win the entire catalogue of Babysitters Club novels last spring. And after parting with $75 (and a little of my dignity as one of my TA’s watched in puzzlement as I whooped with joy over winning a box of thirty-year-old girls’ books) I became the proud owner of a classic series. Er, I mean Holly became the proud owner of all of the Babysitters Club books. (Duh. Of course they were for her–I mean, obviously!)

But honestly, I have no shame about what I read. Good books don’t have to be secret guilty pleasures like the embarrassing music you hide on your iPod (hello, entire Aha and Debbie Gibson catalogues–I’m talking about you!) So now, with pride, I’m going to go polish off Killing Mr. Griffin on this rainy Saturday afternoon. And then we’ll write.

E-spiration.

At the very heart of our writing is inspiration. What we’re inspired by is very personal and unique to each of us, and how we carry that through an entire project probably varies so widely that I couldn’t even begin to imagine all of the different techniques that writers use!

As for me, I like a good visual. As I mentioned in a previous post, Holly disappears into her room for hours making slideshows set to music that visually represent our ideas and characters, but I lean more towards a good old-fashioned mood/inspiration board. In fact, for my own side project (I have something I’ve been working on in my free time–wait, did I say “free time”? *Insert chuckles here…*) I have three giant pieces of poster board plastered with images that get me into a mental place where I can become my protagonist and where I live in her world. For that manuscript, the location happens to be a fictional Florida Key populated by retirees and filled with mystery and romance, so to create my inspiration boards I happily spent an afternoon with a stack of Island Life and Florida Travel and Life magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and my favorite album by The Cure.

But that’s where we encounter a bit of a generation gap, my lovely daughter and I. I’ve got a Millenial on my hands who is already heavily immersed in the land of Apple products, and to her, old school collage-making reeks of a pre-school art project. So we explored as many online inspiration board and mood board options as we could for our project, hoping to find something that worked for both of us. Some sites/apps were incredibly promising but didn’t deliver, and others were just complex and clearly made for work-based idea collaboration. The easiest and most user-friendly tool we found was a site called www.photovisi.com that lets you choose a layout for your collage, then add pictures and reposition/re-size them to get the look you desire.

The mood board we have here is representative of our first book, which is about a girl from Holland who ends up living outside of San Francisco. We chose scenes from autumn, Chinatown, Disneyland, and a very special cat, and they all feel just right to us when we think about the important scenes from that manuscript. As I write this, Holly is next to me with her laptop, working on a mood board for book #2.

With google and online collage-makers we have a world of inspirational photos at our fingertips, and the means to put together some pretty cool mood boards.  But give me a pile of magazines, some Elmer’s glue, and the 80s Alternative station on Pandora, and I can happily pass an afternoon lost in my own world of inspiration.

Our manuscript is out there!

We finished the first run-through of our manuscript and sent it to three people this weekend, so now we just (im)patiently wait for feedback. I know the best thing to do during this rush of “we just finished a NOVEL!” adrenaline is move on to our next manuscript and keep the creativity flowing, so that’s what we’ll do.

The original idea for this series that we’re working on stemmed from Holly’s love of the American Girl books, and a unit at school last year that introduced her to pioneer girls and their diaries. After talking through what she wanted to write, we came up with an idea for the this series. Each book will be a standalone novel about a young girl who comes to America and lives her own version of the American Dream. Because each protagonist will come from a different country, it gives us the opportunity to research and learn about other parts of the world and other languages, and it also allows us to give some thought to what it’s like to be an outsider, a newcomer, a person who is striving for something and overcoming obstacles. Using fiction to understand life isn’t a new technique by any stretch, and while I know it will benefit Holly as she goes into middle school next year and broadens her own horizons, I figure it can’t hurt me to be reminded that everyone’s struggles are real.

Book 1 is about a girl named Iris from Holland (we’ll get back to her as soon as our first reader reviews come in from my parents and some trusted friends), but in the mean time, we’re starting to think about Book 2. Who will our main character be? Where will she come from and to which state will she go? Letting your characters come to life as you research them is an exciting stage of writing, and one we both enjoyed immensely the first time around. So here we go with a whole new set of characters and themes and places: let the games begin!

“Let’s write a novel,” she says.

My darling girl and I set off on this mission last summer–the first day of summer break, in fact–after she’d come up with an idea for a story that she wanted to write. As we kicked it around, the idea turned into a game plan to write a whole series, so we got to work. All through the long summer (long when you’re a ten-year old, far too short when you’re a high school teacher) we sat together on our deck or in our “writing room”, side-by-side, mapping out our story and then executing our scenes and dialogue. By the time school started we were 20,000 words into it, and we’ve just wrapped things up at 47,000 words. This seems short to me, as I’ve been writing longer manuscripts for years, but we put in our due diligence, did our research, and came up with a range of 40-50,000 words for a middle grade book. What’s left now is to tinker with page one and to give all of our chapters clever titles (our favorite chapter title so far is called “The Peanut Butter and Skelly Incident”–you’ll have to read it…trust me, it makes sense!) and then we’ll send it out to a handful of family and friends for feedback so that we can edit the whole manuscript. I’ve been through the query process a number of times, so I’m rubbing my hands together in anticipation, ready to get our baby out into the world and see what happens, but my girl has jumped right ahead to the “when we’re famous authors…” stage. She is ready to do the work–I’ll give her that: she cut a play-date short by two hours last night so she could get home and work on our story, and she has all the enthusiasm, zeal, and confidence that it takes to make it as an author. I haven’t had the heart to tell her yet that she’ll need all of that confidence in her reserves during the query/wait/rejection cycle, but maybe I should try on her confident attitude for size. Okay, here I go: “This is going to be SO. MUCH. FUN. when we’re famous authors!”