When life gets in the way of writing.

Now that 2018 is wrapping up, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As far as years go, it’s been as fast as any other and reasonably productive in terms of writing (I’ll have one more book out around Thanksgiving, and I’ve got two others actively in the works). But it’s been a year that reminded me of where I am in life. It hit me in the face with the news that yes, I am forty-three. I’ve got two aging parents with different ailments. My only child is about to turn fifteen. None of my current students were born before the twenty-first century and none of them seem to know who The Golden Girls are. It’s been…topsy-turvy.

I had lots of plans for my writing projects this year. I always do. I took my computer with me to the U.K. for the month of July, prepared to both care for my father, who has Parkinson’s, and to write in my spare time. But I underestimated the amount of work it takes (emotional and physical) to truly put in quality time with someone who is almost totally reliant on others, and I don’t know that I even opened my computer once. But it was a glorious month nonetheless. I got to take long, slow walks with my dad along the river that winds through the property where he lives, and we spent countless hours listening to the songs he used to play for me on his guitar (“Catch the Wind” by Donovan and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals). As I tucked him in each night, I’d kneel next to his bed and talk to him for a long time, just laughing about jokes we have together and reminiscing about everything.

At one point, he was searching for something in his nightstand (when a person has dementia, you often don’t know what they’re looking for and sometimes, neither do they) and he came up with a journal. As he can’t really write anymore, I knew that the pages were filled with thoughts he must have jotted down when he was first diagnosed. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages, watching as his distinctive handwriting changed and sloped with the progression of the disease. I saw that there were pages and pages of detailed phone messages–as if he’d written down what he would say in case someone’s voicemail picked up when he called them: “Hi, Steph. It’s Dad. I’m sorry I missed you. I’ll call you later. I love you.” And his thoughts about having Parkinson’s: “It’s like I still have 10,000 messages floating through my brain, but only about ten messengers to deliver them.”

It was a challenging and beautiful month, and I had talks with him that reminded me of the old days. There were times when I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about things, and I don’t care if you have Parkinson’s. I just need you to be my dad.” And of course–as he always has–he listened. He patted my back in the halting, measured way he has now. He found the words and put them together and offered them to me as best he could, offering advice and consolation. And it was wonderful.

Those will be memories I take with me to the end. I have no regrets about not writing this summer.

I came home and got into a minor car accident right on the heels of that trip, then ended up in bed for a week with an MS flare-up. I normally give little thought to my own health condition, but when MS knocks you on your ass, it says, “Hey! Psst–hey, you. Climb into bed. I’m about to hit you with a wave of fatigue that feels like nothing you’ve ever known.” And it did. You’d think that a week in bed might equal thousands of words written in a story, but it doesn’t. The days pass in a blur of naps and food that people bring you and take away, and then eventually you emerge from the fog and you’re ready to put your feet on the floor again and face the world.

School had barely gotten going this fall (delayed by a teacher’s strike that set us back to mid-September), when my mother suffered a medical emergency while in Reno. She’d driven there to care for my godmother–her best friend of 40+ years–who had been diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Unfortunately, my mom had driven herself down there and was unable to drive home, so my brother and I booked a last-minute flight and went down there to get her. What resulted was a totally unplanned week with just my mom and my brother (something I haven’t had since the three of us went to Disneyworld together in about 1994). There were serious things to talk about and more than 500 miles for us to travel together with me in the backseat of a Subaru listening to my brother’s wacky music (a combination of alt-folk-country stuff that makes me gag, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Prince–my mom asking us, “But why did this guy want to put Kim in the trunk?” about Eminem is a definite highlight for me). The trip was draining and challenging and eye-opening in terms of my brother and I realizing that our parents both have needs that are escalating rapidly, but it was an unexpected gift to get to run around “The Biggest Little City in the World” with my brother, eating sushi while the chef coaxed fire from oil on the grill, running into little metaphysical shops to buy crystals and dream catchers, racing each other up and down the stairs in casinos, and brushing our teeth next to each other in our shared hotel room like we were a couple of kids again.

As it turned out, my stubborn Jewish godmother had opted not to tell us when she’d come up to visit in June that she was already battling cancer, so by the time she was hospitalized in the fall it had metastasized and spread everywhere. There was no turning back. Being able to see her in Reno (as she and my mom were in the same hospital, only in different wings) was a gift. At one point she was only eating through a tube, but she really wanted a Whopper from Burger King, so I brought it to her even though I figured she’d never be able to eat it. Unfortunately, by the time I got there she’d been readmitted to the ICU and was having trouble breathing, but she told me in a stage whisper to hide the cheeseburger in her bag for later, which I obviously did. The fact that we were in cahoots over something as silly as a Whopper while she struggled to catch her breath will be something that makes me smile forever. She was a huge, mythical figure in my life–a gorgeous, successful journalist with a long history of traveling the world to report the news–and the first person to really tell me to roll up my sleeves and write. She mailed a book to me when I was living in Miami twenty years ago (Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”) with the inscription “For my dearest Stephanie–Let’s check out this one and talk. Love, Aunt Beverly.” She read my books and sent me Hanukkah gifts, gave me advice on situations with all of her love and wisdom, and laughed every time I said “Oy vey!” She died on Halloween just before midnight. I already feel the loss of having her in my life.

So now, here we are, fast approaching Thanksgiving. I’ve got another book in the Christmas Key series ready to release in the next few weeks, and two other projects that I’m chipping away at. Sometimes life gets in the way of writing and that’s okay, but sometimes writing is there as an escape when life gets to be too much. It’s a gift to be able to put my fingers to the keyboard and disappear into a world of my own creation–a place where my crazy, creative mind can roam free and invent people and things that amuse or entertain me. And it’s a huge bonus that other people are willing to come along for the ride.

As 2018 winds down I can say that I’m really grateful for all of it: the good, the bad, the painful, the happy, and the gift of the written word. Life is challenging. And beautiful.

The novel I wrote with a former student.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: some of the best humans on the planet walk through the door of my classroom and into my life. I’m blessed to know them all, but every so often you have students who become friends, and that’s a truly magical thing.

About a year ago, my friend Omar and his twin brother were about to graduate, and we’d been talking for a while about the things I’d written and about how the boys are interested in writing and directing screenplays. Omar said, “Hey, we should write a book!” To which I said (of course–because I never turn down a good writing project), “Yeah, we totally should!” And from there, the idea for a young adult time travel novel was born.

We started it on May 15, 2017 with just a few ideas about how the story would go. Omar graduated in June, and we’ve spent the past year collaborating in all the ways that modern technology allows. Last summer we spent countless hours working on the book via FaceTime from different time zones while I visited my ailing father in the U.K.; even more hours working on the story in a shared Google doc while I soaked up the sun on my back deck; and we’ve made many, many trips to our favorite Barnes & Noble over the past year to collaborate face-to-face as we created characters and hammered out scenes. In fact, we’ve been to that particular bookstore so many times to work on the story that not only do the café workers know us, but we have our own favorite table by the window.

This book has been a real labor of love for both of us, and it’s gone off in different directions than we’d originally planned. I never plot anything too intricately when I write, so that took some getting used to on Omar’s part. I like to just see where the story takes me, and he was kind enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes we agreed on details, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes I understood the crazy loops we were making with time travel in our story, and sometimes he had to draw exasperating diagrams for me that left me more confused than when we’d started.

But in the end, we have a finished product. A book that started with him not knowing how to put in his two cents politely with his former teacher, and ended with us debating plot twists and being creative equals. We got to take a trip to the 80s with this book and incorporate some of the bands we both love (The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs), and–most importantly–we got to be friends. Real friends.

Just like his twin brother and their two older sisters before them, Omar is one of my favorite people to ever walk through my classroom door. He’s smart and funny and kind, and he’s taught me way more than I ever taught him.

So even if we sell zero copies of this book, writing it is something I’ll always cherish. But hey–if we sell a million copies and become time travel gurus and world-famous authors, then that’s okay, too. We’d be honored if you’d check out our novel and support us, and if you felt like leaving us a good review, that would be even better! It’s available here on Amazon right now, and in the next couple of days it’ll be available in both print and through every other major bookseller as an ebook!

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When it starts to feel like a real series.

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Putting out the fourth book in my Christmas Key series feels amazing. It was a long time coming, as this year got away from me with travel and work and life, but when I hit “publish” the other day,  I realized that I’ve actually got a four book, two novella series on my hands. With more to come.

I also made the decision (after always being exclusive with Amazon) to go wide with my books, so now I begin the slow process of taking them all out of KDP Select. To non-indie authors, this means that rather than being tied to Amazon and reaping the (sometimes decent) rewards of that arrangement, my book will now be available everywhere: Kobo, Nook, Google Play, iBooks, etc. The timing happened to be right for the first book in the series, There’s Always a Catch, so I quickly yanked it out of KDP and got it set up to go wide. At this point, my plan is to follow the time-honored tradition of making the first book in a series free so that new readers might give it a chance and–ideally–get into the series and want to read on. It should be available for free everywhere within the next week.

I’m not sure why Fall feels like such a productive time for me (one might think that summer would be a super-productive writing time for a teacher, but…travel and relaxation always seem to edge out massive progress, and this summer I took on an added writing project with a former student of mine, so that’s been an entirely different writing adventure!) but here we are at the end of September and I’m up early, cranking out story-related stuff, ready to put my fingers to the keyboard any time I can!

Anyhow, More Than This is out now on every sales channel imaginable (it’s my first time seeing my work at B&N.com or on iBooks!), and I love the feeling that I’m slowly building this story and these characters. Time to start thinking about Book Five!

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.

 

 

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!

The beauty of multi-tasking.

Well, our goal of having a full draft of book 2 done by July 17th kind of got blown out of the water. We’ve worked on the draft a number of times, and even took it with us on our road trip last week to Eastern Washington and Idaho. While the man in our lives spent his days in a conference in Spokane, we swam in the hotel pool, wandered around town taking pictures, and sat on the balcony at our hotel (the magic balcony that was somehow always in shade, no matter the hour) and worked on our book.

I was curious to see how chipping away at multiple writing projects at the same time would affect my overall productivity, and I can’t say for sure that it’s been better or worse, but I have had fun jumping between three different things this summer. In addition to the second book in our “American Dream” series, I’ve been re-working something that I wrote years ago because I loved the setting and the characters so much. I have it laid out as a series, and I find that I’m either totally immersed in it (and listening to my tropical stations on Pandora for inspiration, given that the setting is a fictional Florida Key), or I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of completely re-writing it, and I’m scratching my head over just what the genre actually is. Romance? Not totally. Adventure? Maybe. A mash-up of “The Golden Girls” and contemporary chick-lit? That’s a possibility. Just to mix things up, I even pulled my absolute, very favorite manuscript out and am finally (hopefully) working on the final edit for that. So a day this summer where I don’t write or edit something is certainly not because I’m lacking projects to work on!

This last piece I’m editing is something that I hold near and dear to my heart, and I’m excited to be back in it again. I wrote it in 2009, and the protagonist is a 15-year old boy. At the time, I was trying to figure out the appeal of Twitter, so I got on there and searched for a few things that were of interest to me. My very first search was for #thecure, and out of the results, I picked someone’s tweet that said, “Hahaha, I love The Cure.” I responded, he responded, and we had a humorous exchange. In one of those “small world” moments, we discovered that we’d both lived in the same town in Florida, and that we were now both living on the west coast. Had our families both stayed in Florida, chances are pretty good that he might have ended up in my husband’s biology class at some point. Needless to say, I followed this funny kid on Twitter, and have never been disappointed by his cynical and entertaining outlook on life, nor by his wicked-eclectic taste in music.

In fact, I was so amused by him that I took some of his Tweets totally out of context and built a story around them. I made a main character, gave him a life, a love interest, and what I hoped was a voice that someone else would love as much as I did, and I wrote a whole manuscript. When I was done, I emailed him and told him what I’d done (worried that he’d be like, “Okay….creepy old lady…stalking my Tweets much?”) but he was both flattered and intrigued, and even read my early draft and offered feedback. He’s maintained all these years–as I’ve threatened to finally be ready to do something with the manuscript–that he’s fine with my using his words, and even keeping his Twitter name as my main character’s didn’t bother him. So I’m doing it. This summer the “kid” who inspired my work turns 21, and I’m getting this thing edited for the last time, changing the things that need to be updated, and self-publishing it under a pen name. But why a pen name when it’s my favorite protagonist and a work that I love? Because it’s something totally separate from what Holly and I have been working on together, and it’s also really different than the Florida Key story. I want it to stand alone, and so it will. I’ve got my book cover, lined up the formatter, and am wrapping it up this month, so there it is–in writing: new goal for the summer is to get this book done and out there, and then to re-focus on book 2 so that Holly and I have a nearly complete draft before school starts!

Spring Break.

We’re currently enjoying a rainy spring break in the Pacific Northwest. This afternoon we’re taking three pre-teen girls to see “Home” at the movies, but for now, I’m enjoying a little pre-lunch quiet time in our writing room next to the garden. I’ve got a query to re-work, editing to do, and my own story with which to get reacquainted (because, well, it’s been a while). With a cup of coffee, a space heater, Pandora, and my dog to keep my company, I just might get inspired to do some work. I probably should be working on my lesson plan for next week so that I’m prepared for my principal to observe me teaching, or maybe pecking away at the cumbersome online process that is the formal year-end teacher evaluation for our state, but…it’s spring break, so that’s all gonna have to wait.

It’s time to write. Happy Tuesday–I hope inspiration finds YOU!