Living the dream…halfway.

I’ve been working on writing and self-publishing now for about four years, and I want to be the first person to tell you that it’s not as easy as it seems. The writing part is easy–that’s the fun stuff. But the editing, the advertising, the nuts and bolts of it…that takes work. I started by looking up as much information as I could, reading message boards (I still do), buying books about self-publishing, and searching for other people’s success stories. So now whenever someone tells me they want to publish a book and asks if I can just “give them the basics,” I take a deep breath and sigh. The basics are: write, dive into the indie author world, research, and go for it. 

All I ever wanted to do when I was a kid was be a writer. Well, that’s not entirely true–my mom used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my first response was always “happy.” But my second answer was “a writer.” And now that I’ve published my 10th full-length novel, I think I can officially say that I’m a writer. Some people love what I write (thank you, wonderful people!), and some people hate it, but that’s okay. That’s what it means to be a writer or to create anything, really. For every person who gives me a review that feels way too personal (“I hope she’s not really a teacher–her grammar is horrible!” or “This feels like a middle-schooler wrote it. It’s trash!”), there are a handful of other people who ask when the next book is coming out, follow me on social media and say nice things, and buy whatever I put out. And this is thrilling! What an amazing feeling to have humans I’ve never met enjoying the things that I make up in my brain! And they’re so supportive and friendly…it’s wonderful. It makes it all worthwhile.

So now I can officially say I’m a writer, and I love that. But I feel like I’m only living the dream halfway, because I’m not doing it full-time. That’s the next goal, and it’s a “someday” goal. I deeply love my day job (in spite of the people who think my writing is so bad that I shouldn’t be a teacher! *insert a million laughing/crying emoji here so you can see what I think of that*) and I don’t want to quit that to write all day long yet, but…it’s in the future. I can see it: sitting in coffee shops with my laptop and the characters in my head; working in my writing room in the backyard with my storyboards and handwritten notes; books and books and books to my name. That’s when I’ll be living the dream all the way. 

But for now–this is incredible and totally satisfying. I just released Book Six in the Christmas Key series this week–Baby, It’s Warm Outside-and that felt like an incredible accomplishment. To think that I’ve somehow taken a story that started in my head ten years ago and turned it into nearly half a million words over the span of six novels and two novellas is…wild. To anyone who has read my books or just cheered me on–thank you from the bottom of my heart. It means everything to me to be living my dream even halfway, and it means even more that people care enough to be supportive! Thank you, thank you, thank you! ❤

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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How I made $6,635.12 by daydreaming about a tropical island…

Okay, now that I got you to look, I’ll admit right off the top that my “daydreams” had to flow from my brain and onto the computer screen in order for me to get paid, but that’s essentially all it was. I started writing my Christmas Key series simply because I liked the concept and enjoyed the way I got lost in my own stories, but when I finally self-published the first book in March 2016, I definitely had visions of making money from my writing.

In the two years since then, I’ve published four full-length novels in the series and two novellas, and I’ve paid for countless advertisements. But–like most other indie authors–I was holding out for the Big One…for the advertising opportunity that we all dream about because of its massive return on investment: I was hoping for a Bookbub. And on Halloween, I finally got one.

Bookbub ads are notoriously hard to land, and there’s a lot of information floating around out there about how to score one. Some people claim it’s pure luck, but I feel like the key for me was taking my books out of Kindle Unlimited and making them available on every site possible. When I finally got a Bookbub in October, I’d already applied for a Featured Deal six different times. But it wasn’t until this last submission when my books were already available everywhere that it finally happened.

And that’s where the $6,635.12 comes in. I set the first book in my series to “free” on all channels (There’s Always a Catch: Christmas Key Book One) and watched as the downloads started to roll in. After the first four or five days, I’d successfully given away over 23,000 copies of my first book. Now, not every single person who downloads your book is going to a) read it, b) like it, or c) buy the next books in the series, but when you give away that many free copies, you bank on a good chunk of them hopefully doing all 3 of those things.

I’ve tracked my returns starting November 1, 2017, and I have them through January 31, 2018. So for those three months, based on my initial investment of $149 to give my book away to a portion of the 1.2 million readers who’ve signed up for Bookbub’s Chick Lit deals, I made over six thousand dollars just watching people buy the next books in my series. Of course sales will taper off in the coming months until I put out the next book and find a new way to advertise (hopefully a Bookbub ad again in the near future!), but for the time being, I’m ridiculously happy that my hobby has finally yielded a return that makes me feel like I’m not just writing for an audience of one!

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!

The magic of instant friendship.

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I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

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And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

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“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

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!