Sunday, November 28, 2010

Developing a Gratitude Practice

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is "thank you," that would suffice.
- Meister Eckhart
In my family, Thanksgiving day is about spending time with extended family, stuffing ourselves with delicious food, and giving thanks for the things we have. But what I've come to discover through my journey as a writer is that giving thanks should not happen once a year but every single day.

As writers, we're constantly thinking about the next step. How can I rewrite that scene so it flows better? What is going to happen next in the plot? Where should I be advertising? When will that agent get back to me? Will that agent ever get back to me? And even when everything goes right and you publish a book, people immediately ask you when the next book is coming out. It's like we never get a chance to stop and enjoy what we've done.

That is, unless you develop a gratitude practice. You see, if you keep looking toward the next thing, you will never stop and enjoy what you've done, and then what's the point of it all? Instead of focusing on what you haven't done yet--and feeling despair for what you might never be able to do--it's critically important to focus on what you have done. Every day. You can post it in your Facebook status ("I'm at 25,000 words! Woo hoo!") or just quietly to yourself ("I have written three chapters. That's more than most people ever write. I am doing it!"). You can go back and read what you've written, marveling at the words on the screen that you created. And you can go back and read reviews and feel gratitude that your work is out there in the world.

Perhaps one of the best times to practice gratitude is when people ask you how your writing is going. My answer is always the same: "Great! I'm having so much fun with it. Writing novels is such an amazing experience." If people say "How are sales?" I answer in a similar vein: "Really good. It's so incredible to me that my book is out there in the world and people are reading it." Because that's what truly matters: my book is out there, people are reading it, I'm getting some nice reviews, and I'm still writing.

So try focusing every day on the things you've already done, whether it's acknowledging that you wrote a single page or have written a complete book, whether a friend sent you a nice email about your latest draft or a positive review appeared on your favorite blog. Practicing gratitude for what you've done will give you a surprising boost of energy. Whereas thinking about all the things you haven't done can make you question whether you're really cut out for this, focusing on what you have done reaffirms that you are already a writer.

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Work in Progress

On our way out to the desert a couple weeks ago, I caught a glance of my face in the side mirror and was surprised to see how much I’ve aged recently. I froze for a moment, fully aware that I was standing at a crossroads and had two options:
  1. Freak out and make myself miserable, spending the rest of my life fighting the inevitable, or:
  2. Roll with it.

Maybe it was because I was in such a happy, relaxed state of mind—we were on our way to Burning Man, after all—but miraculously, I was able to step through door #2. I decided that I am a work in progress, and that nature is going to continue to mold me and paint patterns on my skin in its own way, so I might as well embrace it. And really, I like the idea of being ever-changing. The Mona Lisa is always exactly the same, century after century, and just hangs there in an environmentally controlled case in a museum. I don’t want to be preserved--I want to live. It’s a radical notion in our society not to cling to our youth, which of course makes it all the more appealing to me.

I’ve found a similar joy in treating Rising Shadow as a work in progress. In the last year since I first published it, I’ve learned a ton about writing, publishing, cover design, marketing, and young adult fiction. The beauty of having self-published using print-on-demand is that as I learned ways to improve my writing, I was able to make little tweaks to the book and upload the latest files. I have had over 50 reviews of Rising Shadow, and along the way, I got incredibly useful feedback, starting from the very first blogger review on the fabulous blog P.S. I Love Books.

If you make little changes that don’t affect the page count or resize the book, you can still use the same ISBN. But if you’re going to make more major changes, you’ll need a new ISBN. Recently, I went through Rising Shadow from cover to cover and did a thorough edit, hacking out anything that wasn’t necessary, tightening up the dialogue, and taking all the great feedback I’ve gotten to heart. I’ve redesigned the cover and am working on a consistent design concept for all five covers. So I’ll be using a new ISBN for the second edition of Rising Shadow, but since they sell ISBNs in packages of ten, I have enough for two editions of each of the books in the series.

That opportunity to revise my story has been one of the things that makes me so glad I self-published. The fact that you can learn from your readers and improve the story, that it’s not set in stone once it’s out in the world, is a wonderful thing. Of course, there comes a time when you have to let it go and move on, and the second edition of Rising Shadow is my final version. But it’s been a fantastic journey, and I’m so grateful to all the amazing people who took the time to read and review my book and shared their insights with me. As my birthday approaches in a couple weeks, I feel so grateful for all the people I’ve met through this process and for making the wishes I made when I blew out the candles last year come true.

So I’m looking forward to blowing out one more candle this year, to seeing where this journey takes me, and to getting book three finished. Because although Rising Shadow will finally be done, the series is definitely still a work in progress.

Just like me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Courting Your Muse


Sometimes it flows like water, pouring words over me as I desperately type, trying to keep up with the torrent. But sometimes, it's more like a faint breeze in the distance, something I can hear rustling in the trees but can't feel.

Recently, I've been wondering where my muse went. I haven't taken her absence too seriously, because I know that my motivation happens in cycles. At work, for example, I'll sometimes hit down cycles when I can't seem to get any work done for weeks at a time. I've learned that if I am just patient with myself, get lots of extra rest and don't panic about it, my motivation returns, usually with a vengeance, and I'm soon all caught up again.

But then yesterday, as I was crying my eyes out over a difficult change that just took place, I started feeling inspired to write again, and that's when it hit me: my muse is not interested in the mundane feelings of peace and calm. She likes drama and turbulent emotions. She isn't interested in being around me when things are "fine." Rather, she always seems to show up when things are wildly exciting or horribly stressful. And I realized that since I started my new job almost six months ago, where I've been really happy, that's about the time my muse started not showing up for work.

I stopped crying long enough to think this through. Several years ago when I was in a really bad situation at work, that's when I started writing poetry. A few years after that, when I went through another bad time at work, I suddenly started writing screenplays. And at my last job, she made a grand appearance right after there was a big round of layoffs. This time, she dumped the plot of all five books in the Soterians series into my head over the course of a half an hour, and for the last two years, I have been her dutiful scribe.

But this lead me to a fascinating realization: that although in the back of my head I've dreamed of being able to write fiction full-time, it would never work for me. Because the truth is, my muse doesn't want to be my wife--she wants to be my mistress. She wants to be the one I escape to when things are crazy. She wants to take me away from it all and immerse me in another world where I can fly. She is not interested in being the breadwinner or standing by while I do my taxes.

And in this realization, I have found the ultimate freedom, because there's no longer any illusion that to be successful, your art should make money. The idea that you're "selling out" by doing something other than your art is a total fallacy. What could show higher devotion to your muse than working a day job so you can afford canvas or guitar strings or ink? What better fodder for stoking the fire of inspiration than living in the world, working hard, and facing challenges every day that you don't necessarily want to face? How can your muse make you fall in love with her all over again by taking you away from it all if you are spending your life sipping drinks on the beach?

Don't get me wrong: there's absolutely nothing wrong with making money off your art. If that's the outcome of your work, that's fantastic, and there are many artists who do their art full-time and make a living at it. But the difference is in my intention. My focus has to be writing stories that make my heart beat faster and transport me to another world. If people want to give me money in exchange for those stories, that's a completely secondary process. But if I write with the intention of making money, I've essentially turned into a pimp. And that's no way to court your muse.

So as I dried my eyes, I promised my muse that although I love my job, it's not a threat to her. There's plenty of drama in other areas of my life that she can take me away from. In response, she just smiled coyly and whispered an idea for...a reality TV show.

Which just goes to show that you can court her all you like, but you simply can't force inspiration.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the Shoulders of Giants

On our recent vacation in Scotland, it was pouring one Sunday as we waited for the museum to open, so I suggested we duck into a cafe across the street to wait it out. As we stood in line at the Elephant House to order coffee, I saw a sign that made my heart stand still.

This was the cafe where J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

I am a huge Harry Potter fan. My copies of the books have all fallen apart from so many readings. I used to sit with my daughter in her room, sewing little quilted eye pillows while we listened to the Harry Potter books on tape. Whenever the books came out, we attended the midnight parties and came home with three copies so we wouldn't have to share. Heck, my sister even changed her wedding date because it was going to be the morning after the release of The Order of the Phoenix, and she didn't want me to be reading during the ceremony (I was her matron of honor, after all).

So when I returned to the cafe a couple days later with my laptop and sat at a table with the magnificent Edinburgh Castle visible through the window, I spent some time thinking about those famous books and about what inspires us to write. The cafe was busy and loud, and I could only imagine what it must have been like to write in that environment in longhand, her infant baby fussing at her side. Without question, she must have been completely driven to tell that story. It simply had to come out.

But I realized that it's more than the story that drives us. It's the heroes who came before us, both the writers we admire and their characters we love. It's the whisperings of Hermione and Dumbledore, who inform my wiser characters. Hagrid's giant heart, whose lingering warmth undoubtedly influenced my Christoph. And Harry himself, whose uncertain footing in the magical world was so easy for me to relate to that it allowed me to tell Ashlyn's story.

So as I sat and tried to soak up any of the remaining mojo that guided J. K. Rowling, I realized that although having an inspiring place to write is so important (and indeed, I wrote a whole chapter in what felt like five minutes but was actually the fastest hour of my life), we really carry inside of us all the inspiration we need. Those are the gifts given to us by the writers who came before us, and hopefully we'll pass similar gifts along to other aspiring writers later on.

But I must say: if I had the opportunity, I'd do all my writing at the Elephant House in Edinburgh.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Putting Yourself Out There

I haven't posted in a while, because in the last month, I did three things that scared the hell out of me, and I needed time to process before I blogged about it. Because putting yourself out there, doing what is so uncomfortable and scary and important and valuable is the holy grail for writers.

It's all very well to sit at a computer and send emails out to bloggers. Or to post on your Facebook page or tweet about the latest book you're working on. Or to write blog posts.

But going to events and introducing yourself, pressing your book into people's hands, and standing up in a public place and reading excerpts from the work you slaved over, not trusting your senses to tell you how the reading is being received and not having the courage to glance up from your book to look into their faces...that's where the rubber hits the road, my friends.

First stop on the Triple Crown of Fear was Book Expo of America (BEA). I made the decision to go at the last minute. It seemed crazy to drop everything and get on a plane to New York with no real plan or reason for going there. But I just felt that I had to go and see what the vibe was like, see what publishers were out there in case one of them might seem like a good fit for my books, and maybe get ideas for having a booth next year. Besides, the first annual Book Blogger Convention was happening the day after BEA ended, and I was really excited to go there and meet bloggers. I've also hired an assistant in New York, whom I was dying to meet in person and who promised to hold my hand and take me around to meet people, so I finally decided to put my fear aside and just do it.

Photo source was insane. An entire exhibition hall absolutely packed with people and booths and banners and speakers and oh my lord I don't handle crowds all that well... I stepped outside at one point in tears, completely overwhelmed after trying to talk to a couple of people, completely sure I didn't belong there and was a total outsider, and feeling very alone and lost. But after taking some deep breaths and making a well-timed call to my mom, who gave me the brilliant advice that I wasn't there to try to sell myself but to interview others to see who might have something to offer me, I felt much better and went back inside with renewed energy. I met one of the principals at Llewelyn, who had a whole booth devoted to Flux, which I realized is the perfect imprint for The Soterians series. I introduce myself to him and got the business card of the acquisition editor, whom I immediately called (left a voice mail) and emailed. I haven't heard anything back yet, but that's okay. I think my books are perfect for Flux, and if it's right, they'll get around to contacting me. If it's not meant to be, I'm still perfectly happy being self-published.

That same night was the meet-and-greet reception for the Book Blogger Convention. This was even scarier than BEA. Because I had so little time to plan this trip, I hadn't even thought to have bookmarks printed up, but my wonderful assistant took me around and wrote my web site address on the back of her cards and gave them out to the people we talked to. And although it was very scary for me, I had a great time. I met bloggers in person whose names I'd heard a million times. I had several people say "Oh yeah, I've heard of your books!" And best of all, the next day at the end of the convention, after I'd stood up and introduced myself in front of the huge room to ask a question, one blogger came up to me and said she was reading my book and was excited to introduce herself to me when she heard who I was. I think I startled her when I threw my arms around her and told her I loved her, but good heavens, it was my first fan. That was a pretty heady experience.

The last event in the triple crown was a book signing at Barnes & Noble last Saturday. The weird thing about this one was that even though it should have been the scariest of the three, I wasn't all that nervous. Maybe it was because I knew the turnout would be low because it was the first gorgeous Saturday we'd had, and the World Cup was keeping people glued to their sets. Or maybe it was because I knew I'd have a friendly audience. Or maybe it was that I was simply getting used to putting myself out there and had learned a lot from the previous two events. Whatever the reason, it just felt so natural and wonderful to walk up and see a huge sign in front of the store announcing my arrival and to set up the table and start talking to people. I was walking on air the entire three hours I was there. Even when I read from Rising Shadow and was worried that the chapter I was reading wasn't all that interesting, I was still having a blast. I got into the characters, read each of their voices with enthusiasm and dramatic effect, and totally enjoyed myself. I handed out bookmarks to passers-by, and I even sold a copy to a completely random person. That was pretty amazing.

So what did I learn from all of this? First, you have to put yourself out there, no matter how much it scares you. There is something so beautiful about putting your actions behind your art and saying "This matters, and I'm doing everything I can to get it out into the world." Second, try to have a wingman if at all possible. Having my assistant at the reception and several members of my family at the book signing gave me way more strength than I would have had on my own. Third, even if nothing comes of an event, it's great experience, because the more you do it, the easier it will become. Talking to strangers becomes easier. Saying your elevator pitch (your fifteen-second description of your book) becomes more natural. Your smile becomes more relaxed, and you come across as one of those really cool, down-to-earth authors that everyone is excited to go home and tell their friends about. All it took was three events in just over two weeks to go from crying on the phone to my mom to feeling at ease and confident at a Barnes & Noble book signing, for heaven's sake. If I can do it, I'm fairly certain anyone can.

Just please remember to print bookmarks before you go.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Potty Training for Self-Published Authors

In case you haven't figured it out by now, I love book bloggers. I love how they tirelessly read and read and read and selflessly share their insights with the rest of us. They spend a lot of time and money on this hobby, and a wonderful side effect of their efforts is publicity for authors. Free publicity, mind you, except for the cost of the book and postage when you send them a review copy, if they didn't already buy the book themselves. It's a beautifully symbiotic relationship: we write the books that feed their voracious appetites for good stories, and they blog about our books, giving us exposure to hundreds of followers in one go.

Given the remarkable service bloggers are providing to us, you would think all authors would treat bloggers like the royalty they are. Right?

Wrong. There is an astonishing number of authors--sadly, many of them self-published authors--who seem to feel that just because they wrote a book, they are entitled to sit back and enjoy watching their book go viral without any effort on their part at all, and that the world somehow owes them reviews and publicity and fame and fortune. They treat our beloved bloggers with disdain, badgering them with emails asking why their review hasn't come out yet. And they harass booksellers--a publicist recently told me that an independent bookseller she knows gets 20 to 30 self-published authors a day coming in asking them to carry their books. Mind you, these are often the same authors who didn't bother spending the time or money editing their books, expecting that readers will not only send them feedback if anything is amiss, but that they'll actually pay for the privilege. (It reminds me very much of software companies who put out buggy software and simply expect users to do the quality testing for them...on their own dime. But that's a whole separate rant.) It's no wonder so many people in the book industry frown on self-published authors. We're a very mixed lot.

So how can you separate yourself from the unprofessional authors and set yourself apart as one of the shining examples of what self-published authors can be?

1. Always be courteous.
It's ridiculous that this needs to be stated, but it does. I can't believe the stories I hear about authors who request that a blogger review their novel, only to then send the blogger nastygrams because they haven't reviewed their book yet or they didn't like the review once it came out. I don't care how bad a review is--if someone took the time to read your book and comment on it, extend them the courtesy of a professional response, or just don't say anything at all.

2. Do your homework.
Again, it makes me cringe that I have to point this out, but there are authors who find a list of bloggers (which someone took the trouble to compile) and then simply spam them all with a blanket request to review their book, regardless of the fact that a) those lists usually say which types of books the blogger is interested in, and b) most bloggers also clearly spell out their review policies/interests on their blog. Why on earth would you want someone who doesn't care about your genre to read and review your book? Don't be lazy and expect other people to do your homework for you--only send requests to bloggers, reviewers, and bookstores who are actually interested in your genre.

3. Edit your work.
I've brought this one up several times, and I can't stress it enough. Do NOT expect your readers to edit your work for you, or worse, try to pass off horrible grammar and punctuation as "a unique voice." And if someone is kind enough to point out a typo in your book, for heaven's sake fix it and upload a new version. That's one of the key advantages of print-on-demand that we self-published authors have over our traditionally published colleagues who have tons of stock they can't just up and replace. I don't care if it costs you another $30 for a proof copy and you have to stop production for a few days--do the right thing and put the highest-quality work out there that you can.

4. Be gracious about interviews.
Recently, I read a comment from an author who was all up in arms about bloggers asking questions about her book that had already been covered a million times in other interviews and for asking stupid questions like what's your favorite color. Again, most bloggers are people who do this for a hobby. They are not paid professionals. If it annoys you so much to answer a question that's already been answered, copy and paste your answer from a previous interview. If you don't like the more mundane questions, just don't answer them, and maybe suggest some other questions that might be more thought-provoking. But remember--every blogger has a specific following, and while one blog's followers might be very interested in hearing you wax philosophical on how your book is a searing indictment of human frailty, another blog's followers might be much more interested in hearing which flavor of Ben and Jerry's you prefer. Either way, be gracious about it, and better yet, be a good sport and just answer the questions.

5. Be patient.
This overlaps with the other categories, but really take this one to heart. Do you see how many books a blogger lists in his or her "In My Mailbox" post each week? They're busy, they have a lot of books to read, and they'll get to yours when they can. It's fine to send them a brief email to confirm whether they received your book that you sent them, but then drop it. Yes, there are some bloggers out there who are only after free books, who request a review copy and then never review your book. But these are very few and far between, and unless you FedEx'd a copy to Timbuktu, you're not out that much money. So be patient, set up a Google alert with your name and book title so that you get an email alert whenever a post shows up about your book, and then let it go. Whenever a review appears about Rising Shadow or Merger, I see it as a gift--a wonderful, happy event that always makes my day, rather than my God-given right simply because I spent $10 sending them a copy of my book.

So there are my top five tips for setting yourself apart as a professional self-published author. Please leave comments if you have other tips to share...bloggers, here's your chance to share the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Finding Balance When Receiving Feedback

If there's one thing I've learned from being a technical writer for the last 19 years, it's to have a thick skin when it comes to getting feedback. I am so used to having my drafts come back covered with red ink that I no longer labor under the illusion that my words are somehow sacred or divinely inspired. Instead, I get really excited when people give me feedback, because it means they took the time to read what I wrote and paid enough attention to give me comments. I think developing this attitude toward getting feedback is absolutely essential for a writer.

That being said, you must also be careful to take all feedback with a grain of salt, and part of what helps you with this is getting many different people to read your work. If you have only two people read your book, you can get wildly different opinions and not know which way to turn. But if ten people read your book, and seven of them tell you your dialogue is too stilted, chances are you should listen to that feedback.

A couple examples of this came up for me recently. Two of my favorite bloggers sent me fantastic and detailed feedback on Merger, the second book in the Soterians series, which I just released. They both liked it, but one of them felt that there wasn't enough romance and she missed the interactions between Kai and Ashlyn that had been more plentiful in book one, Rising Shadow. The other blogger, on the other hand, said that there was too much romance for his taste and that he wished there'd been more action. I value both of their opinions very highly, and knowing that they represent two different audiences for my book, I felt that this critique meant that I had actually gotten it just right. If I'd just paid attention to one or the other, I might have been tempted to take my next book too far in one direction, so getting this type of varied feedback was very useful.

The other example was the feedback I got from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Rising Shadow made it to the second round, where two judges read an excerpt from your book and give you feedback. Their opinions were again pretty different; the first one liked it a lot and said she was left feeling like she wanted to find out more, whereas the second one said it left her feeling like "so what?" The second judge acknowledged that she'd just read another entry very similar to mine and that it might have impacted her impression of my book. The vibe I got from the first judge was a lot of energy and enthusiasm, whereas the second one just sounded tired, making me wonder if my excerpt was the last of the 250 she'd had to review. This is incredibly important to remember: no matter who is giving you feedback, they are people, and as such, there's no such thing as a completely objective review. Their feedback will depend on what else they just read, how they're feeling that day, even (as one agent said about her process of sifting through submissions) what they had for lunch.

So the upshot is that when you receive feedback, it's important that you a) put yourself into as centered and receptive a mood as you can, b) listen deeply without being defensive and try to see where you can improve your writing based on the feedback, and c) take it all with a grain of salt, because no matter how well-regarded or brilliant your reviewer happens to be, there are many factors at play that affect their perception of your work.

In other words, keep in mind that neither your words nor those of your reviewer are sacred. Once you truly grasp this, you'll find receiving feedback is actually a wonderful experience--or, at the very least, slightly less painful.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Overcoming Laziness

"I doh wanna." You'd be amazed how often that phrase whines through my head, usually followed by the tempting image of lying sprawled on my back in the middle of the living room, staring at the ceiling. I used to assume this posture regularly (I called it having "floor time") as a way to relax. It usually ended in a cat or child jumping on me, but those few moments of sinking into the floor, just staring at the ceiling, have always made me feel so completely at peace, like the entire world had been lifted from my shoulders.

Sometimes, the impulse to shirk is valid--I've overbooked myself, and I need downtime. I have a lot of enthusiasm for my writing, my work, and my family and friends, but the flip side of that enthusiasm is that I'm also very prone to overbooking myself. And when I do, the voice whines at me.

But other times, I'm just feeling lazy. I look at the laundry that needs to be put away. I doh wanna. I look at a place in my book that needs rewriting. I doh wanna. It's the first beautiful day outside in weeks and I really ought to get out there and do something. I doh wanna.

So how do you overcome laziness?

First, make sure you really have taken care of yourself and that it's truly just laziness. If you're exhausted, a 20-minute nap can be the most efficient investment of time you can make.

Second, make sure you're hydrated. This sounds so simple, but most of the time when I feel tired and lazy, I'm dehydrated and am wilting. Two glasses of water later, I perk up almost immediately.

Third, take care of the most important things first. If you're procrastinating on getting your taxes done, it's going to make it very hard to do anything else. Get that sucker out of the way, and you'll be amazed at the energy you have freed up for other things. Ironically, procrastination is one of the most energy-sucking things you can do. When faced with something large like taxes that I know I must do but can't bear to deal with, my mantra becomes "Just power through", and that's what I do. I walk quickly to the filing cabinet, grab my paperwork, and power through it. And after, I feel much better and ready to face other things on my to-do list.

Fourth, after you've taken care of steps one through three, start with small, easy tasks, such as running a spell-check on your manuscript or proofreading the last few pages you were working on. By completing an easy task or two, you start building momentum, and then the bigger tasks suddenly feel easy. Boom, laziness is gone, energy is back, and you're off and running.

Perhaps the most important tip of all, though, is NEVER beat yourself up about being lazy. The little voice that says "I doh wanna" is the very same voice that later on tells you how worthless and lazy you are. A much better approach is to agree with it and call its bluff by saying "It's true, I really don't want to do this right now." And just when it starts to purr and imagine the lovely time you'll have shirking and then later beating yourself up about it, simply add "So I guess I better run through those four steps to get my mojo back. And then after I've gotten this thing done, I think I'll have a nice hot bath as a reward."

Hmph, busted. There's no way the lazy voice can argue with that kind of logic, so it sulks. But remember, if it tries to come up with some clever arguments about why you really do need to be shirking, you can always say the magic words right back to it:

I doh wanna.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Communicating with your Muse

My muse isn't always what I'd call a good communicator.

She sits me down in front of the computer and speaks in whispers, often talking too fast for me to keep up as I furiously type the story she's weaving. Or she waits until I'm in the shower to throw an idea at me, when I've got shampoo in my eyes and am completely unable to write down her insights. Sometimes, as I sit there staring blankly at the page, asking "Okay, you lead me down this bizarre what?" I can feel her simply staring back at my placidly for a moment before she tells me just to keep at it and that she'll meet me around the next corner.

Sometimes, she takes me in a direction I don't want to go. "What are we doing here? This doesn't make sense! My characters wouldn't do that. Would they?" In those moments, one of two things happens:

  • I toss out what I wrote, and I realize that I just needed to get that scene out of my brain and onto the page to clear space for a better path, OR

  • She's taken me down an unexpected path that bears wonderful fruit once I make my way around that corner.

In both cases, I can see her standing there, smiling calmly at me, reassuring me that nothing is wasted and the whole process is perfect. Somehow, she's never impatient with my distrust of her seemingly wild schemes, nor my fear that she's leading me to a void from which I'll never find my way back.

Because let's face it: one of our greatest fears as writers is that we've written our last word, that we have nothing left to say, and that we'll be staring at the blank page for the rest of our lives. That we've spent all our creative capital, and our muse has abandoned us for a more worthy channel.

But while she might get very quiet sometimes, I know my muse is always there, because she's me. The part of me that's curious about life, about people, about the world around me--that part is taking in information, processing it, and turning it into interesting and creative ideas. There truly is nothing new under the sun, just new twists on the same themes. But you have to get out there and experience life if you expect to come up with those twists.

So if you're finding yourself at odds with your muse, don't blame him or her for being a poor communicator. Set your expectations more realistically, learn to listen to the way she likes to talk, get out there and be a student of life, and most importantly, try to embrace the uncertainty and fear that comes up around those times when you can't see where she's taking you or hear her voice at all. We put our protagonists in hopeless predicaments all the time, so if nothing else, you can use it as an opportunity to walk in your character's shoes for a little while. Or at the very least, we can use it as an opportunity to get away from the computer and interact with the people outside of our heads for a change.

Oh, and one more thing: when you hear her laughing, she's laughing with you, not at you. Really.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Judging a Book by its Cover

When I was writing Rising Shadow, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted on the cover. A horizontal slice of a black & white face. A black background. Green text for the title, and the eye colored in with the same green. I had a vision, and I created my cover and my web site to match. I was pretty proud of what I achieved.

Trouble is, I'm one of the few people who likes it.

I worked with my good friend Marianne, who is an artist and does some incredibly cool graphic design work, to come up with a logo and a cool design for the back of the book. She created exactly what I was looking for on the logo, and she made this torn paper effect on the back of the book so I could add an excerpt from my protagonist's journal. Then, she gently suggested that my cover might need some work and tried to help me polish it up, but I wouldn't have it. I liked it the way it was, damn it.

But now, five months later, after seeing enough reviews saying that the cover of Rising Shadow is lousy but the story is great, I decided Marianne was right. I needed to work with a pro. And not just a graphic designer, but someone who specializes in book covers.

This leads me to my point: there are two key things you can NOT skimp on when you are self-publishing. One is an editor. No matter how careful a writer you are, you have to have an editor. Period. The second, of course, is the cover.

I don't care which age group you're writing for--the cover is absolutely critical. It's the thing that first grabs our attention. It's what makes us pick up a book or read its summary online. A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and the cover is the thing that either draws us into a book or turns us away.

That being said, good covers aren't cheap. I decided that I had already tried the cheap route (doing it myself), so for book two, Merger, I needed to find a real pro. After searching the web a bit, I finally found a site that listed several cover designers. I browsed through their sites until I found one whose work really spoke to me and had the same feel I was going for: simple, striking design, not ornate, but polished and clearly professional instead of homemade. I sent him an email, he responded within a couple of days, and he's already sent me a very cool initial design that holds a lot of promise. It's already a thousand times better than what I was trying to do myself for Merger. And if I love the final product the way I think I'm going to, I'm going to bite the bullet and have him redesign Rising Shadow's cover, too.

It hurts to let go of something I was so proud of. But when you stumble upon a random review of your cover like this:

The cover feels...lazy. Like the cover artist just decided to throw on the title, author name, and a few other things along with some eyes.

...well, you know it's time to swallow your pride and call in the professionals.

If you don't have the budget to spend on a professional cover designer, you can try hooking up with an emerging artist who might do it for cheaper, such as a student in a graphic design course who needs a subject for his or her final project. Or you can get a friend to help out. Most importantly, look carefully at the other covers in your book's genre and try to do something that's in a similar vein but maybe has an original twist. If you're writing a romance novel, you don't want the cover to look like a text book, and if you're writing a non-fiction book, you don't want to have a hulking he-man carrying a scantily clad damsel to a distant castle. Get a strong sense of what's working in your genre and design accordingly. The cover-designer tools from services like CreateSpace are pretty good for non-fiction, but for fiction books, you have to have something more compelling.

Above all, learn to listen. Get as much feedback as you can, knowing that opinions will probably vary quite a bit. But you'll likely hear some common themes. Try not to hear what you want to hear but listen objectively. If you hear "I like it, but what's that blob in the corner?" more than once, go back to the drawing board and fix the blob.

Lastly, give credit where it's due. I left a comment on the blog post that critiqued my cover, thanking her for her feedback and telling her that I had in fact designed it myself (busted!) and was now working with a pro, and would she mind reviewing the next book with the professional cover? There's no guarantee that she's going to like the second cover either, but at least I can't be accused of being lazy this time. Plus, if someone has taken the time to review any part of your book, I think it's important to thank them and encourage them. If you haven't figured it out yet, bloggers are a writer's greatest allies, and we owe them a lot for devoting so much time to reading and promoting books.

So before you publish your book, bite the bullet and get the best cover you can. After all the time you spent slaving over the interior of the book, it's the least you can do to dress it up properly before its big debut into the world.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Turning Dreams into Goals

In my last post, I talked about how important it is to think carefully about what your goals are as a writer so that you take the right approach to publishing. But as I was riding the train home the other night, I realized that despite my key goal of just getting my book into the hands of readers who might like it, I also have a special dream that before now I didn’t even realize existed. It’s not to be on Oprah, or to see my book in Borders, or to be on the New York Times bestseller list. Instead, I realized that my secret dream is to be on the train one day during my regular commute and to see a stranger reading a copy of my book. I fantasized about how amazing it would be to look up and see the cover of Rising Shadow staring back at me, the reader deeply absorbed in it, tuning out the noise and bustle of the rush hour crowd, escaping into the world of The Soterians that I created. I’m not sure whether it even matters that they’re enjoying the book. Indeed, when I pursue the fantasy, I ask the person how they’re enjoying it, and they say “it’s pretty good.” And that’s it. That’s the whole dream.

So is this just a dream, or can it become a reality?

When I took time-management classes from FranklinCovey several years ago, one quote the instructor used that really stuck out for me was “A goal is a dream with a deadline” (Napolean Hill). We learned how to take our dreams and turn them into a series of tasks with deadlines, which suddenly turned a lofty “some day” kind of dream into something that was actually achievable. For example, we looked at how your dream might be to travel to Europe, and then we broke it down into tasks like researching where to go and how much it would cost, setting up a budget that would allow you to save enough money, getting a passport, and getting approval from your manager to take the time off. Suddenly, we had a set of achievable tasks that would allow us to make the dream a reality.

The instructor said that just about any dream you might have is achievable this way. But we were also cautioned that before you turn a dream into a goal, you need to evaluate why you have that dream and whether it’s really aligned with your core values. Because it’s our core values, she explained, that must drive everything we do, or else we are wasting our energy and our lives on things that don’t actually matter. And as you’ve probably noticed, when something doesn’t truly matter to you, you’re much less likely to do it.

So take a close look at your core values—anything from “I am a loving wife and mother” to “I work hard to hone my skills as a writer” and see where your dreams fit in. In my case, one of my core values is “I enjoy the process of writing and get satisfaction simply from getting my books into readers’ hands.” When I analyze my dream more closely, I realize that it doesn’t represent having become a great writer or making a sale on the book—it’s purely about having completed the exchange of writing the book and getting it into someone’s hands. Understanding this motivation goes a long way in helping me figure out how best to turn this dream into a goal and the tasks I need to complete to achieve it. I might set up a booth outside the train station and sell copies of my book. Or I might simply leave some copies on the train with a note on them asking people to take them home, read them, and then leave them on the train for someone else to read. Either way, I know I’ll achieve my goal some day, now that it’s no longer just a dream and I’m clear on why it matters to me. The next task is to figure out the steps I need to take and then assign deadlines to them.

What are some of your dreams, and how do they fit in with your core values?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Into the Fray: Self-publishers vs. Traditionalists

When I decided to self-publish, I knew that I was travelling a foreign road without a guide and that there would be bumps along the way. But little did I know that I’d be jumping into what is beginning to feel like a holy war, with self-publishers on one side and traditionalists on the other. I’m hearing the most interesting opinions bandied about, including the assertion that self-publishing isn’t really publishing and is no different from vanity publishing. That self-publishing is going to flood the market with crap, and readers won’t be able to find good reads anymore. That being accepted by an agent and then by a publisher is the only true validation that you’re a real writer.

But these same people are making some bizarre arguments that a writer has some sort of divine entitlement to write and then pass their precious words off to a machine that will package, market, and sell their book. That writers should never have to promote their work or pay a single cent toward its publication. If you pay anything at all, they insist, you’ve been swindled, and you’re not really a published author.

This is, of course, completely ludicrous. Last time I checked, it takes a lot of query letters, excerpts, drafts, rewrites, lost manuscripts, phone calls, and travel to bring your book to market with a traditional publisher, and none of that is free. How much have you spent on printing and postage alone? Let alone on antacids to counter the effects of waiting for replies from agents and then again from publishers? How many hours have you spent trying to perfect your query letters, time that would have been better spent revising your manuscript? Every author spends money, so I fail to see how spending $39 on a premium account with CreateSpace counts as being swindled.

Here’s the deal: there is a place for traditional publishing, self-publishing, and vanity publishing. It all depends on what your goals are. And I think as writers, we should think very carefully and honestly about our goals and why we hold them.

Let’s start with vanity publishing. If your friend told you that her dream was to swim with dolphins, you would think nothing of her spending a few hundred dollars on travel and expenses to make that dream a reality. If your friend’s dream is to write a novel and just hold it in her hands, but she has no skills to design a cover or do the interior, then a vanity press is the equivalent of the service that takes her swimming with dolphins. Her sense of accomplishment when she holds her book in her hands is worth the price of admission. There’s absolutely no reason for her to query agents or try to get a traditional publisher. HOWEVER, if her goal is to make money off the book, vanity publishers become a problem, because they are in the business of making money off of authors, and they will be more than happy to sell you thousands of dollars in services with the false promise of making you a success. This is where I agree with the traditionalists who hate the vanity presses. It’s easy to fall prey to upsell along the way, and a writer must be aware that in almost all cases, this is not a viable way to get your book out there, in large part because the quality of their cover design and editing services is pretty lacking. As long as you recognize these presses for what they are and don’t think they’re some kind of shortcut for “being published,” they’re a perfectly fine service.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who insist that going the traditional publishing route is the only valid choice. For some, the reason is simply that they don’t believe they are a legitimate author until they are accepted by someone they’ve never met--be it an agent, publisher, or critic--whom they assume is smarter than them. (Note that simply getting their book into the hands of readers they’ve never met doesn’t count, for some reason.) If that kind of external validation is necessary for you, then traditional publishing is absolutely the way to go. HOWEVER, if you think traditional publishing means that you’re going to sit back and collect royalties while someone else does publicity for you, you’re sadly mistaken. Publishers have a limited amount of time and money to spend on publicity, and chances are excellent that they won’t spend it on you. Many authors are surprised to discover that they get very little support from their publisher and that they’re back at square one doing their own publicity. So they’re paying a percentage of their royalties to an agent who did nothing but get them a contract with a publisher who printed the book and then left them to sell it themselves. Putting “publisher will handle all publicity” in your marketing plan is like putting “win lottery” in your financial plan.

Speaking of your financial plan, if you think a traditional publisher is the only way to go because your primary goal is to be a rich and famous author, think again. Bestselling authors are starting to reveal just how little money they actually make, which is the best gift they could have given to aspiring writers. (Meghan Ward has written some excellent posts about this lately in her Writerland blog.) Say it with me right now: there will never be another J. K. Rowling. The money you make off writing supplements your income. It’s not going to be your bread and butter unless you’re a) a technical writer, journalist, or other non-creative writer (although I’d argue that much of the technical writing I do is highly creative), or b) extremely lucky. See above point about winning the lottery.

Lastly, some people complain that they’ll never get on the bookstore shelves if they self-publish. News flash: few authors with traditional publishers get on the bookstore shelves, either. There is a highly limited amount of space on those shelves, whereas online bookstores have unlimited catalog space. So you need to ask yourself why it’s so important to be on the shelves of Borders, especially since more and more people are doing their shopping online. Sure, it’s important for discoverability, and as one blogger put it very astutely, you’ll never be a best seller unless your book is in as many places as possible (and at a discount). But it’s still a long shot, and you risk paying back a lot of royalties when these stores return all your books in shabby condition so that you can’t resell them.

In between using a vanity press and trying to get a contract with a traditional publisher is the world of self-publishing. This can mean anything from creating your own publishing company to simply uploading your files to a print-on-demand (POD) service. Again, the route you choose depends on your goals. If you are going to publish multiple books and want to make a business out of it, it makes sense to create your own publishing company. But if you just want to publish one or more titles and get them into the hands of interested readers, you can go with a POD service like CreateSpace or Lulu, which costs nothing up front and makes your book available on Amazon. With CreateSpace, if you pay a one-time fee of $39 for the premium service, you get higher royalties and have access to the distribution program, which will make your book available via distributors such as Ingram and Baker and Taylor. (NB: I found that Lightning Source offers a better deal on distribution than CreateSpace and that CreateSpace gives a higher royalty on books sold via Amazon, so I use both.) If you need help designing the interior and cover of the book, most POD publishers offer additional services for a fee. But be careful: as soon as you start purchasing services from these places, you’re stepping into the vanity press arena where the business model is to make money off of you. I think it’s far better to find a professional editor, graphic artist, web designer, and any other professional service you need by getting recommendations and evaluating samples of their work before hiring them. You don’t have this option when purchasing services from POD publishers, so you have no idea what kind of quality you’ll be getting. Of course, the same can be said for using a traditional publisher: you don’t have much say over the editor and graphic artist they assign to you.

So in a nutshell, here are the strategies you might take depending on your goals:

Make millions of dollars.

1. Use any publishing model.
2. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
3. Buy a winning lottery ticket.

Get on the bookstore shelves.

1. Try to go with a traditional publisher for best chances at distribution. If you self-publish, be sure to price your book high enough to cover costs and to give megastores the 55% discount they want.
2. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
3. Work with local bookstores, who are more willing to stock local authors and will often sell books on consignment.
4. Publicize the hell out of your book so that the store will order more copies from you.

Write a great book and get it into the hands of interested readers.

1. Work with a great editor and spend a good deal of time editing and polishing your book.
2. For best results, work with a graphic designer to design a compelling cover that will also look good as a small image online.
3. Self-publish through a POD service.
4. Have a damn good marketing plan and commit to spending lots of time on publicity.
5. Send review copies to bloggers who write about your genre to help generate buzz directly with your audience.
6. Do a virtual book tour through blog sites that offer them.

Finish a novel and hold it in your hands.

1. Write a page a day. In a year, you’ll have your novel.
2. Use the templates on CreateSpace or Lulu to design your interior and cover.
3. Upload your files and order your proof copy.
4. Order additional copies as desired for family and friends.

In summary, the most important thing is to honestly assess your goals, be realistic about why you have them, and forget about winning the lottery. Through hard work both before and after publishing your book, you will get it into hands of people who want to read it, which is really what this whole writing thing is supposed to be about in the first place. No matter what approach you choose, enjoy the ride, because whether you write a best-seller or just print one copy, there really is nothing like holding your completed book in your hands.

But most important of all, forget about the money and fame and just write.