Reinventing Myself—it’s scarier than it sounds

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16There’s a great Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel, Breathing Room, in which the heroine is a self-help guru whose fiancée embezzles all her money, and leaves her a laughing stock with her career in ruins.  She runs off to a romantic villa in Italy, gets involved with a fabulously handsome actor who always plays villains, and it’s a really fun book.

But the line that has always stuck with me is when she meets the actor’s agent, and he says: “If you were my client, I’d tell you to reinvent yourself.”

The heroine does just that, and ends up even more rich and famous than before.  (Not to mention marrying the handsome actor.)  But that line lingered in my mind…even before my own career hit the rocks.

the last chapter of my old career, as a well-published but mid-list author, the recession had hit the bookstores hard.  Borders died, and Barnes & Noble was in critical condition.  But when the recession struck, both of the only two large bookstore chains in the country responded by stocking only books they knew would sell in large numbers—the bestsellers and popular series—which left mid-list authors with very few sales for anything that came out in those years.

My first Knight & Rogue book, released before the recession, sold about as well as my other books—solidly mid-list.  But then the recession hit, and the big chains ordered only a handful of book 2, and an even smaller handful of book 3.  And with a bad sales record for books 2 and 3, there’s not a major publisher in the world who would put out books 4 through 6.

The agent I talked to after my old agent retired (great plot complication, if this was fiction and not my life) advised me to change my name, write something completely different, and start over from scratch.  And I suppose that’s one way to reinvent yourself.

(Fleeing to a romantic villa in Italy was out of the question, for a number of reasons, not least that I’ve never been as rich as the heroine of Breathing Room.)

But three out of four of my fan emails were from people asking for more Knight & Rogue books, I’d planned the series from the start for a six book story arc…and damn it, I wanted to write them.

So I decided to reinvent myself in a different way, by going mostly-indie.  I say mostly, because instead of bringing the book out entirely on my own I contacted a local micro-publisher, Courtney Literary.  Deb Courtney will handle all the technical aspects, and offered amazingly good terms…and the fourth Knight & Rogue book, Thief’s War, is coming out at the end of February.

Deb is giving me a high enough percentage that I can sell far fewer books than I did through HarperCollins and survive.  If I sell half as many books, I’ll thrive.  And if I sold almost as many books as I did going through a major publisher, I’d be doing great.  (I should mention that my idea of great is fairly modest.)  But I have no clue how many books I’ll sell.  None, zip, zero, nada.  There’s no way even to guess—so I’m going to find out the hard way, by doing it.

We’re all the hero of our own story, so I’ll shamelessly declare myself the heroine.  Here I am, past the dark moment, heading straight for the climax.  And I have no idea whether my story will have a happy ending, or turn into one of those dreary, pointless tragedies where the heroine has to go out and get a day job again.  (No handsome actors in sight.  Rats.)   This being real life, where climaxes don’t usually happen within a few chapters, I won’t even get a hint about how Thief’s War is selling until the beginning of August.

Reinventing yourself sounds so uplifting.  Downright inspiring.  But watching my savings drain away, I’ve learned that reinventing yourself is hard and scary—and I’ve now got a lot more respect for heroes, who launch themselves into the climax never knowing whether they’re going to win or lose.  (And maybe basing major financial decisions on novels isn’t the smartest thing to do, either.)  But I’m doing it…and in August, I’ll let you know how it looks like coming out.

Writing retreat…then and now…

Me & CP, Emily McKay

Me & CP, Emily McKay

Sometime in 1998 I formed a critique relationship with another unpublished romance writer. She wrote short category romance, something I’d not read up until we started working together, and I wrote historicals. We didn’t know each other well initially, but slowly we forged a bond and together found magic. In the beginning neither one of us knew much about what we were doing, so we learned how to write, we studied craft, we found our writing styles and our strengths and weaknesses.

the beach house we used to visit - lost in Hurricane Ike

the beach house we used to visit – lost in Hurricane Ike

In those early years we would go, with two other writer buddies that we worked with, to one said writer buddy’s beach house. We’d go for a long weekend and we’d work and plot and laugh and have more fun than you can imagine while also accomplishing a ton of work. The first night there we’d set our goals for the trip and the rest of the time it was work, work, work, with the occasional nice walk on the beach.

Flash forward to now – 4 kids later (2 for each of us) and we’re back at the beach together, just the 6 of us and we’ll see how much work we can actually get done with a 3, 4, 5 and 8 year old with us. We haven’t set goals, though we’re both on deadline. Instead we plan to spend time together – which is more difficult now with our families – let our kids play together and hope to get work done in the down time.

100_1892I bring all this up not so much to brag on my amazing relationship with my critique partner, though really y’all should be jealous because we work so well together (and she just won a RITA, Go Emily!) but instead to discuss the merits of writing retreats. They’re quite popular these days. I know RWA chapters plan them and host them periodically and lots of critique groups get together for writing retreats.

There’s something quite magical about getting together and spending time focusing on your writing with other writers. Especially when you can do it with a lovely bit of nature near by – the beach, mountains, a lake or forrest. And you know it’s good for our kids to see their moms working and having co-workers, even if our jobs are more unconventional than some of the other parents.

So how about you? Ever been on a writing retreat? What are yours like or what would make the perfect one for you?

Take it to the bridge …

This month’s topic is transitions, and my most eloquent fellow Scene13 bloggers have pretty much touched upon every possible angle one could think of on the subject. So instead of repeating what they all said (and coming off as a copycat), I decided to change things up a bit (see what I did there?) and post a video spoof of an aspiring writer attempting to transition into a published author by pretty much begging someone in the publishing industry to take a look at her book. In song.

Yeah.

Writers can be dramatic like that. Just sayin’.

The Best Kind of Busy

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Mayday! Mayday! Yes, Karen and I have both shouted it a few times this month as deadlines attack from all sides. As debut YA authors with a book coming to the shelves in July, we are crazy-busy. There are a lot of blog posts to write for the upcoming Camping Out Blog Tour. There are three books in this series, so there are obviously more stories to work on. There are novellas between the books, so we’ve got some writing to do there as well. 

Writing, of course, doesn’t mean plopping words on the page and calling it a day, either. We start by brainstorming. Spend a lot of time drafting. Work on revisions. Edit those revisions. Send it to critiquers and eventually to editors, all of whom weigh in with ideas and suggestions for changes that Karen and I debate over, think about, and make changes accordingly. The creative process is long and multi-layered.

J.K. Rock NewsletterThrough it all, when a book nears its release date, there is a lot of promotional business to attend. We are packing for BEA and are so excited to meet some fellow Scene13ers (pictures coming soon!). We have websites and newsletters to update, booksignings to schedule and promote, social media outlets to keep current, swag to choose and purchase, friends to contact for support… it’s busy.

But you know what? It’s the Best Thing. As writers, this is what we strive for during long months (YEARS for some of us!) of creating and hoping we know what we are doing on this journey. The road to publication is difficult and I (Joanne for J.K. today- you’ll hear lots from both of us on the blog!) slipped on it plenty of times. Before I started writing YA with Karen, I struggled to sell a book under my own name for years before I sold my first adult romance. There was a great deal of rejection. I wrote book after book though, determined that one day, I’d sell one. One day, someone besides my best friend would read my words! That hope and faith (okay, and stubbornness) kept me going   as I worked toward that goal of a first sale.

cb shirt swag 002So I never mind the busy. Sometimes I get stressed and overwhelmed… of course! But one of the great blessings of being in this business for awhile is being able to take the long view on things. Even if it feels like everything in the world depends on this one book, one review, or this one promotion- it doesn’t. I will never forget that, in my darkest months of feeling like I’d never sell a book, I would have given my right arm for the opportunity to be busy with deadlines. So even when my To Do list spirals out of control and I’m fielding two email accounts, managing multiple websites, monitoring tons of social media accounts and hoping, hoping, hoping I find time to work on my chapter, I can guarantee you that I’m smiling, too. I worked really hard to have this chance. And I couldn’t be happier to be busy. I wish the same for all of you ;-).

17371981***Some kinds of “busy” are better than others, I’ll admit. What’s your favorite kind of work in your day to day job? Your least? Chat with me today on the boards and I’ll send one commenter a fun, Camp Boyfriend Swag Pack (pictured above).

Interested in the Camp world? You can download our prequel novella, Camp Kiss for FREE now.

Are You Sure That’s an Obstacle?

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Me, holding my first ARC ever. See! It can be done!

Our theme this month is obstacles, and, since this is a writerly blog, I thought I’d talk about writerly obstacles. But, are those obstacles really hindering you? Or, are you just not looking at them in the proper light?

Let me tell you about my day job, without a doubt the biggest obstacle with regard to me meeting my writing-related deadlines. It’s stressful as heck, it’s a one-hour commute each way (and there is no convenient public transportation between here and there, so I’m forced to spend this time alone in my vehicle; thank heavens for the 80s station), and leaves me mentally exhausted. And, I spend my days in a cubicle. A cubicle! Oh, the humanity.

One would think that I’d be more productive, writing-wise, at least, if I left that job behind, or at least got one closer to home. However, my day job has a long list of good points: I’ve been doing it a long time, and I’m pretty good at it. I turn out such an abundance of high-quality work that I’m able to take five minutes here, ten minutes there to work on little things like this blog post. During my lunch break, I read submissions. And, when the weather cooperates, I get outdoors. The grounds are a certified wildlife habitat, and the walking paths are both beautiful and relaxing. Well, except for the attack geese, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

My point is, things are only obstacles if you let them be obstacles. Maybe, in learning to work around them, you end up taking the scenic route that’s a reward in and of itself. Maybe, the fact that you can’t grow grass on your front lawn means that you can lay pea gravel and not have to mow, ever. Maybe I can learn something from that persnickety copy editor, instead of being annoyed by the umpteenth round of edits. Maybe I’m forced to spend the bulk of my waking hours in a cubicle for the sole purpose of having ample registration fees for science fiction conventions. A good reason, if I ever heard one.

So, embrace the obstacles! Dig in your heels, figure out how you can work with things as opposed to against them. And maybe, just maybe, the scenic route is the route you’re supposed to take.

S.P.R.I.N.G. Advice for Aspiring Writers

Spring is here, and we should all take a deep breath of fresh air. And for aspiring writers on their path to publication, it’s a great time to freshen up on the important points of their journey. Think S.P.R.I.N.G.

S – Story. Make sure yours is original. Something that pulls the reader in and makes them beg for more. And make sure it’s something awesome an agent or editor has never seen before.

P – Proofread. Dot those i’s and cross those t’s. Make sure your grammar is correct—not only in your story, but in your query letters too. Use an active voice and strong words that make an impact. Get another set of eyes to look at your work. And do your research on what you’re writing. Believe me, someone will check!

R – Read. Make sure you know what’s out there, what’s selling, and what keeps you turning pages. Know your genre! Read, read, read.

I – Industry. Get to know the publishing industry and how it works. Find out what agents do and which ones are the right ones to query. Find out which publishing houses would be best suited for your story. Read submission guidelines and follow directions. Stalk the blogs and Twitter feeds of agents, editors, and publishers, and find out what they’re looking for and how to approach them.

N – No quitting. Everybody gets rejected. Even best sellers got rejected at some point in their careers. Don’t give up. Writers are required to have a thick skin. So don’t let first, second, or twelfth failed attempts get you down. It’ll happen. It happens to the best of us. Pick up that chin and try again.

G – Get out there! Involve yourself with writers clubs, author forums, critique groups, and like-minded people on social networks. Go to writer conferences and book fairs. Surround yourself with creativity, discover contests and pitch fests, and make friends with people trekking along with you on the same path. Just remember to get offline at some point and get back to writing!

Throw the dice, find a four-leafed clover, don’t forget your horseshoe … oh yeah … and the BIG secret

teehee … Now we’re either on the edge of our seats waiting for the big, top secret to success. But first …Here are some crazy business/publishing/reader facts just to make you feel like crap:

  1. Our readers: 1/3 high schoolers don’t read another book after high school. And 42% of college grads can be lumped in the same box. 80% of US families DID NOT buy or read a single book last year. 70% of American Adults haven’t set foot in a bookstore in at least 5 years.
  2. 70% of books published do not earn their advances back. (meaning 70% of all books on the market lose money for their publisher)
  3. According to R.R. Bowker, there are about 175,000 books published each year. That is an average of 479 books each day, or about 19 books every hour. (Kind of makes me feel NOT so special right now)
  4. According to Publishers Weekly, there are more than 86,300 publishing companies worldwide. Self-publishers make up the vast majority. In fact, self-publishers make up about 86,000 of that figure. There are about three or four hundred mid-sized publishers and six large publishers that are well-known. These figures give you a good idea of how difficult it can be to have a book accepted by a major publisher.
Uff … Take a seat. I know. We have these incredibly high hopes for our books and our author platforms. We’ll be the next … fill-in-the-blank.
So what’s that secret? It depends on how you define success.
As for success in my career, that’s tricky. True: I have four published books and am writing my fifth (under contract). But my numbers, by any measure of “success” aren’t successful. In fact, my sales are … not good. Honestly, I owe my career to my relentlessly supportive agent and first novel, FREEZE FRAME, that won the IRA (international reading association) Best Book for Children and Teens in 2009. This was a big deal award and I’ve been riding that out on every novel ever since. Again, though, I’m NOT a “successful” author because I simply don’t have sales … I’ve never earned royalties on any books (to date) and have never gone into a second printing on any books, not even FREEZE FRAME … I feel successful in my career, though, because I’m able to do what I love. Also, it’s a hard world to break into. Just having one novel on the shelves is a gift!
So, let’s ignore the numbers. After that ramble. What makes any writer successful?

  1. I love my job.
  2. I work hard. I sit and write. I write badly. I revise. I listen to critiques. I re-write. I stare at cursors blinking on the screen. I procrastinate. But at the end of the day, I write.
  3. I’m hungry. As opposed to “life success” … my career success hinges on this. I need to feel the hunger, the drive to write better. To come up with more interesting characters. To read and read and read and study so I can write better. Hunger is KEY to success. I don’t sit back and think a muse will come. I sit and work my tail off until at least one sentence in ten pages is worth saving.
  4. I share. So many people want to “guard” the gates. Keep secrets. I recommend agents and editors to writers. I pass along information. I try to help my writers’ group with critiques. I support libraries, teachers, and anybody who loves books. I will give a SKYPE visit to anybody who donates to my charity of choice: FIRST BOOK.ORG, instead of asking for payment.
  5. I’ve been able to write what I love. I’ve had editors and houses support my crazy ideas and back me up even when the numbers weren’t there. Lots of people work to make this happen. Lots of people take leaps of faith. I’m just lucky to have had this, time and again.

Ignore the numbers. Define “success.” And enjoy the ride because, well, it’s a tough one but worth it. Even if you get ONE SINGLE LETTER  a year from a kid who says, “Wow. I haven’t read a book in ages. I loved your book.”

One letter? Success. Big time. That’s the secret — that one letter.Image