The Amazon Iowan

Blog of Author Heidi Cullinan


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PSA: Authors, Write Books, Not War

On Facebook this morning, my husband linked to an article at The Daily Dot about the dangers of blogging/posting at work. Before I even clicked the link to read the post, I laughed bitterly and thought, “Yeah, if only my maxim could be that simple.” Because as an author, whether I talk about writing/publishing or not, everything I put on the Internet affects my work. All my words and pictures and links have the potential to affect my sales. My daughter, now making her first forays into social media, has been warned if she wouldn’t be comfortable seeing it on CNN Student News, she shouldn’t post it, but for authors and anyone whose public persona isn’t an outlet but a lifeline to a paycheck needs a tighter mantra. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every chat and private Instagram could elevate our profile, yes—and it could also stake us more thoroughly than any book we’ll ever write. Public posting for authors doesn’t simply risk getting us fired. Every word and pixel we put up for public consumption could tank our careers. And it’s well past time we started behaving that way.

I feel like so many posts I’ve written on my blog are variations on this theme, but this one matters enough to me that I’ll do it again and be more direct than ever. Authors: if you doubt for a second, don’t post on social media, don’t write that blog. If you’re trashing another author—of any caliber, any level of fame, you should not. You should use great caution and care when and if you review. You should be careful when you post tweets, status updates, and photos. You should behave as if every word you say is being heard by everyone in the entirety of the world, and everyone who loves them—but most importantly, you should assume the world is listening. And taking screenshots, and getting popcorn to watch in case you burn.

image via cheezburger.com

Somehow it seems a myth has been started that authors, big or small, are owed something. In the past few weeks I feel like this entitlement keeps coming up in various forms in all genres of publishing, at all levels. Somehow even the most obscure excuse me, who the hell are you? authors have no issue with standing loudly at their pulpit of choice decrying the unfairness of not being chosen for conferences or awards or whatever the hell crawled in front of them that day. Reviews—God help us all, reviews. Authors writing reviews trashing other authors, then acting as if they’re Joan of Arc when everyone turns on them. Authors acting as if every complaint from a reader hurts their poor little feeeeeeelings—which, actually, that happens every day. And it’s why I have my besties on IM and in DM and on speed dial. When a review manages to wound me, I go to a trusted, vetted private source and I snarl and cast aspersions on penis size and sexual prowess and throw enough shade to cast eternal darkness on my enemy’s soul. And then I get over it and move on, the Internet never the wiser. I don’t, ever, broadcast that crap even in a private blog. I sure as hell don’t attack or argue with readers or reviewers. I suck it up. I move on.

Any author reading: you should too.

image via cheezburger.com

Authors, what you are entitled to as a published, paid author is a paycheck for the works you sell. You are entitled to not being plagiarized. You are entitled to a fair market and fair pay. You are entitled to a level playing field. But what you are not entitled to is a special refrigerated train car for your very special snowflake. You are not entitled even to a car or a track to ride on. You are entitled to a chance. Everything beyond this you must earn.

I understand why this is such an unappealing concept, but I suggest anyone who wants to get ten feet in this business learn to swallow fast. Publishing has never been a graceful or kind affair, but right now, at this moment in time, it is nuclear war every single day. There is no safe house. There is no clear path. There is no Way to seek and follow. There is blood, terror, heart-rendering risk, and there is pain and betrayal. Those are your guarantees. Your promises I can make you as one who has been actively watching this stuff go down for almost twenty years and wading neck-deep into it for five.

What I can also promise you is that you will go nowhere without friends and allies, which means every word out of your mouth should be filtered to make sure you avoid making enemies.

I don’t think any author can be immune to hope and wistfulness, castles in the sky we wish to build foundations under—and those dreams are vital. But authors must remember, always, that other people are building foundations too, and if you steal other people’s stuff or hurl rocks at their heads, you will pay. If you build your foundations on the blood of your friends or while sniping and snarling at anyone who dares challenge you, your foundations will fall long before you get anywhere worth getting to. Every tweet you share, every Instagram you post marks your brand. It’s possible that it serves you to be a caustic, rotten asshole as your brand—possible, but even this must be polished and affected. And you’d better pray the risks of that approach pay off, because the odds are never in your favor.

I wish we could make a rule that every author or want-to-be author before they get WiFi access needs to read The Prince, and like license renewal we should ingest it again every so many years. When I first read Machiavelli, I hated him and his jaded view of politics. I still kind of hate him, though now it’s because I think he’s completely and utterly right and I wish he were not. What frustrated me about The Prince in college was this idea that the world was not a good, Disney-like place where nice people prevailed and everything, if we all worked hard and went to church and did good deeds, would be okay. This idea that people have to be calculating and sometimes nasty to get ahead made me sick.

The thing is, it’s true, and as authors? We need to stay well out of it, because no matter what our egos might tell us, we are not princes, not kings, not queens. We are barely courtiers. We are jesters every one. We are bards. We are servants, here at the whim and will of the populace, the public, and sometimes the prince himself. We are ruled by forces greater than we can control. We have moments of power, of fame, but everything we prize may be taken away at any time. Our great fame may be toppled by one ill-timed fall or misspeak. Our work will sometimes disappoint, yes, and sometimes our star will not shine as bright because of something we create, but we’ll be forgiven because everyone wants another tale. We are servants, always, and the princes and courtiers love to be served—but never scolded. The mob, the masses—they love our work, but as Twitter teaches us daily, the mob loves scandal more. It is transfixed by the public display of someone behaving badly, of being publicly burned for daring to step out of line. We may as authors, or even as possessors of souls, dislike this tendency, but we will have more luck attempting to roll back the ocean’s tide than we will quell this part of human nature. And as an author, we are in the worst positions in the world to do so.

image via cheezburger.com

The sense of entitlement luring authors is our trap, because too many of us want to be movie stars. Or twitter stars. Or conference stars. Who of us does not want to be Jude Deveraux and Julie Garwood at RT with all the fans and authors weeping like supplicants, so overcome by awe and nostalgia they can barely speak? We all want that, yes, but that adoration is not our birthright. Those ladies bought that status with grace, civility, and politic. They bought it with luck and perseverance and diligence. They did not stab their way to the top. They did not whine and cry their way or seethe about the horrible unfairness of it all. They worked. They behaved. They shone like stars. They earned that reverence.

Somehow though there is this idea that we may be all that by sockpuppet trickery, by flattery and bribes, by stepping on the necks of our fellows, by standing up and demanding we be honored. Somehow there is this idea that we may complain about bad reviews on Facebook—we’re all friends there, after all—and it will not taint us as soft-bellied complainers whose books no one wants to buy anymore. Somehow our personal blogs are an acceptable place to rant about any and everything we dislike in the world—and consumers should ignore the discomfort and dislike they feel in us now and still shop for our books.

I don’t think most people are thinking this deeply or even very shallowly when they post unwise things. Most authors mis-stepping in the social sphere are merely naive and untutored and foolish. The great irony for writers is that as a population we are the wallflowers, the outsiders who observe. The idea that we should also be media moguls is dangerous, and often leads to those melt-down blog posts we flock to like the trainwrecks they are: there but for a well-timed glass of wine and phone call go we all. No one is immune. Authors barely significant enough to float in a puddle drown in the same Twittercycle as decades-established bestsellers who could buy and sell us all on a whim. Sometimes these are momentary lapses in judgment. Sometimes the scandals are legitimate. Sometimes they represent deep philosophical struggles with no real answer.

Bloggers—book bloggers, readers, anyone not an author? They can have these public conversations far more safely. Scandal is lifeblood to bloggers more often than not. Controversy means hits. Negative reviews, even when authors foolishly firestorm, even when readers defy them as is their right (so long as they are not sent by the author), are good for blogs. Authors, you should not go here, and when you are compelled to do so anyway, you must be aware that every single word you say might lose you sales. You may disagree with me. You may burn and learn on your own. I certainly have done so, and many others have before me and many will in days to come. But this is my advice, and it comes from my heart, my soul, my being. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be negative in public. Don’t snipe. Don’t disparage your fellows. Don’t diva. Don’t demand. Don’t assume. Don’t snarl, just don’t. Because while you think you’re digging yourself or someone else out, more often than not all you’re doing is carving out your grave.

image via cheezburger.com

Traditionally published authors, stop snickering or hating on indie. Indie, stop mocking traditionally pubbed for being codependent. Everyone, stop whining and kvetching about how you’re being held back, about how the system is against you, about how you’re never picked for the ball, about how someone is taking your spot in the show. If you want a spot in the light, earn it. If want to go to the ball, work. If you want to win, play the game. If you want to shine, work on your glow. Be kind or at least gracious to your fellow performers. Remember that you are allowed to perform at all only by the permission and pleasure of your audience. Remember that to create your art you must be vulnerable, which means you will need friends and support more than you’ll need a sharp sword.

Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. It is an arena you enter where the rules change and the efficacy of all your best weapons will abruptly, unfairly cease and you must build new ones while arrows come at your head. It is a world where nothing is real and seldom constant. It is a career where everything you have you will earn, and where gifts and luck and happy accidents, success stumbled upon, can be a greater burden than climbing the ladder. Publishing is a slog, and fame and success are not guaranteed. Never, not one time has waging war, from the mildest whine to the most vicious peer attack, advanced a career. But collectively and singularly, those acts have ended many.

Write books, authors. Write stories. Channel your emotions, your fears, your vulnerabilities into your work. Swallow the hurt and give voice to a song. In your books, which is what you are here for in the first place. Everywhere else? Post about cats and beards and the cupcake you had instead of dinner. Better to be banal than a bitch. Because readers will flock to the cats and the cupcakes and possibly bring you baked goods and collars with your cover art as collars to singings. But they’ll get a front row seat to watch the bitch go down.

Every. Single. Time.


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Death By Promotion: Getting Real About the Costs to Authors and Readers in the Current Marketing Environment

My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books.

I’m not here to market. I’ll do a little of that because one must, because there is no cultural bulletin board right now my books can exist at, especially not mine as I’m a bit niche and still largely in my own pond. I strive to lift awareness of not just my work but works like mine, the whole LGBT romance pool, but even that is not the main purpose of why I’m here. I like to thank bloggers with ad purchases and guest posts and ARCs. I’ve made a forum for fans to chat, and if you link/@ reply me on social media and I’m able to see it, I’ll do my best to reply or at least like your post. I don’t buy reviews. I don’t ask people to buy books on a certain day at a certain hour at a certain place to game the system. I don’t send mass invites to “events” on Goodreads or Facebook. I don’t add people to newsletters who haven’t asked to be, and in fact I try to parcel out sub-newsletters for the truly die-hard to get ALL THE DEETS and those who just want release dates to not be spammed. I don’t cold-email other authors and ask them for pimpage or, even crazier, give them book recs. I don’t copy other people’s work because I can’t think of my own stories or hump sideways on someone else’s work because I’d sure like to scrape off some of their overflow. I don’t run around to ten million social media sites making sure I comment on every blog post, every review, every single mention of my work. I don’t join every new social media site and work up a huge presence there. I don’t stick my nose into reader conversations unless invited, and even if invited, sometimes I might decline. Because I’m a writer. I write books. I try to write a lot of books. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I do.

You would think, you really would, that such a declaration would be rather like stating the obvious. Except every goddamn day that passes, I feel more and more like the last unicorn, and even though I can’t find anyone actually turning the screws, I feel more and more pressure every day to market, promote, to be a flaming brand across the literary horizon. It’s killing me, and I think it’s eating a lot of our souls.

Once upon a time if you’d told someone all the nonsense that goes on in the book world right now, they would laugh and tell you that would never happen. But once upon a time, the world of publishing and the world of reading was a very different place. Seventeen years ago when I first began to say, out loud, that I wanted to be a published author, the road to that goal was straightforward and relatively simple. Write a book, submit it to an agent or publisher. It would take a long time to get one of those people to say yes, so you joined writing groups and RWA and SFWA and the like and attended conferences and kept trying. You improved your craft, you honed your skills, you did your time. Some people got lucky on one of their initial passes, but they never got it easy–everybody did their time one way or another. You hoped and dreamed of a nice midlist career, maybe even something a little shinier, but everybody knew you’d likely never quit your day job, and the sky was full of stars.

But that was 1997. The Internet was a thing college students and techie people did, and a few intrepid authors. There was no social media. As the century turned over we got Yahoo groups, which was definitely something, and ebooks showed up, but by and large the game was still the same. Getting published at all was a huge coup, and as houses combined and lines narrowed, new authors were chosen less and less. Promotion, if it happened at all, was cute. Maybe an author would get your name from some RWA list and mail you a bookmark. If you went to a convention you’d get some lip balm or a button, but none of this slick Vistaprint stuff and nobody had heard of Cafe Press. Mostly promo was books. Maybe you put an ad in RT. Probably your publisher did. Maybe, maybe you were big enough for a book tour, but that was rare. Promotion? Who has time for that? Who knows how to do that? Published authors were busy writing their next book, because my God, the publishers were cracking down! They wanted at least one a yearWho can possibly write that fast?

I’m not kidding. That was a big topic at an RWA national convention I went to in the early 00s. One book a year was killer pace. As Damon Suede says, feel that fact.

Now it is not 1997. Now it is 2014, and publishing is nothing like it used to be. On the one hand, readers have never had it so good. So many books. So many broken rules, so many bodices not just ripped off but chucked in the garbage because our heroines wear leather combat suits, baby, tits tucked safely away–except sometimes are heroines are taking a break because it’s two heroes on the scene, or the heroine is with two heroes, or another heroine, or there’s an orgy and orientation labels are so passé anyway, we just love and fuck who we want. Or there’s almost no sex and the heroine’s love is part of her faith in God. Or there’s not a lot of sex because she’s kicking demon ass and that takes work and time and sex is dangerous. EVERYTHING is here.  Any and everything you could want to read. If not? Wait ten minutes. It’ll be up on Wattpad.

For authors? No more narrow path and gated door. Do we even want New York? Maybe, sometimes–but not always. Self-pub isn’t a mark of shame anymore, but an opportunity for those who know how to drive their own bus. For those of us who don’t even want to lift the hood, there are ten million small press, just like the old days, and odds are good if you sift through them eventually you can find one that fits your needs. Some even straddle the line between indie and NY like elegant rodeo riders. Some have forged new roads all on their own. The possibilities are endless for authors as well as readers. There’s almost no one left to tell us no.

But on the other hand. Holy shit, EVERYTHING IS HERE. The world of publishing is a big party, but three dance halls are competing and spilling drinks and lifting skirts not just to the knee but throwing off the whole kit and dancing naked saying LOOK AT ME I AM NAKED BUY MY SHIT. Everyone, everywhere, is trying to claim space, and readers wander around confused and helpless to figure out what’s going on. You can’t go to a bookstore, not was easily and not as well. You can’t read a bestseller list. You can’t even trust your Amazon recs—certainly you can’t trust Amazon bestseller lists, because they only report their sales and make no effort to hide the fact that they promote Amazon direct over traditional and small pubs. “Users also bought” isn’t bad. Goodreads is okay too–sometimes. For some people. Bloggers, thank God for bloggers, and friends who suggest recommendations. Unless your Goodreads/Facebook/Twitter notifications are awash with Who-The-Fuck-Are-You’s announcing Boring Book About Boringness, Part 6 is out! Which, they probably are.

The doors are wide open, which is great, but it’s terrible. Nobody can be heard, because we’re all shouting. And for the first time you don’t have to put in time to get a book into the world. All you have to be able to do is upload to some digital distribution service. You don’t have to proofread. You don’t have to edit. Granted, you probably won’t get a ton of sales, but to say “I am published” is easier than it has ever been.

Go to any dinner party and say you’re an author, and at least 50% of the room will tell you they too are writing a book, or thinking about it, and some weekend they’ll sit down and become Stephen King II. This is fine–it’s human nature. Everyone could be a teacher because they’ve been to school, everyone could be an author because they’ve read a book. But it used to be that if people tried to write a book they had to fight. And the truth is, that still happens, but the threshold guardian isn’t the agent/publisher: it’s the reader.  Instead of ten million people trying to get through the door of publication, ten million—fuck, twenty—are exploding right into the reading pool. Everyone arrives expecting their wonderful work will by its inherent magic become a bestseller. Everyone arrives thinking “bestseller” means a quarter million dollars per book, per year. Everyone is shocked to discover getting your book into the hands of more than four readers takes work.

Some people see how much work is involved and quit–which is the same as the old days when they’d submit, get some rejections, and decide there are easier ways to make money and it’s just as fun to share stories with your friends alone. In many ways that path is a lot better than it’s ever been: some people never even try to get published. Some people simply want to share stories, and the Internet has a million was to do that. But not everyone gets off the road like that. A lot of people still want, really, really want to go all the way. And going all the way can happen. It takes skill, and it takes work, and it takes more than a little bit of controlled madness. There are so many better ways to make a living than being a published author. You have to love this nonsense to stick with the path that always aims at the brass ring of bestsellerdom. And it can be done. What you find is that you have to do more marketing and legwork than you want. You have to keep your ear to the ground and you have to balance the humors of paranoia and disinterest carefully. You have to work like a dog—you have to work so hard dogs wouldn’t do it, not for any master. You do it not for the glory but for some crazy love that smells of unwashed laundry and a garbage pail full of takeout.

But then there are the other people. They’re the people that used to have to redirect or give up because they couldn’t get over the door–or they had to grow up and learn to dance the dance the only way it was allowed. Now those rules are gone. Anything can be a book. And when it doesn’t magically become the Next Big Thing, some people don’t give up or alter their dream or knuckle down and put in their time. Some people decide they’re going to get that brass ring by absolutely any means necessary.

There’s a lot of psychological stuff that goes into writing, and a lot of people write for validation. Probably all of us do in some way. The world is a dark, angry, lonely place, and the only way to survive is to find something of meaning and cling to it. A lot of people decide that’s writing. A lot of people get the bit between their teeth and begin to feel they will only be okay if their work is celebrated publicly and with financial reward attached—significant financial reward, mind you. But some people, when the magic doesn’t happen, game the system. They buy reviews. They rig lists—or try to. I’m still not entirely sure that actually works. They spam people. They harass people. They fill every inch of the world with noise in the deluded belief that noise equals sales. My favorites are the blind recs of their own stuff on Goodreads or the Facebook launch invites. Really? Really? In all this noise you think simply waving your title in my face with a release date will make me buy it? Do you understand how many thousands of those I get a month? Do you know how many more legitimate recs I get from Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, bloggers—in one day? What in the world could possibly make you, someone I’ve never heard of, click through just because you poked my ass? Some of you multiple times?

I’m a little lucky because the LGBT reader/author community is very tribal, and I don’t get much spam from that quarter. New authors are more likely to strike up a conversation with me and find common interest. On Twitter I’m more likely to meet authors from all over the map, and most people are incredibly cordial and friendly and professional. I have and do read new authors who I find personally charming. I absolutely run from those who come off as rabid squirrels. And you know what? This is all true of readers.

I will get more readers from writing an honest blog post than I ever will from blind-spamming people. The closest I come to that is buying ads on blogger websites. Here: my cover. Hot guys. Good logline. That’s marketing. That’s the cover, which the marketing team of my publisher worked on. That’s the logline I suggested and my editor and marketing tweaked. That’s the slick ad production by my publisher. It’s just sitting there, an invitation. With a click-through link. No pressure. Maybe the cover sticks in your head and after you see it for the fourth time you decide what the hell. Maybe you keep seeing ME and so you try me. Maybe you find me witty/funny/something on social media and you think, why not. That’s how I found one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. I read his blog for years before I picked up a book. I figured, well, if I enjoy his blog so much, maybe I’ll like his work. It turned out that I did.

But I think sometimes there is too much social media. There is always another author group invitation, usually in six different social media sites. I get pressure every day from all kinds of people to promote other people’s work, usually people I don’t know.  There’s a new social media site every day. There are people hawking their buy-a-review business and there’s stuff like this. For that last link she’s since added a retraction, and I totally applaud her for her professionalism and openness. I’ll tell you, though, that post still keeps me up at night. Because I know a she’s not the only person who feels/felt that way. I know that everywhere I go there are people who expect more of me as an author. I know this is just the thing that has floated to the surface, that beneath it everyone has an expectation of me as an author, of all authors, and I know who we have to blame.

Ourselves. We’ve all bought into this crazy-juice, we’ve all decided it’s okay for authors to never sleep and never engage unless it’s promotional and always be present on all the social medias all the time to see all the comments, to answer all the email and be at all the cons and still do enough outside things that we can post clever pictures to Instagram.

THIS IS MADNESS. We should stop. We should stop right now.

Authors, it’s okay to not promote all the time. It’s okay to say, “I’m really good at pinning, but that’s about it.” Go be a fucking fantastic pinner, and maybe work in a way to add some quotes from your book, or always post the cover art, or make your brand THAT, how well you use Pinterest. Maybe you are queen/king of Facebook or Tumblr. Maybe you write a great newsletter. Maybe you are so old school your schtick is that you write good books and that’s about it. Maybe you kill at the library. Maybe you ARE a book tour. What you aren’t, though, is Superman or Superwoman. What you are is human, and you need to sleep. Exercise. Do something that doesn’t have market value. More than once a month.

Readers actually don’t want us to be crazy. Oh, there are always some who truly are Annie Wilkes, but most readers only go there because we send out an invitation. Many, many readers just want more books and would prefer we shut up and wrote. All kinds of people love talking with us, but never at our expense, and they’d never want interaction to come at the expense of our sanity or family. Most readers are incredibly generous. Since I’ve begun blogging my food struggles, it’s become a thing to send me food in the mail or bring it to me at cons. People go out of their way to share recipes with me. They want to help. They love us, and they want to buy our books and just hang with us a bit.

I think as authors we have to start respecting that. In the same way we would tell close friends we’re too tired to see a movie, sometimes we need to say, “Hey, I gotta go dark for awhile.” We need to stop thinking that every action and every sentence is promotion. Well–it is, but we don’t have to promote all the time. Because the truth is nobody can be Stephen King or Nora Roberts. Not by work or design, and certainly not by losing our minds to marketing. We need to cop to some uncomfortable truths. What is a “good career” in publishing now is not what it used to be, and that’s not going to change. The waters are more diluted, which is fantastic for readers who want variety and bad for monopolizing focus and maximizing profit. It isn’t 1997,  and it never will be again. That’s not even a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just truth, and it’s not going away.

I lost my shit this week when Facebook stopped letting me unfollow posts. It’s been hard push after hard push for over six months for me, and I keep trying to do things I don’t actually have the energy or focus to do. My health is fragile and I’m not managing it because I’m too busy trying to promote correctly, to be present and available, and it’s killing me, and it’s making me mentally unhealthy. Because Facebook took away the ability for me to not get notifications all day when someone tags me in a huge post or closed group, or at least made it difficult, and it made me lose my mind—and that’s not right. Or rather, that’s not the actual issue. It was the last straw, the one that made me nuts. It really wasn’t that big a deal, in hindsight. Twitter @ replies are kind of the same, but I like Twitter. Twitter doesn’t fuck with my head the way Facebook does. I’ve never liked Facebook, ever. I love the people, but the interface is bad for me. But all the data says people are there, not Twitter, so I felt compelled to go. I feel compelled to go EVERYWHERE, because I want to sell my books and take my career to the next level.

Except In a given day I receive 50-200 emails, personal and professional. I receive 15-50 notifications on Facebook, 20-100 on Twitter. When I actively pin or use Tumblr those notification numbers go up, but I don’t use them much so I’m pretty safe. When I instagram it’s one of my cats and I think I follow twice the people that follow me–and I think I follow 40 people. Or less. I forget. I have four Snapchat friends and all but one are related to me by blood. I made a forum so I could do concentrated promotion for fans–and I love it–and they help me by picking favorite quotes and giving me ideas and helping me brainstorm. There aren’t a ton of people there and we don’t post all the time. But all these things add up. All this noise is not writing. It might be promotion…but if I’m too stressed to write, if I’m too overwhelmed to work, if I can’t get my dishes done because I’m making sure nobody send me a PM on Goodreads—what is this all for?

I get caught up because I enjoy it. Sometimes I like to go pin stuff. I love reblogging stuff on Facebook. I absolutely worship at the altar of twitter. The problem is, when I show up on social media I haven’t exclusively reserved for personal use, I’m also engaging. I can’t ever let my hair down. If I pin something offensive, I could lose sales. If someone has sent me a message on Facebook and I read it, they will see that I’ve read it–damn your ass, Facebook–and if I don’t respond, they don’t necessarily know it’s because I was reading in the grocery store and now have to go to the doctor and when I get home there are fifty more emails. And they shouldn’t have to know that. It’s not a reader’s job to make my life easier. It’s mine to set boundaries, to make limits for myself and to protect my sanity and my work and my family.

So I’m trying something new. I took Facebook off my phone. Or rather, I logged into my personal account, not my professional one, and I shoved the app into the back forty on my home screens. I’m not allowed to go to either account but twice a day, and never on the fly unless I know I’m interacting with someone who doesn’t send email but only uses Facebook message. If I never pin or Tumble again it’s okay. If I blog once a month it’s okay. If I only read my email once a day unless I’m at a crisis moment of a project, it’s okay. It’s all okay, because what I need to do is write books. I keep Twitter open because I really, really love Twitter, but when I’m writing I close it. I might adjust my boundaries and change my own rules, but I’m setting them. I’m drawing a line in the sand, and if I miss an opportunity because I was protecting myself? So be it.

We all need to do this. Every author needs to be free to be sane. Every author should put creation over promotion. Every author needs to set their own scales of balance, but they need to be set and they need to be reassessed often. We need to trust that it’s better to promote our works with the same quality we create them—we need to get rid of the idea of quantity and omnipresence. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t do everything. We can’t be everything. In this new world of publishing, everything is possible, but runaway success is much less probable. We are more likely to alter those odds by writing more good works. Not by checking our Facebook notifications or posting another tweet.

My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books. I think I’m going to have to tell myself this every day for six months to get it through my head, but I’m going to repeat my mantra, because I’m worth it, and so is my work, and so are my readers. Come back to the quiet corner with me, authors. The WiFi sucks, but man, the peace of mind can’t be beat.

 


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Lighthouses: Who I’m Writing For

I’m writing this blog post as a running start as I finalize the last drafts of Sleigh Ride, Book 2 in the Minnesota Christmas series. It’s due in a week, and its completion comes on the heels of turning in Fever Pitch, which I’d wanted completed by December 1 and turned in January 10, only five days before the absolute last second deadline. Since December 27, I’ve been putting in regular 10-15 hour days with no weekends, only occasional stops to start a load of laundry or watch some TV with my family. To say the very least, I’m tired. I love Fever Pitch a lot, and I adore Sleigh Ride too, but the latter in particular, right now? I would rather scrub a toilet.

This is a problem, of course, because who wants to read a book someone wrote with their teeth set? In that first you’d-have-to-be-drunk-to-read-it draft, that kind of balls-to-the-wall force doesn’t hurt anything, because whatever it takes to get a draft on the page is worth doing. But now I’m trying to make this a fun, happy Christmas book, something to look forward to. This means I need to not hate it. I’ve taken the surface precautions: great Spotify soundtrack, a good night’s sleep, a Keurig carousel full of coffee. But there’s one element more important than any other, and writing this post is my way of reminding myself of that fact.

I need my lighthouse.

Lighthouses are the people you write for, the audience or person you see when you look up from the mess and you need to remember where you’re going. They have nothing to do with whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (if you write with an outline or set off merrily into the wilderness without a clue), because the lighthouse is the final destination. God knows it’s easy to wander into the weeds, to go up your own ass, to sit back and marvel at how tidily you’ve summed up the meaning of life or how utterly you have failed humanity. The lighthouse is what you look up at in those moments.

The people in the lighthouse are waiting for you. They’re hungry for your story, desperate to embark on the journey you promise to take them on. They’re the people who keep you humble, keep you real, and keep you going.

What was most fun about me in writing Sleigh Ride was that as I tackled the bulk of it, you were all reading Let It Snow, the first book in that universe, and my lighthouse felt really strong and bright. One of the things I love about writing series, which I’m doing a lot of at the moment, is drizzling in gifts for the people in my lighthouse. Bringing back favorite characters, hinting subtly to parts of a previous book in a way that would go unnoticed by a reader starting out of order but that is a wink to those in the know. I also like taking accidental/subconscious things from previous books and building a book around them, so what was me reaching for something handy becomes a seed of something greater. Like the casual mention of a librarian in Let It Snow becoming one of the heroes in book two.

Sometimes I have specific people in mind when I’m writing and I leave them little jokes or winks, but sometimes I leave presents for strangers to discover. And you all find them! I got big love from Brits for the Doctor Who and Saint Etienne references in Love Lessons, and I got some passionate dissertations from people all over the world for the John Inman discussion in Let It Snow. I do my best to make the on-the-ground maps for both real and fictional cities as accurate as possible, which leads to things like people taking pictures of what they’re sure is Laurie’s apartment in Dance With Me…and they’re right.

At this point in editing, though, the lighthouse is how I find my way. One of the biggest parts of laying down a first draft is finding the theme, and when I go back through the story I do my damnedest to make it resonate like a tuning fork. I want a reader to have a subconscious idea of that theme in the first scene and have that sense validated all the way through. In a short Christmas novel (short for me: 60,000 words) everything should snap, move quickly, and while the themes can be important, nothing is too deep. I don’t want this to be a book that feels heavy. I want people to pick this up and sink into a bubble bath. I want them to have big feels, to laugh, to feel vulnerable…but safe. And in the end I want them to feel all wrapped up and hopeful, filled with a renewed sense that the world really will be okay.

Sometimes my lighthouses are specific people. I wrote Fever Pitch for someone very particular, and I kept angling it trying to please him, because I wasn’t sure he’d actually like the book when I started, so I kept challenging myself. But as I finished drafting, I had someone else in that lighthouse, a beta whom I love and who I wanted to give it to right away, to please her and make her happy. I would write parts thinking, “I bet she’ll like this,” or  I’d hope she would. I always write a little bit for my husband too, because I know where I’ll hit him in the solar plexus or make him go download a song because it sparked a memory or sense of curiosity.

Mostly though when I get to this part of creating a novel and I’m tired and whiny, I think of the loyal lighthouses. Of the fans who have been there since day one, who are the first to buy and leave reviews, who read every blog post and like every tweet and enter every contest. People who come up to me at conventions and gobsmack me with stories about what a book meant to you, or send me emails. Who remind me that when I write about a stammerer or a sufferer of OCD and I get it right, I don’t just move you, I hear you and make you feel validated on a very public scale. Who remind me that when I have the guts to put my own chronic pain on the page you use it to fuel your own fight against illness and suffering. Who remind me that sometimes a simple book about bears and blizzards can be an escape, a light, a refuge after a weary day or harrowing night in the emergency room.

For me the people in my lighthouse remind me that for all the ego that goes into this business, for all the seriousness that is making a living doing a job, what I write for more than anything else is you. I’m a servant, not a star. Cute blog posts are nice, and self-depreciating tweets and links on Facebook might make you laugh, but why I’m really here is to write you a story. You want a light to follow for a few hours. Something to entertain you, to take you away. You might empathize that I’m up against a deadline, but mostly what you want is something to read. You want to put a quarter in and get a story, and I’m fortunate that a number of you have said, essentially, “I’m pretty much open to whatever story comes out of you. Just write something, okay? It makes me happy.”

That’s my job at this point in writing Sleigh Ride. I slopped some stuff together, dug into my experience and my ego, did my diligence and behold, there is story. But now I’m looking at you, shining on that hill, waiting, and I’m thinking, I could make this better. I could make this shine brighter, sing louder, ring clearer. If I get out of my own way, if I do my homework and keep myself honest, if I remember what the goal of this story is and what makes you happy, I could make this not just some story but a great one. One the people who keep me going, who lift me up when I’m down, deserve.

Is it gonna be tight to do it in a week? Yeah. But there’s more editing to come later with someone I trust, and when I think of her, and I think of the joy I could maybe give you, it doesn’t feel like work so much anymore. It feels a hell of a lot like a privilege.

Here’s to you, lighthouses. Thanks for shining bright. Can’t wait to show you what I’ve brought home this time.


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My Last 1400 Words of NaNo

funny-thats-done-what-now-cat-ripped-toilet-paper-roll-bathroom-picsNext year if I do NaNoWriMo, I’m not doing it officially, which bums me out to say, but it’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I skipped last year because I’d already learned this, but I thought this year I’d be able to get a book done I absolutely had to get done. Then came the Sleigh Ride/Fever Pitch double insanity and me signing up for both accounts.

The weird thing is I actually got what I wanted out of it: an incredible almost-draft of both books. I might have been able to do that without the push, but maybe not. I can see from here the end of Fever Pitch, how it happens–but I also knew fifteen thousand words ago what that book needed most was to sit and gel a minute. It wants like three months, but it’s making due with three weeks. Or maybe two and a half, I forget when I stopped drafting that one. I’m starting on Monday again, and it’s my goal to hand it to Sasha by Christmas so I can truly have the holiday off. But if not, it’ll be in by the stroke of 2014. Sleigh Ride, which was never planned but sort of garbled itself into the situation, will be done sometime in January. It’s nearly done now, and I’m only 15k away from my target word count of 60k. I loved the little bit at a time writing of it, loved the way I discovered my two boys.

The problem is that what both books taught me during this month is that the fallow, quiet periods that happen in my drafting process are essential. When I take on a project and agree to a deadline, I have to factor in those pauses, and I have to start early enough to allow for them. Chuck Wendig writes an article this week about taking a month off before you edit: I arched my eyebrow and thought, golly, that’s an idea. Sort of like I should exercise every morning, drive slow enough to get good gas mileage, and reserve time in my schedule to make a healthy dinner. Excellent idea.  It truly is the ideal.

It’s been years since I’ve had anything close to that kind of idealism about writing production. My husband has stopped saying to take my time and asks how he can help me get to my deadline, because we have reached the point where my yearly writing income is a second salary, and a good chunk of it goes to car payments, school things, and of course our daughter’s greatest lifeline to sanity and anxiety control, Royley the former racehorse. My working as a writer is the difference between us staggering under debt we had no idea how to manage and finally starting to get on top of it. So when I sit down and work and the writing is slow, I don’t just think, “Golly, I don’t want to be late to my deadline because it would look bad,” I think, “If I don’t get this in on time, they’ll have to move my slot, and then I’ll have a hole in production, and what in the world will I do without an income spike at that time?”

Revisiting NaNoWriMo felt like a nod to that dichotomy, the need to balance freedom of creation with punishing reality, and in many ways it was. It reminded me to show up at the manuscript and just get something down. 2k a day is an amazingly small amount of work. Most of my blog posts are that long when I get going on one of my tears. And whether its muses, people in space, or my carefully arranged psychosis, I’m getting really good at turning to the people in my head and saying, “I really need something here, can you help?” and they bring it. Last night they were telling me it was time to stop, but I was 6k down. I wrote–and counted it as words–a summary of what I knew I needed and why I had to give this some space, and then said, “But I need 4k still even after all this. Can you give me anything at all? Even if I have to cut it all later?” Within three minutes I was tapping out a freaking steamy hot sex scene that probably I can’t use, not as-is, but which confirmed the conflict was what I thought it was, showed me more about the characters, and lit a few more paths to the finished book. It left me only 1400 words shy of “winning.”

funnyt-lolcat-rechargingYet let me explain how very much you don’t want to read this book right now. If you like my work, you’d be crushingly disappointed with it in its early stages. Oh, there are witty little scenes, and I could pump something out that would entertain you, but it would very much be something that as you sat and thought about it too hard it would fall apart, if you didn’t start doing that in real time as you read. Sleigh Ride is missing a spine. BIG time. Arthur and Gabriel are gorgeous and I think they have my heart in ways nobody else quite has yet, but they need to sleep and grow. All those little asides, fussy little details, dovetailing back into a main story? That times time and craft, especially to make it look like it took no effort at all. Fever Pitch is far, far worse. It’s twice as long, three times as thick, and has four-layers-deep serious meaning beneath a lot of joy and fun. Right now to read it would make your head hurt. I certainly know it does mine.

I’ll be able to fix it next week–I can feel the end now, and I’m not nervous about getting it done on time…but that’s entirely because I stopped drafting mid-month. I “won” with word count, but it’s not done, not even close. It doesn’t even fully have an outline anymore to the end, because the ones I keep writing get blown apart. Elijah showed up, blew my mind, and now I have to figure out how far back into the manuscript I have to write him. I’ve been thinking about him since mid-month, letting him whisper while I did dishes and folded laundry. Now it’s ready–and it’s Gabriel and Arthur’s turn to send me to strange videos or farm implement stores or whatever it is they’re going to do to show me how they finish up.

I’m bummed, though. I wanted to play along. I wanted to get to write-ins and hang out with people. I wanted to tap-dance well enough to get this done. It isn’t even that I did two at once though–in fact, if I’d tried to do just one story it would have been a horrible disaster. Somehow doing two at once helped even more to illustrate how much I need to pause. How for me books in one month will be very, very rare, and never something I can schedule in advance.

When I finish this post, I’m adding it into my word count, verifying, and then I’m going to not do anything on my computer until Monday as much as I can help it. I’m going to read every book on my kindle I’ve been dying to read. When my daughter wakes up I’m going to tell her from now until she goes to school on Monday she and I are hanging out, baking things, going to the barn for as long as she wants, going to as many movies as she wants, and doing a My Little Pony marathon if she’s in the mood. I can’t do the same thing with Dan because he works evenings this week, but I’m going to be present outside of my office. I’m going to start trying to make GF versions of my Christmas cookies. I’m going to start planning Christmas shopping.

On Monday I’ll go back to Fever Pitch. I’d love to say I’ll work on a gentle schedule, but I’m going to do what it takes to get it done, whatever that is. When it’s done and Sleigh Ride starts whispering at me again, I’ll finish it too. But for this weekend, everything is fallow. Everything is resting. Including me.

-Magical-Kitty-lol-cats-30656645-1280-800I’m leaving you with this video link: the song is “What If” by Five For Fighting, and it’s a huge ringer for Sleigh Ride. I always see the end when it plays, and it always makes me happy. I can’t even explain fully how this exemplifies the story, but it does. This video, though, is amazing and has nothing to do with SL. The video made me cryIt’s a good cry, but I warn you, there will be tears. Gorgeous song, though. A lot of Five For Fighting in that soundtrack, but this song is the song.

I have loved watching all of you read Let It Snow. I smile every time someone tags me or emails me or PMs me or even simply reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. (My 2014 goal is to figure out Booklikes, but right now I cannot even do one. more. thing.) And there are still some Love Lessons readers still just getting around to Hope University. It’s a little surreal to be working on books two of both those as you read books one. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to company in real time as I compose. It’s been awesome, and thank you.

So I leave you with “What If.” Thanks for being part of my last 1400 (it’s actually 1600, so yay, padding). Soon I will give you a survey for Carolyn’s scene she asked me to write for all of you, so start thinking of who you want to see and what you want them to do.

In the meantime, I need to read some books, make some cookies, and hug a kid.

 


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If You Build It, They Don’t Necessarily Come: The Heaven and Hell of Marketing a Book

Warning: this post is long and all about publishing. Possibly boring, do not feel bad if you skip or bail.

I have this thing I do where I troll online booksellers, the NYT list, the USA Today list, and every goddamn list there is out there to follow. I watch Bookscan (nearly useless for me since it’s print books and the majority of my sales are electronic and they don’t go there). Basically I read every tea leaf I can, doing everything in my power to distill the mist surrounding sales in book publishing. I hold the lists against events I do and try to decide if that step up on Amazon was because of that great ink I got, or I wonder why the hell the day I got great ink I fell. I watch the progress of my peers’ books and the people I wish were my peers. I absorb it all, drinking input like water.

Then I go back and look at my sales, compare it to everything I just learned, and every single time I say the same thing.

I have no idea how/why any of it happens, and though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think anybody knows.

lolcat-hugzThat is basically the whole point of this post. Everything beyond this will be me illustrating my firm belief there is nothing you can do to guarantee anything, no magic bullet, no marketing plan, no nothing that replaces the crazy-making cocktail of hard work and dumb luck. I totally understand if you’re not ready to go there, if you’re clinging to your Amazon top 100 or your NYT reports or that marketing scheme you just paid $9.99 for in ebook. Whatever security blanket you need to get yourself through the hell, I am totally down with. TOTALLY. Down. So long as it makes  you happy not miserable, evens you out, not insane, you go girl.

For the rest of us? The cynics, the ones whose blankets are full of holes and our heads full of stats and numbers? Come on in. The bitter brew is lukewarm, and I’ve got a cauldron full. Continue reading


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Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance.

funny-lets-tango-dancing-cats-picsIt is a sad thing that before I begin this blog post that I must give some education. I know any of my contemporaries already know what that post title refers to, but here is the sad truth, compadres: we are old, and the younglings don’t know what the fuck a Sprocket dance is. Younglings, go here. Yes, it’s long. This is how long skits used to be back when flat screen meant a window. If the greatness of Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, and Phil Hartman is too much for you, skip to 7:20 and watch the Sprocket dance. You probably will still think I’m a nutcase, but at least you’ll get my reference.

Because this, bitches, is TOTALLY the time on Sprockets when I dance. 

After sixteen novels, I am starting to figure out how I operate. Not my themes and plot patterns–that I clocked at eight. Penchant for mild angst, epic scenes, set of six revolving archetypes, regular habit of my guys boinking by chapter three–nothing new to see here. But I am, this year, figuring out a nasty little trick I have. I think I may have even developed this habit, but I know I’ve done a version of it all along. It is this, Virginia: sometimes I don’t like dark moment. Sometimes I have too many feelz and don’t want to write the hard things, and so as soon as I see them I start padding the walls and blocking up cracks so maybe they don’t happen. Then I wonder why I get stuck, because the damn thing is so boring. I go back, rerouting back into actual conflict…and subconsciously I undo it all over again.

For as much as I’m a panster, the part of me wanting everyone to just get along has pretty good distance vision and likes to step on stuff well in advance, necessitating a lot of clean up later. I think my muses have cottoned onto this. Having indulged in a pout Saturday about what I’d realized was coming, I’ve been since pushing forward to get there. Now that I am at the doorstep of the dark moment and the ride to the climax, I am looking around at an antagonist which has appeared pretty much out of thin air, or rather from this sign on the wall I’d slapped up, a cardboard cutout in crayon saying ANTAGNIST IZ HRE. What’s coming out of the wall is pretty real, but it’s weird, like Romper Room (there’s another ancient history reference, younglings) holding up the mirror and The Walking Dead starts playing.

Today I noticed this and metaphorically frowned at my muses. They rolled their eyes and said, “This is why we don’t tell you things until the last minute. You’ll have to go back and retrofit as usual.”

This is true. This is as usual. Have you read Special Delivery? Remember how Randy was this ghost antagonist all the way through until he appears in the last third? (This isn’t a spoiler, Samhain even included him in the blurb.) Well, in draft one his first mention was on the CB, when I wasn’t even sure that WAS Randy. Sit with that a second. Imagine him NOT this sword of Damocles hanging over Sam and Mitch the whole time. Love Lessons got to 60k twice before I put in the Williams plot. Again, imagine that book without that element. (God, it was fucking awful. That was this time last year, me swearing my head off.) Every single book in the Etsey series did that to me. (If you’ve read that, book one? Timothy at the end? I HAD NO IDEA FIRST DRAFT. Feel that fact, as Damon would say.) More recently, I sent draft one of Tough Love to betas with a half-assed conflict, totally fucking over my antagonist. Why? Because to this day thinking about the antagonist of that book makes me nervous, like maybe I didn’t do him right. Sasha will attest to my essays in the comment section begging her to please call me on the carpet if I’m not bringing it for Gordy. Writing is hard, and a lot of times? I try like hell to get out of it.

Eventually, though, I have to go back in and dance. In Fever Pitch RIGHT NOW I’m at the moment where the antagonist I should have been using all book (but have been shipping out of state and in general ignoring the hell out of) is going to bring the hammer. There’s even TWO PARTS to the antagonistic element in this book, and guess what: I’ve ignored both of them. La, la, la, I can’t hear you, busy writing a cappella dance numbers and boys in love. It’s not boring, it’s beautiful, it’s…

It’s boring. It’s so boring without the antagonist.

I’ve given up pretending I will ever understand that on the first go-round, that just because I want to write boring slog about everyone getting along (Extra credit: who knows what I’m referencing if I say “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?*”) there’s no promise it will be interesting to anyone, even me. Apparently that is what I do. I pretend I can be a special snowflake with no antagonist, and then at the eleventh hour I go retrofit one in. That is what I’m doing now. Sprocketing my way to an actual book, backwards from the 80k mark. Hurrah.

And no. It’s not any fun, it’s crazy hard to shoehorn it in sideways. It’s how I roll every time. Every. Fucking. Time. Sixteen novels, twenty published works, six partials in the hopper: still hard at sticking my head in the sand and being surprised when everyone else can still see my ass.

Time to dance, bitches. Time to dance. Then the tongue bath.**

 

Super bonus: Look what I found when hunting down Sprockets. Man, we had better TV than I remember us having. Except in hindsight Romper Room was seriously weird.
*If it’s killing you knowing what I’m talking about, go here. Then start reading Pratchett already.
**Seriously. WATCH THAT FIRST YOUTUBE LINK. The whole thing.


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Dogma is Death and Doubt is Your Friend: How to Turn Your Inner Critic Into Your Best Beta

Yesterday was not my best writing day, or day in general. It actually ended with me getting in at least minimum word counts on both NaNoWriMo novels, but the little bit I managed on Fever Pitch in particular was a huge battle. Sleigh Ride would have been a walk in the park, but I had to focus on the sticky one first, because as I have discussed, it is harder and due sooner. As I am wont to do, I vented my frustration over my day and lack of progress on Twitter and Facebook.

I was kind of taken aback by how many people replied at me, on and off social media, to thank me. The one that seemed to get everyone the most was this:

process

I thought about that again today in the shower, and I decided I wanted to write this post, because I remember when I was hungry for those kinds of declarations, especially from people I considered successful. It’s still strange when I realize that’s me–I’m always looking up and ahead, more mountain, more climbing, but the truth is yes, I do pretty well. I am moderately, comfortably successful. It’s less about money (though I do enjoy that) and more about where I am in my career. I like where I work, how I work, and who I work with. I know how to get work done and how to help myself when I get stuck. In a lot of ways I’m at the place I always dreamed I could be. Most days I feel like I show up at the mountain ready to climb better and in more interesting patterns, not learn how. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m going to make myself come read this paragraph on the days when I feel like the world’s biggest hack.

Here’s one of the few things I know for sure, though, that got me to that spot, probably the biggest things I had to learn, the staunchest flag I fly. I decide on my own what does and doesn’t work for me, and I consider my internal editor, my sense of caution and doubt, my most crucial writing partner.

funny-pictures-cant-heer-yur-rules-earz-too-smallI say this because we are in the season of National Novel Writing Month, where the byword is write as much and as fast as you can and kick your editor to the curb. This is an excellent exercise to try at least once, and many people I think will find out a lot about themselves and their work by giving it a try. Some people will find this is probably the best way for them to write.

Some writers, like me, will find out this is the kiss of death.

The thing about rules is they exist for a reason, and whenever presented with a set, I think it’s good to try them on and see how they fit. Rarely does any group or individual make a rule to out-and-out hurt the people who are meant to follow the strictures. No, dogma is generally an accidental or eventual consequence, when the rule isn’t a protective guideline but a fence intending to keep things “the way they’ve always been” or the way the rule-guardians are comfortable with. When it comes to writing, a lot of them are smart. I think writers would do well to not head hop unless they are using that as a tool or because they have the chops to pull it off. (See Nora Roberts, exhibits A-N.) Prologues and epilogues are usually where we step on our novels. Exposition dumps and lack of conflict are often signs of weak prose. Too much passive voice kills pacing, even when the author is skilled at making flat verbs dance. Adverbs are crutches, and so are a lot of adjectives.

I’ve broken every one of those rules except the head hopping, and I’d do that if I had to. Hell, with Marie Sexton I’ve mixed first and third POV in a novel twice. My pile of work rests on the back of many rules followed, bent, and broken in half. Some were wise decisions, some were foolish. All of them, though, were lessons.

The most important tool in my kit is knowing how to listen to myself. The only rules that matter are the ones I make for myself, the ones which suit me, my writing, and my career. Everything else is arrogance and noise, and none of it mine.

lol-cats2This is true for you, whoever you are. It is actually true for life, but today we are talking specifically about how to craft story, how to get over that horrible moment when we are “doing it wrong” and we feel like a failure, ready to quit. Especially if you are stumbling on this post because of a link or search, please take a moment to look at my list of works and my pile of accolades. I’m no La Nora, but I’m no slouch, either. If you want to get really objective, check out Goodreads, because the ones on my website are things I hand-picked. The point is, I have a respectable list of stories and a crowd of people saying they dig what I scribble.  I don’t care if you buy any of my stuff or not–forget that for a minute. Look at that list. That’s thirty years of work right there. Thirty of practicing writing, twenty of applying myself to the study of what makes writing “good.” Four years of playing in the publishing industry pool. Look at what somebody did in that kind of time. And note all that time, all that thinking about writing, about trying rules on and discarding them, drawing some close for a decade and then releasing them back into the wild. About falling in love with authors and mentors and then falling away. The hours I have put into making those two pages are staggering. Since I really can tell you I have thought about or practiced writing at least two hours on average a day since I was ten, many of it more but let’s say average two hours a day, and let’s say a third of them I did eight hours or better: to get to where I am right now as a writer, I have put in at least 50,000 hours. It’s probably more than that, but I can safely vouch for 50,000 hours. This counts reading, English courses in college, teaching writing, actually writing, daydreaming about what I would write, reading about writing, conferences and classes about writing–the whole shebang. According to Macolm Gladwell, I’m an expert five times over.

A lot of you probably are–and if you can’t count up that high yet, then don’t feel bad if this feels hard, because you’re still putting in your time. Let me assure you, even after all those hours and all those books and reviews, this is still very, very hard. In fact it gets harder every time. No sooner do I master one level but the stakes get raised. I could never get bored at my job. Most days I’m lucky just to keep up.

This is a job. Even if you only write for pleasure, writing is still a craft, a skill you can take pride in and improve yourself with. Not all carpenters need to be paid workers of wood. To craft a piece for loved ones or oneself is as valuable if not more so than someone who makes deck chairs to pay the mortgage. No matter why you’re writing, you make the rules that apply to your work.

This is why doubt is your friend, because that voice isn’t some maggot living in your bowels. It’s you. It’s your experience, your sense of caution, your wisdom asserting itself. You need to listen to it, because if you don’t, it’s going to get mean. Listen early and often, because that voice has magic in it. That voice knows what your goals are, your strengths. That internal editor isn’t an enemy. It is you, speaking with your voice.

funny-pictures-cat-is-exempt-from-museum-rulesThis is not to say your voice of doubt doesn’t need some training up. It’s not helpful when you’re writing your first novel ever and your internal editor tells you it’s crap. Retrain it. When your inner voice says, “This scene is garbage,” nod and say thanks, that’s about what it should be at this point. Ask your voice of doubt to work in the background so when you come back to edit it, you know how to make it better. Don’t wait for your doubt, either–sit with it sometimes, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask what wisdom it has that you’ve been ignoring.

Because sometimes it’s actually not yelling. I remember very clearly my inner editor telling me in the early 00s that what I was writing was wrong. It was. I was writing heterosexual romance, going over the top emo but also trying very hard to strap myself into the lines–while also trying to fuck them from underneath. I had great voice but reading me had to be exhausting. I was a mess. And I was writing the wrong thing. Now, when I wrote my gay secondary characters that always, always seemed to show up? That critical voice turned into a cheerleader. Do this, it whispered, and sometimes yelled. Write these men. These are your people. Write them. I tried so hard not to listen. Who would buy those books? What publisher, what reader? Who was I, married stay-at-home mom in the Midwest who didn’t think she really knew any gay men at all?

If you know me at all, if you know my career, my journey of orientation and sexuality, what I write and what I am known for–imagine if I had ignored my doubts.

Writing is like teaching: both are careers and skills we’ve all witnessed, and we think they must be easy because we “know” them. We’ve been to school–teaching’s not that hard. We’ve read a book–not that hard. Try either profession and you’ll learn in a hurry that “knowing” makes the skill ten thousand times harder. Go ahead, knock off that novel this weekend, or even this month. Not quite as simple as you predicted, was it?

It’s work. It’s hard, hard work, and to do it well takes a lifetime. A lifetime of studying, practicing, and listening.

judgemental-cat-disapproves-lolcatI am playing the NaNoWriMo game this year, with two different novels at once. I am not playing by any rules but my own. For the sake of the game and my own timeline, I’d like to finish both by the end of the month, but if I can’t? If my doubt tells me following that rule will give me a bad book or create more work? “Winning” goes under the bus so fast it’ll be dead before it realizes what went down. I already broke the rules by having one of my books being one I’ve been writing since May. You will note that’s the book that I’m at almost 20k on day four. I break NaNoWriMo rules daily. I delete all kinds of things. Before I’m done this month on Fever Pitch especially, I’ll probably delete twenty-thousand of new and old words. Yesterday I deleted five thousand words I’d written between Friday and Saturday and ten more that I’d written in August. This morning I opened Sleigh Ride, the one I legitimately started on November 1, and cut one thousand words and added another two. I condensed things I know my editor will ask me to later. I cut and expanded a section I realize I’d rushed.

Maybe you say, “Yes, but you’re published and you write all day and you’ve done this before, so you can break the rules.” I submit to you that I’m published and I write all day and all the exceptions because I break the rules. Or rather, I write my own.

It is not the case that if you write what you want and what you feelz in your precious special snowflake heart, the world will line up and behave like you want it to. Walking off the beaten path means you might not end up where you thought you would. You might, for example, write in a trope you didn’t know was even a thing, and though you originally wanted to be published in New York, you might be at the point that your agent is trying hard (and failing) to get you to submit things to New York houses which are begging for you. You might look like “a fast writer” when really you only average 3-5k during active writing periods, which aren’t often, and that’s when you write all day long and don’t do laundry or anything else, and that is absolutely overwriting a novel by 100-300%, with sometimes two of three novels’ worth of dead matter beneath your finished manuscript. It’s writing thirty thousand words and cutting twenty. It’s jumping down ten rabbit holes and routing through three plot lines and fifteen characters before you find the two people and one storyline that is right.

Being a successful writer is figuring out and owning the fact that your voice isn’t just in your story. It’s in how you write, when you write, and why. It’s every single part of what you do. It’s why unless they’re literally copying sections of your story, no one can plagiarize you, because let me tell you, twenty gay romance authors could write a cross-country May-December coming of age erotic trucker romance, and only one of them will be this. Your stories are yours because you are your story.

If you’re embarking on your first NaNoWriMo and it’s hard, and the rules aren’t working for you? Listen to your doubt. Not that you suck–it’s probably not saying that. Listen closely. Is it saying the rules are wrong, or that writing is hard? Is it saying this fast schedule isn’t good for your voice, your story? Then okay. You tried this way, and it’s not your way. You don’t jump off a cliff, you go find a new road. Is your doubt fixated on the fact that everyone else seems to be having success with something you cannot? What’s underneath that? What unique, amazing voice of yours are you squashing because you’re trying to be like everyone else? What bloom inside yourself are you missing because you’re so focused on one kind of goal you’re missing an even more beautiful, personal one?

standing-mountain-goatI have known much doubt. I have sat with bestsellers and despaired I would ever be one. I have looked at publishing houses and feared I would never find mine. I have watched crowds of other readers and worried I’d never have any of my own. I’ve felt the horrible, aching pain of knowing I had important, powerful stories inside me I feared I would never be talented enough and strong enough to serve. I have felt like the red-headed stepchild, the lonely island. I have known doubt crippling and blinding, despair so deep I nearly gave up writing entirely.

I stand here today on this mountain of work I have achieved, this career, this life, these stories, hand in hand with those doubts. I’m a midlist author at best. I would be in trouble if I had to live entirely my own salary–or at least, I’d be a lot less comfortable. I may never tackle the mountains I originally set out to scale. Yet I’m happy. I’m successful, in my way. I write what I love and love what I write. I have readers and followers and awards. I got all this by listening to and honoring my doubts, the voice inside me. My friend, my advisor, my second set of eyes, my friend. My self.

If you want it, you can have your own mountain. It might not look like what you dream of. It will probably be better, even if it ends up smaller than you had hoped. Whatever it is, it will be yours, and that’s worth more than any rule, any dogmatic stricture that promises to keep you safe but really only holds you down. Listen to your voice, your doubts. Try on some rules. Throw them away, collect them back again. Listen, learn, try. Write.

Get out there and climb, however and wherever suits you best.


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Games to Play With Stuff to Win

Two events start today, and they allow you to play around with some trivia, have some fun, and win prizes from me and other authors of all kinds and stripes. 

The Romance Reviews Year End Splash:

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You’ll need to create an account and log in to play, but I encourage you to do so. Some great prizes there! My event is today—you’ll recognize me in question number 13.

 

The other event this month, starting today, is Elisa Rolle’s Rainbow Awards Pre-Party and Seventh Anniversary.

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This one is also a kind of scavenger hunt, also involves book prizes, and also lasts all of November. I’ve donated a prize, but you’ll have to play along to find out what book and what day.

Now I will go back to work while you play. It’s my hope that by the end of November I have two finished drafts and you have the entire Special Delivery series available for preorder. If you want to see how those drafts are going, you can track me finishing Fever Pitch here and Sleigh Ride here. Or you can just sit back and wait until you can one-click the books into your lap and keep yourself amused with contests and games until then. Whatever makes you happy, baby.

 


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This is why we can’t have nice things.

I love it when people ask me if I’m a planner or a pantser when it comes to writing, especially if they’re a planner. There’s always this little glint in their eye, almost a smirk suggesting that if I would only try planning out my works I would sigh with happiness at how much easier it was.

Yes, it would be so much easier. Except I fucking can’t do it. I’ve tried. I’ve tried like I cannot begin to tell you. It doesn’t work.

Want to know how much it doesn’t work? WITNESS.

Right now Fever Pitch, the second book in the Love Lessons series, is due. I have until December 30, but that’s only two months away. Technically it’s 3/4 finished, but it’s all finicky and every time lately I’ve been able to sit down I’ve been pulled away. So I signed up for NaNoWriMo, thinking I’d be all rebel and shit and get my work done while hanging with friends. I’d take the days before to outline the remainder. Again. Because I’ve only done it four times. I’d do it a fifth, and this time it would work. I’d sit down and finish it and it would be great. I’m all set to do that to, and I’m here to tell you, muses be damned, it’s happening somehow. I will turn this book in on time.

The muses, however, are having a throw down. Because they want me to write this. Right now.

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This is something I’m supposed to write too. I was all set to write it after I got done with the one that is due. Sleigh Ride is next in the Minnesota Snow series. It isn’t due until like March or something. It is light and short and easy and should take me a month at best. I can do it while I bake Christmas cookies and hang tinsel.

It will not shut up and insists it has to be written right now.

The problem is that the muses are right. I would do better to clear out my head with this because it’s fun where Fever Pitch is hard. Except I have to write Fever Pitch first for that reason: if I do Sleigh Ride first, then I have to do the hard book when I’m stressed and tossed in ten directions. It’s a bad, bad plan, even though it’s a good idea. It won’t work.

The muses smile at me when I say this and encourage me to make a playlist to go with that nice collage they had me do this morning instead of laundry.

I can already see what’s going to happen. I’m going to end up doing both. I have written two books at once before. It’s not elegant. I’m going to work like hell to stick to this book coming right after I finish Fever Pitch, but I can already see the writing on the wall. If I want Fever Pitch turned in on time, I’m going to have to play their way.

Here’s the thing. Those of you who write or create,  who aren’t eye rolling as you read this? Those of you who are nodding and maybe even getting choked up? You know. This isn’t about invisible people dictating our lives. This is about instinct, about deeper voices than the ones that turn into characters. These are about gut-level guides that who knows where they come from, but they know. Maybe they don’t care about publishing schedules, but they know. They know how to deliver the good books. They know where the gold is, and they know when to fly and when to rest. They know when we’re lying to ourselves and “that little book” is actually soul-deep raw and hard.

I guess you could say it’s less that I don’t have a plan but that I have a deeper part of me that has a much better sense of the plan and overrides my little ones. Maybe it really is that I’m disorganized because I can’t get that deep part to converse properly with the mindful, present part. Maybe this is some kind of crazy flaw. Anything’s possible.

All I know is there’s a librarian and a lumberjack telling me all about what they want to do in the back of that sleigh in Arthur’s shed, about how they hate each other but don’t really, about what they’re afraid of and what they’re longing for, and they’re showing me in crystal colors and sounds how it will all go down. And they swear on a stack of muse bibles that if I only listen to them, Fever Pitch will come out like butter too, better than if I forced it on alone, and yes, it will still be done by New Year’s.

Okay then. It’s a plan to fuck the plan and do the stupid plan that doesn’t make sense but is shiny and feels right. Well, at least everything is normal.


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A Meditation on Pacing: How to Lure Your Reader Into Your Novel & Deliver the Ride You Promise

This is basically an introduction to a course I’ve wanted to teach for a long time, and it seems appropriate to post it as we approach National Novel Writing Month. I acknowledge this is a huge topic boiled down to three thousand summary words, but hopefully it’s still of some value. And maybe someday I will teach this class.

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We’ve all heard the story about agents and editors reading the first paragraph of a submission and rejecting it immediately. It’s a true tale, but it’s not the most important one. A much bigger problem for authors is that readers use this rejection tactic too. You think getting an agent or editor is tough? Ain’t nothing, baby, on snagging a loyal reader. What makes editors, agents, and readers toss your work away? Odds are pretty good you lost them with pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm, the beat, the forward pulse of a story. Strong pacing doesn’t necessarily mean a fast story or one full of energy. Good pacing creates interest, engages the reader and motivates her to keep reading, to turn the page, to buy the book. Pacing is the trail of breadcrumbs luring a willing voyager onto your ride.

We often hear about “hooks” as important to our story, those killer first lines that razzle and pop and make great quotes on Goodreads. But if you’re going to use a wicked hook, you’d better have some industrial line attached to it. A hook can’t simply dazzle. It must lay out a promise for story you don’t just intend to keep but do keep. It should be interesting on first read and illuminating on second and third.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. — Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. — Stephen King, It

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. — Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Do a google search on “great first lines of novels” and you’ll sink neck-deep into beautiful, intriguing prose. Here’s the great secret, though: you don’t have to kill yourself writing something killer that sums up your story in a single sentence, ready to echo for the ages. All first lines have to do is attract your reader’s attention. Continue reading

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