My 2017 Wrap-Up

I think it’s safe to say that 2017 has been a hell of a year for so many of us. In both grandiose, historic ways and more personal, close-to-home ways, this was a year of unpredictability, wild fluctuation, and seemingly endless frustration. Sure, there were some amazing highlights, but it was so hard to grasp where things stood from one moment to the next. Just when you felt you had a handle on things, they’d slip away and change again. It was exhausting keeping up with 2017.

But I don’t really want to talk about any of that stuff.

I will remember 2017 as the year I published my first book. That’s what I want to talk about. Because wow is that something I never could have imagined myself saying. Ever.

Here’s something else I never thought I’d say: I’m proud of what I accomplished. Trust me, those words do not come easy. I’m wrestling with my inner critic right now as I type them. (“C’mon, it wasn’t that great,” my critic is saying. “It’s not like you even tried to get it traditionally published. You were too afraid of the inevitable rejection letters.”) Shut up, Inner Critic.

If I’m being totally honest, I guess, deep down, I did think I could write a book. I mean, I wouldn’t have started if I couldn’t imagine finishing. In the beginning it was a lark, something fun to break up the monotony of freelance writing. And it was fun for a while. Then it wasn’t. Then it was again. Around the middle of the year I gave myself a deadline and aimed to have a completed first draft by then. Somehow I did it. And in the process, I found that I loved the book more than I thought I would. It was just going to be this throwaway thing, a learning experience, an exercise in creativity and following through. But by the time I was finished the story had gotten under my skin. I had an inkling I could write a book, but I didn’t know I could write a decent one. Sales have been steady and reviews have been generally positive. Not that I need outside validation. 

Just kidding. I can’t even type that with a straight face. I rely on it way too much. It’s something I plan to work on in 2018.

Anyway, that one accomplishment led to many more. I mastered Scrivener. I taught myself how to edit critically and thoughtfully (though you wouldn’t think so with those conspicuous adverbs there). I designed my own cover. I wrestled with, and eventually conquered, formatting. I delved into social media, started a Twitter account, created a page on Facebook, started this blog. All of this in the last half of the year, and nearly all of it starting from square one. Through promoting the book I’ve had some amazing experiences and met some wonderful, supportive people. It’s served as a nice balance to the outside noise, and a reminder that while there will always be trolls out there, we human beings are capable of boundless kindness and generosity.

And so, my main resolution for 2018 (other than trying to give up refined sugar–wish me luck!) is to keep up the momentum and continue doing what I’ve been doing. I’m working on another romance to follow Buzzworthy, so that’s my immediate goal. Beyond that, I’m not making any predictions. After all, I couldn’t have predicted at the end of last year how this one would turn out. So I’m just going to take it as it comes.

If you’re reading this I wish you a happy and safe new year. May you accomplish everything you set out to do in 2018!

Get Thee to a Writing Group

Everyone — and I mean everyone, author or not — has writing advice to offer. I’ve found some of it helpful, some of it frustrating, and a lot that just doesn’t apply to me. The best advice I’ve ever received, and could ever give, is to write. Just write. Sit down and do the work, even if you think it sucks. All writing is practice, and practice is the best way to get very good at something. Do it a lot. Every day, if you can. That may not be possible for everyone — it’s certainly not possible for me — but the more you write, the better you get at writing. Full stop.

The second-best piece of writing advice I have is to join a writing group. I was lucky enough to find a great one on the first try, and they’ve stuck with me through the blissful, stressful, sometimes painful, process of writing my first book. I don’t know where I’d be without them, but I probably wouldn’t have a finished book now, and if I did it wouldn’t be as good. Every meeting is like an injection of pure inspiration, along with a good meal and sometimes dessert. We usually have our meetings once a month, over dinner at a restaurant. Besides writing, the topic of food and where to eat it is probably the thing we discuss the most. When I figured that out, I knew it was a sign this was the group for me.

When I joined the group about three years ago, we all had projects in the works. Often, a waiter or waitress would overhear some of our conversation at dinner and ask us, “Oh, are you all writers?” We’d mumble, “Yes, yes. We all have things we’re working on.” Now, one of us has published a collection of short stories; one has finished her first manuscript and is getting ready to query agents; one has a script in the finals of a prestigious competition; one was accepted to a big-time diversity fellowship and released a tie-in book to a Pixar film; one is an actual professional screenwriting consultant and reader for several big contests. And, of course, I’ve just published my first book. At our December meeting earlier this week, someone brought along a paperback copy of Buzzworthy for me to sign (which felt really weird), so this time when the waitress asked, “Are you writers?” my friend held up the actual, physical book, pointed to me and said, “She wrote this!” It was one of those moments you never forget as an author.

You can’t have my group, though. They’re mine. You’ll have to find your own. And not all writing groups are a great fit. It may take some time and a few false starts to find the right one. Check online for groups in your area. Bookstores and libraries are also a great resource. I recommend trying out a few groups until you find the right mix. Be picky. Consider the members of the group your alpha readers. They’ll help you shape your ideas into a solid final product. It’s a good chance to talk through those hitches that come up in the course of your writing. I can’t tell you how many times I was stuck and someone in my group said just the right thing to get me unstuck.

So what makes a good group? Here are some criteria that make a writing squad (as I like to think of mine) really super:

  • A small group with no more than six to seven regular members
  • People who offer constructive comments, and accept them well from others
  • People who understand the basics of storytelling and craft
  • People who are good listeners and don’t monopolize the conversation
  • People whose work you enjoy reading
  • People with a similar sense of humor
  • People who are supportive and encouraging

There are other criteria you may want to consider, based on your own preferences for feedback. Like, we don’t tend to get too far into the weeds in my group. If there are grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors we might point them out, but we don’t spend a lot of time on that stuff. We will, however, go out of our way to physically demonstrate (and I mean, get out of our chairs and act it out) why a character could not see another character through a particular doorway, depending on where they are standing in a room. But that’s just us.

Finally, here are some types to avoid when seeking out a group:

  • Anyone who can’t take criticism
  • Anyone who makes it all about themselves
  • Anyone whose feedback is personal, petty or not constructive
  • Anyone who continually flakes on the group meetings or seems like their heart isn’t in it
  • Anyone who isn’t interested in reading your preferred genre or who writes in a genre that doesn’t interest you.

The last one is arguable, because I’d encourage anyone who wants to be a writer to try and be open to new experiences. But, for instance, if you write clean romance and someone in the group only writes erotica, you’re going to have to make the call as to whether you want to read and comment on their pages with an open mind. It’s all about the give and take. It shouldn’t be a chore to read someone else’s work.

Otherwise, if you encounter any of these people in a group, don’t go back. There are plenty of helpful, talented writers out there who want to see you succeed as much as they want to succeed themselves. Don’t waste your valuable time on the rest. You’ll get a lot more out of it if the group is cohesive. It’s okay if you all come from a variety of backgrounds, skills, and disciplines. In fact, I think that’s better.

Needless to say, don’t be any of these people in a group yourself. For at least the first meeting, maybe the second too, just sit back and listen to what they have to say and how they interact. You can offer your input here and there, but take your time and ease into it. Learn the vibe of a group and figure out how you fit into it. It’s like being in a band, when everyone is jamming along, you can make beautiful music together. And your writing will be better for it, I guarantee.

My First Author Interview

Everyone has tips about how to sell books as a self-published author, but one piece of advice I’ve always found valuable is to make connections, and to make the most of them (that’s good advice for any industry, actually). Reach out. E-mail. Like. Share. Retweet. Whether you’re interacting with editors, readers, other writers, or anyone else with whom you share an interest, there’s no substitute for the personal touch. Those relationships will not only provide you with a base of support when you hit a creative wall, they may come in handy in your professional life too.

If you write books about Hollywood and happen know someone who has a blog devoted to books and movies, why not make the most of that connection to promote your book? So when my friend Chris, who co-runs the blog Novel2Screen, reached out to me to see if I’d do an interview for the site, I was thrilled. She could help introduce my book to her followers and I could drive book readers to her site. Win win.

She asked great questions and the whole experience made me feel like a real author. I talked about the book, the characters, inspiration, and the difficulty of writing a book set in Hollywood in the midst of an industry-wide sex scandal (I have plenty more to say about that, but I’ll save it for another day). I’m really happy with how it turned out.

You can read the full interview here.

Incidentally, Novel2Screen focuses on TV and movie adaptations of books, and features great weekly reviews of shows like Outlander. So come for the author rambling, stay for the snarking about sexy Scots.

Self-Published is Only Half-Finished

I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to release my first book at the beginning of November and try and do NaNoWriMo too. I guess I figured once my debut romance novel, Buzzworthy, was done and up on Amazon for sale I could just brush my hands and walk away. Ha! Rookie mistake.

Because, you see, when you’re self-publishing, writing the book is only part of the process. It’s not even, like, a third of the process. Besides writing the book, there’s editing the book, formatting the book (for print and digital), designing the cover (or getting someone else to), and repeating all those steps over and over until you’re so sick of looking at it you don’t even care if there’s a hanging em dash in that one paragraph. But really you do care, so you go through all the steps again. And once that’s done, there’s the whole process of uploading and waiting for it to go live and look! Someone pinch you! You’re a published author on Amazon, right up there with your favorite authors! Just like you’ve always dreamed!

But.

No one is buying the book.

I won’t say no one, because I got eight sales the first weekend it was up, including six pre-orders (I’ll do a post later about why it’s a dumb idea to do pre-orders for your first book — another rookie mistake). But then it just kind of stalled. Because I forgot about marketing. You’ve got to promote the book. Which is kind of meta, actually, because the love interest in Buzzworthy is a movie star who hates promoting his movies. Wonder where that came from?

I have a Twitter account and I have this shiny new blog. I’m trying to be more engaging and put myself out there. But it’s hard. Especially for writers, who tend to be an introverted lot. So this week I’m diving into marketing and we’ll see how it goes. If I make any more mistakes other new writers could learn from, you’ll hear about it here.

Oh, and please feel free to check out my book on Amazon! If you like it, be sure to leave a nice review. I have only one so far. Bless you, Jeri T. Ryan, whoever you are. I’ll bet you get mixed up with that actress from Star Trek all the time and that probably kind of sucks, but you seem super nice. You were the first stranger to review my book, and you gave it five stars, so I wish only good things for you and your loved ones and your descendants in perpetuity.

Like I said, I’m still figuring this all out. And maybe tomorrow I’ll get back on track with my NaNo project.