Writer’s Block: When to Push Through and When Not

book-gianni testoreToday’s post came out of a conversation I had with a fellow author the other day, and it occurred to me it might be useful to others as well.

Recently, I posted about the struggle I’ve been having to write. I don’t sit and stare at a blinking cursor, which is how I think many people perceive writer’s block. No, instead I come up with a great idea and dive headlong into it–writing madly until I hit the 40 K mark or so, when I suddenly lose all faith in the story and my ability to tell it. As such, it doesn’t really feel like writer’s block, but I think it’s a form of it just the same.

I’ve done this with four stories in the past year. Four stories that I walked away from at the halfway point.

Now, 2016 wasn’t a good year for me. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t good for a lot of people. Living with fear or depression is sapping to one’s creative energy. So is working an exhausting job. But these things were only additional factors in my decision to walk away from these stories. The real issue was that I didn’t believe they were any good. I thought they were fatally flawed and not worth finishing.

The thing is, I think there is a natural rhythm to writing. Most of us experience a lull in productivity after we’ve finished a big project. That’s normal. That’s not writer’s block. Farmers used to let fields lie fallow for a season to allow the ground replenish the minerals needed to grow healthy crops. Now we stuff the dirt with fertilizer and force earth to produce more food faster without any rest.

I’m a firm believer in taking a little break between projects so your well of creativity can restock. Just don’t let that break go on too long, or it represents too much lost time between one story and the next–and these days, like the farmers, writers are expected to produce new works rapidly. An experienced author knows this and doesn’t let that natural lull go on too long or else it becomes wasted time.

laptop-user-1-1241192But what I experienced last year was not a naturally occurring wane in production. So if you hit a roadblock in your writing–think about why you want to bail on it now. The most important question you have to ask yourself is this: is the problem with THIS story or is it with your self-confidence?

The thing with writer’s block of any sort (even if you’re still writing but it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of pliers) is that sometimes you’re blocked for a good reason. Either the story isn’t working or you’re trying to force the characters in a direction they don’t want to go. That kind of ‘I can’t write today’ is totally different from the feeling that everything you write is utter crap and you’re stymied because you either keep writing the same bit over and over or nothing at all because ALL THE WORDS SUCK.

In the first situation, sometimes you need to walk away from the story for a bit and let it simmer in your subconscious while you figure out the problems. Or you need to read other stories and watch some movies while you re-charge your writing mojo. Be kind to yourself in these situations. Take the dog for a walk. Do something different. Let your brain unravel the thorny problem as best it can. If taking a little break doesn’t help, then skip that scene and write something else until you can come back to the one giving you trouble. The solution might well have come to you by then–maybe even as a result of you moving on with the story.

If you feel hamstrung in your writing because of self-doubt however, the most important thing is to write SOMETHING. Part of the problem with writer’s block in any form is the belief nothing you write is good enough. You know what? The first draft of anything written isn’t good enough. But you can’t know what to fix until you get it down on paper. I’m discovering that sometimes my first draft is just me getting to know the characters and the universe they live in. That means a lot of things might change in the second draft. And there is nothing wrong with this!

There’s also nothing wrong with realizing something isn’t your forte and not expending any more time or energy on it. I’ve finally accepted that as much as a love a cleverly written short story, it’s just not something I do well. I have spent as much time struggling with a 10 K short story as I have with an 80 K novel. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t do something as well as other people you know. Figure out what your strengths are as a writer and hone them until they are razor sharp. This is even more important when you’re already struggling to write, regardless of the reasons.

If self-doubt is holding you back–and I believe depression and fear are huge contributing factors to this category as well–sometimes the wise thing to do is soldier on. Will it be your best work? Probably not. But dropping out of things and not finishing things becomes a habit. A bad one. I think this is what happened to me last year, and though I also made a decision to drop out of some projects recently, I think in that case, I did it for the right reasons. Not because I didn’t think the end result would be good enough but because I realized I’d seriously over-committed myself at a time when the demands on my writing time and creative energy are already very high. Saying no to some projects–including ones I really wanted to do–took the pressure off me enough so I could get back to work on the most important ones. It sucked to have to disappoint people, but at the same time, I hope that will serve as a reminder to me in the future not to take on more than I can manage.

Things that sap your creative energy–like an exhausting job, or family pressures, or depression–aren’t likely to go away. You have to learn how to work around them if you want to be a writer. The lovely thing about doing this is that when things are going better, you have the skills to write like a fiend. And if you can turn out decent work when things are crap, think how much better you can do when things are great?

For many reasons, I’ve been debating if I should continue writing, and if I do, what genre I should be writing in. Part of my problem as a storyteller is I don’t have a recognizable format–I like a little of everything! I’m not sure I’d do better in other genres, but other genres are calling to me. The hard part is knowing what is a valid reason for changing and what is self-doubt. Knowing the difference between truly wanting to head in a new direction versus letting the fact that the path has become difficult make you think it’s time to turn around.

So if you’re struggling to write just now, I feel your pain. If you’re thinking about quitting–either on a specific story or the whole writing gig altogether, be honest with yourself as to why you’re thinking about quitting. Figure out if the problem is THIS story versus your writing in general. The action you take will depend on knowing the difference.

In the meantime, I’ve got a bloody story to finish. Catch you on the flip side.

Authors Be Warned: The Ongoing Impact of the All Romance Ebooks Debacle

pirates-bill-davenportI’m sitting here shaking with anger and disbelief.

The other day, I decided to make a few tweaks to my long-standing free story, A Summer Fling, with a view to making it exclusive to Amazon. No big deal, right? The only other place it was offered was Smashwords and All Romance Ebooks–also for free.

Last night, I received an alarming email from Amazon asking me to prove copyright or face permanent ban from publishing there again. Shocked, I consulted friends, who assured me this wasn’t that unusual and that it was probably in view of recent incidents of several people in my genre being impersonated online. I sent the required information back to Amazon and went to bed thinking it was over.

Imagine my surprise when I get a response from Amazon KDP that states due to an undisclosed third party claiming copyright, and their policy not to get involved in third party disputes, they have chosen not to publish my story. A story that had been on their site for three years. A story that is MINE.

Who could this mysterious third party be, hmmm? I have no proof, but I have suspicions. Which retailer–RETAILER, mind you, not publisher–recently massively screwed authors over by closing their doors with four days notice, sending an email out offering an insulting 10 cents on the dollar for owed royalties only on the promise that the author didn’t sue? Which retailer then allegedly told some authors they were holding the files of stories previously offered for sale on their site for the next seven years for tax purposes? Which retailer allegedly began manipulating sales data to reflect even less royalties owed than just 24 hours before? And which retailer has been accused of improperly reporting sales data in the past, and prevented authors from removing their books from the site (you could only inactivate them) while the allegations of unethical and illegal actions keep piling up?

Lori James and All Romance Ebooks, that’s who.

Let me just say this: the sum owed me initially wasn’t very large. I only had a few self-published titles with them. I’m not worried about the possibility of James or anyone else laying claim to my Dreamspinner Press titles–I know DSP will defend them. And after I neglected to capture the data in time (the download links would not work and I could only make screen caps of the info) and my reported royalties dropped by 2/3 with no way of proving it, I decided I would let it go. While some people may have signed publishing contracts with ARe, they merely hosted my self-published stories. They were not the publisher on record–I am.

summer_fling-200x300But now SOMEONE is disputing copyright on a story I created and published myself. Someone has stolen not only my past income but threatening my future income. A Summer Fling is a lightweight little story written for the M/M Romance Group on Goodreads back in 2011. It’s not a story worth fighting over. But my other self-published titles once hosted by All Romance, books I can no longer retrieve from the site, ARE worth fighting for. So while I once considered letting this battle go, I can’t AFFORD To close my eyes to this. The possibility that someone associated with All Romance intends to set up shop again under another name, selling books they are not entitled to sell, is frightening.

For the most complete summation of the extent of fraud perpetrated by the management of ARe–and more importantly, what you can do to prevent them from getting away with this scott-free, please check out this valuable post: Publisher All Romance: Closing Hits New Low in Stealing from Authors. The details in this post are jaw-dropping. If these allegations are true, then criminal charges need to be filed.

So if you have been a victim of the recent actions of All Romance Ebooks, I invite you to file a report with the  Florida Attorney General’s Office and The Department of Justice for Internet Crimes. Please spread the word to anyone you know who may be affected by this. If you are an author living in another country, please look into filing fraud charges in your country, making this an international crime.

In the meantime, I’ve put A Summer Fling back up on Smashwords. Snag a copy. Enjoy. And if you wouldn’t mind leaving a review, that would be helpful. But if you BUY this book anywhere online–you’ve been ripped off too.

Part Two Here

Part Three Here

EDIT: After having accepted that I am the copyright holder of A Summer Fling, Amazon’s position was that I did not have clear publishing rights to the story, based on the takedown notice of the third party they refused to name. After reviewing all the material I sent them, including the ARe agreement showing that they did not retain publishing rights to my self-published stories, Amazon/KDP still declined to reinstate A Summer Fling and advised me to hire a copyright lawyer if I wished to pursue the case further.

I’d been in contact with the publisher of the anthology in which A Summer Fling first appeared, and she took it upon herself to contact Amazon on my behalf. I also forwarded all my conversations with KDP and my documentation to Jeff Bezos. I asked only that the third party be named so I would know if I was dealing with a misunderstanding versus grounds for a lawsuit.

On 1/5/17, without any explanation other than on further review, they decided to reverse their decision, Amazon has reinstated A Summer Fling back on its listings. Heck, it’s even a freebie again.

I’ll probably never know for sure what changed their minds. Could it have been the amount of noise I made? Being contacted both by Al Jazeera and a Tampa reporter wishing to interview authors affected by the abrupt closure and failure of ARe to pay owed royalties? Was this all due to a misinterpretation of my rights to the story? Or did Mr. Bezos have someone review my detailed information and reverse the decision? There’s no way to tell. If this is the only incident of this nature, I’ll chalk it up to experience and a lesson learned about protecting the right to publish my own stories.

If it happens again with one of my self-published stories, there is only one party that could even remotely attempt to contest my publishing rights–and then I’ll have my answer, won’t I?

Nothing Left to Lose is Another Word for Freedom

Yes, I know. That’s not how the lyric goes.

I have my reasons for flipping it on its head. In the original song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, the emphasis is looking at someone who seems free and realizing they’ve lost the only thing that really mattered to them. The focus is on the shallowness of the freedom because of the loss.

I want to focus on the freedom aspect.

In years past, I’ve often given the upcoming year a ‘title’ with a goal toward making it so–the year of living Without Fear, or the year of living in Love. Like most New Year’s resolutions, it means well, starts out strong, and then peters out as time, energy, and enthusiasm wane.

I can skip ahead to that part now. I’m already looking at 2017 with an empty tank of gas. I feel as though I’ve already sacrificed and given up so much over the years. I think a lot of us can identify with this. We’ve pinched, scraped, and done without for so long there is no further room to tighten our belts. Many of us are starving: emotionally, financially, spiritually, even physically. Yes, you can be starving and fat–Cheez Doodles are cheap, after all.

Looking ahead, I don’t think things are going to get better. I think they are going to get much, much worse. It dawned on me the other day, I don’t really have to worry any longer about all the things that used to terrify me. Will I have enough money to take care of me in my old age? To pay for health insurance? To rebuild the crappy little house as it continues to fall apart?

No. I don’t really think we’re going to be around long enough for these things to matter.

Things that used to gnaw at my fears like rats worrying bones have ceased to have the same importance. Will the next book release be successful? Am I just wasting my time writing? Should I give it up?

Laughable concerns in the face of our potential future. A future where our own government is dismantling democracy piece by piece and replacing it with something truly horrifying.

But in an odd way, this realization has been very liberating for me. It’s a little like a hypochondriac being cured of his phobia by developing a life-threatening disease. Once you’ve experienced the real thing, all those previous silly fears just fade away. I’ll freely admit, I’m a chronic worrier. Now that I’m staring down the barrel at the loss of everything I believe in, something inside just clicked. I’m like Sarah in Labyrinth when she finally realizes the Goblin King no longer has any power over her.

Yes, the future ahead is uncertain at best and terrifying at worst. I suspect many, many people have no idea how horrible it can be. We’re worried about losing rights, and I think it will be much worse that that. Aleppo worse.

But there are so many other, smaller things I can stop worrying about. Things that no longer have any power over me. And the funny thing about freedom is that once you get a taste of it, you’re no longer willing to walk in chains.

I think the Goblin King and his minions about to take office are going to find us a hard nut to crack.

The Importance of Play to Your Creativity

dscn3989Toward the end of October, I was all set to write a post about how much fun I’d been having lately. I was anticipating an upcoming release, working on final edits for another, and completing a WIP on a deadline, and yet I’d taken a couple of Saturday afternoons off to play rather than work on these things. I had a charming post in mind about the benefits of play to your creativity.

And then the November elections happened. I won’t sugar-coat it. I was devastated by the results. The implications of the impact of the new administration are staggering on so many levels: personally, financially, emotionally, environmentally… I could go on. I struggled to finish my projects. I began stress eating–and have probably gained ten pounds, I’m afraid to look at the scale. I stopped coloring my hair (and at the moment resemble a skunk with the two inch wide streak of gray running down the middle of my scalp). I’m not  sleeping, and when I do manage to catch a few hours of sleep, I have nightmares.

Writing a cheerful post about the benefits of play to your personal creativity seemed not only frivolous, but pointless as well. Instead of writing about the importance of having fun to energize the writing process, I wrote about why we need our storytellers more than ever. Instead of sharing pictures of me playing with action figures or planning my next cosplay, I wrote about living with fear. Recently, I read a post about how we as creators should keep our mouths shut about politics unless we were political writers. That’s fine if you wish to do that. If you’re concerned about losing readers because of sharing your beliefs. I’ve been turned off by artists who have revealed their true selves to social media, so I get it. But let me say for the record if you don’t buy my works because you revile the things I believe in, well, I doubt seriously you would have enjoyed them anyway.

And let me tell you this: we ALL have a stake in the future here. Regardless of our sexual orientation, our gender, our economic status, our religious beliefs, our age, our ethnicity, our belief in science and education, our status as US citizens… because we ALL live on this planet, and the upcoming administration will put all of that at risk. Not just the part where the cishet white males in the 1% tax bracket live. And given the rampant lying and corrupt inaccuracies coming from the upcoming administration, there needs to be visible and vocal protest every day, otherwise they will continue steamrolling over the rights of everyone.

But that brings me back to the importance of play. Yes, it took me a while to see that. There are two points I want to make here. The first, is that while we all know to be successful as creators, we must be disciplined about working at our craft every day, there are reasons why we still need to read and watch other works, and yes–play.

I have a very good friend who, because we live on different sides of the country, we only get to meet up once a year. However we email each other. We send each other cards and gifts (okay, most of the sending is on her side because she’s awesome like that). And we pose pictures of our action figures in scenes like storyboards and send them to each other.

steve-respondsTwo weeks before the election, I spent 3 or 4 hours posing action figures with props against different backdrops in my yard. I wasn’t conscious of the time. I didn’t stop what I was doing and check my social media platforms every few minutes. I was engrossed and having fun, playing with dolls outside on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. I can’t tell you when the last time I’d had so much fun by myself had occurred. Probably the previous winter, when I spent hours in the snow posing action figures in an epic battle between the Abominable Snowman, Queen Elsa, and the Wraith.

The following weekend, I sorted through my costumes, trying them on and determining which needed more work before the next cosplay event. For someone who goes to conventions once or twice a year at best, I have a lot of costumes. And the afternoon I spent dressing up, attempting to master Peggy Carter’s hair and makeup, was another delightful day spent.

agent-carter-red-dress-and-shoesHere’s the funny thing. I ‘should’ have been writing. I have a limited amount of writing time each week, and wasting it playing with dolls or dress-up should have made me cringe. But it didn’t. Those weekends stand out as some of the happiest, most relaxing in memory–that didn’t take place on vacation, that is.

Even more astounding, by letting my mind play all afternoon, I woke up the next morning with the solutions to sticky plot points ironed out, as well as on fire to jot down some new ideas for different stories. Creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It needs fuel and fertilizer. It needs oxygen and freedom to grow. And the best part: it’s self-perpetuating. The more you play, the more creative you become.

Which brings me to the second point: as I’ve said before, we need our storytellers more than ever. Chuck Wendig has written some fantastic posts about how to create art and make cool stuff in a time of trouble, as well as the need for hope. That is true for all of us as creators, but I say this as well: it’s true for all us period. We need our heroes. We need to believe that good will win in the end. We need the courage that comes from emulating our heroes and the relief from fear that comes from a few hours of play, be that coloring, or making crafts, or dressing as your favorite kick-ass character, or reading, or writing, or whatever. When you realize that J.K. Rowling’s Dementors are a metaphor for depression, or that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was heavily influenced by his experiences in WWI, then you realize that we’re all political animals in the end–and we all need hope.

 

 

Living with Fear

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am far more political there than I am anywhere else. You also may have noticed that my Twitter feed looks a bit schizophrenic: I’ve alternated between frothy-mad post-election Tweets, We’re All DOOMED Tweets, and the incongruous inclusion of images of cute puppies and kittens.

Why the flip-flop? Because we are a species are not well-equipped to live with sustained fear.

Bear with me a moment. I don’t often post about politics here, but this is important. It affects us all.

sorrow-and-worry-1434786-1918x1274Most of last week was utterly terrifying to me. I watched in horror as the nation elected not only an Internet Troll, but a narcissistic, racist, fascist, homophobic, misogynistic and completely unqualified person to the highest office in the land. While half the country told me to stop whining and buck up, many others saw the parallels to Hitler (not surprising since the President-elect’s playbook came straight out of Mein Kampf). Too many people have been quick to point out that perhaps it was all an act, and he would temper his statements now that he’s won. You mean like the way he’s moderated his discourse his entire life? I think not.

But by the weekend, I had to calm down. I stopped crying. I went to work. I made unenthusiastic plans for Christmas. Kitten pix crept into my Twitter feed, along with Obama and Biden memes. I wrote a post of encouragement, believing now, more than ever, we need our storytellers. I got offline. I went horseback riding. I ate far more pie, ice cream, and brownies than is probably wise.

When I did go back online, I found fresh, disturbing news. The proposed end of Net Neutrality, a free press, national parks, and Medicare. Plans to make the US a Christian theocracy (which flies in the face of the entire reason this country was founded). People proudly flying Nazi flags. Calls for violence and acts of hatred against women, POC, immigrants, Muslims, and members of the GLBTQ community. The erosion of civil rights. The tight ties our President-elect has with Putin, and evidence Russian hackers interfered with voting. ISIS and the KKK celebrating the election of Trump as President. Trump has thanked Alex Jones for his support–this is the man who reported that the Sandy Hook shootings were faked by President Obama to drum up gun control support. He is promoting his businesses from the .gov website. He is appointing family members to his transition team, and his conflicts of interest are legion and yet no one seems to be able to stop him. And that was just over the weekend.

I recognize I am a privileged person. I’m white, educated, have a good job, and own my own home. Any person who can say, “I went horseback riding this weekend” really shouldn’t have much cause for fear, should they? Well, I do.

Because I am a woman, and the President-elect believes money and power is grounds for sexual assault with impunity.

Because I have family members that are POC.

Because I spent the last eight years climbing out of the economic black hole the Bush administration threw us in, and I know what Trump’s policies will do to the world economy.

Because I fear Trump’s supporters. Those that are not armed and openly targeting the aforementioned list of people in danger, turned a blind eye to Trump’s own statements. And the parallels to Hitler’s rise to power are too many and too frightening to be ignored.

Because I am middle-aged, and already am struggling to pay off medical bills.

Because I don’t know if I’m brave enough to openly fight back.

Because he will now control Congress, the Supreme Court, the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, and the military. Small wonder I believe a military dictatorship is not far off. Laws will be written that will support his power base for decades to come.

Because climate change is real, and we’re already so close to the tipping point that releasing the safeties on regulations terrifies me. It should terrify you too. Along with the EPA, he wants to do away with the FDA. For decades we’ve taken for granted that we can buy a bottle of ketchup and be reasonably sure it won’t kill us. That will not necessarily be the case in the future.

Because this isn’t a debate between left and right but between right and wrong.

Okay. So what do we do about it? Because unchecked, fear cripples and immobilizes.

Deep breath.

First, constant stewing and fretting isn’t constructive in the long run. I can keep sharing angry Tweets (it will probably be hard for me to stop) but face it, his followers aren’t listening. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the electoral college and voting recounts. If by some miracle, the election results are overturned, there WILL be violence on a large scale. If you think the protests against Trump are unprecedented, wait until you see what his supporters will do if the results are overturned.

Chuck Wendig, who writes a kick-ass blog about being a kick-ass writer, penned this excellent post recently: Mourn, Then Get Mad, Then Get Busy. Like him, I find I need to do something to combat fear, otherwise it festers, overwhelms, and cripples.

So here’s are the practical things I’m doing:

  1. Paying off debts. I’ve been doing this all along, but now I have to step it up. That might mean cancelling plans made for mental health, and plans made to promote my work. It will mean I have to pick and choose which organizations I need to financially support, but I must knock these bills down as soon as possible before the economy crashes again.
  2. I will support those organizations I feel most important to protect. Your list might be different from mine, but we should all make a list and contribute. If money is too tight, then volunteer.
  3. I purchased a personal alarm and pepper spray for myself and the boyfriend’s daughters. I will be taking a refresher course in self-defense. Call me crazy, but these are proactive steps I’m taking to help mitigate my fears.
  4. Planting a garden in the spring. I have a couple of acres. It’s high time I made better use of them. Time I weaned myself away from a dependence on processed food as well.
  5. I will keep telling stories. I believe our books, our libraries, our access to the great minds of the past and to stories with hopeful outcomes is one of our best, most powerful weapons
  6. I vote in every election, but now more than ever, it is important to encourage everyone you know to vote. Not just in the ‘big’ elections, but in all of them. We must take back Congress. These people are the ones that make the laws in this land. Don’t want to lose your rights? Vote to protect them.
  7. Allow yourself to laugh. Just because you are posting kitten pics, it doesn’t mean you aren’t still outraged. It just means you’re taking a mental health break. There’s a reason why we love the comic relief moments in action movies.
  8. Stand up for what’s right. Don’t allow bullying to go unchecked. Call the police if it’s warranted. Take video. Upload it to Facebook. Spread news of people stopping acts of malice and hate. Not all of us are physically capable of intervening in certain situations, but that doesn’t mean we walk away from it, either.
  9. Support your local library. NPR. The New York Times. We can’t let everything be run by Rupert Murdoch.
  10. Vote with your wallet. Don’t support organizations that promote hate, discrimination, and so forth. Support those companies that have taken a stand against the same.

One of the reasons I loathe post-apocalyptic novels and programs is that I recognize I would be one of the first casualties of such a societal collapse. Why? Because I don’t believe in arming myself with guns, and I do believe in peace, goodness, and mercy. A friend commented on Facebook this morning that ‘mercy will get you killed.’ I understand the sentiment, believe me I do. But one of the things we must consider in the coming years is what kind of person we want to be.

I keep hearing people say we will survive this. I’m not so sure. I don’t even recognize my country at the moment. But I refuse to spend the rest of my life in fear.

Here. Have a cute kitten pic.

atg-sun-copy

The KU Report from Sarah Madison: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Before I launched my last indie published book, I waffled a great deal about whether or not to make it exclusive to Amazon. I first wrote about my concerns here on this blog, and then shared further research over at Author’s Speak. In the end, however, it came down to not having enough practical experience to justify not giving the KDP select program a try–and on July 29th, I launched Fool’s Gold on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited for a 90 day trial.

Fool'sGold-400x600In almost every respect, I handled its release the same way I did any other launch of a new story written in collaboration with a publisher. I talked it up beforehand. Because it’s an Olympic-themed story, I timed its release with the 2016 Rio Games. I did an enthusiastic cover reveal (c’mon, this cover by Reese Dante is simply *gorgeous*, isn’t it?). I promoted it with several social media groups and did a book tour. None of this is any different from how I’ve handled most of my book releases in the last six years.

There are only three things that set this book apart from any other story I’ve written and released:

  1. It’s a contemporary romance. I tend not to write these very often because what I love best is the mix of romance and mystery,  or romance and the paranormal. I love the twist that these elements bring to a romance, as well as the built-in level of conflict such subgenres create. But it’s widely accepted that the straightforward contemporary romance tends to outsell the other subgenres, so yeah. This one was different from my usual fare.
  2. As an indie publisher, I set my own price. As such, I set it well-below the industry standard for books published through a publisher, however, on the advice of several people, I priced it at what seems to be the industry standard for an Amazon published book. Which is to say, almost half of what most e-books run these days.
  3. I published it exclusively through KDP Select for the first 90 days.

The first thing that happened is that Fool’s Gold broke the top 100 in its category on Amazon. It never got much past #60 on this list, but it did make the list and stay there for longer than my usual run. In fact, Fool’s Gold enjoyed top 100 status for almost 30 days before it suddenly crashed–I have come to find out that this is referred to as “falling off the Amazon cliff” and that it happens to nearly everyone at the 30 day mark because Amazon stops promoting your book as heavily then. Subsequent marketing through Amazon got me a modest bump back into the top 100, but it didn’t last long. The second promotion didn’t have any effect at all on sales.

Now, I spoke of my many reservations about going with KDP Select in my previous posts, and in my Author’s Speak post, I shared some real horror stories. But prior to the sudden drop-off in sales, I was delighted with how FG had been doing. I found it nearly impossible to tell how much I was making from the KU side of things though. That may well be my fault–I’m not good at making heads or tails of reports at times. But one of the things that concerned me was the constantly changing TOS as well as the change to being paid by the number of pages read instead of by the number of books downloaded. Someone could download a story through KU and not read it for months. Or they could only read a quarter of it and stop. Kind of discouraging, particularly since it was kind of sketchy as to how Amazon determined how many pages were being read… then came the news that the news Page Flip option, a piece of software introduced for reader convenience, prevents Amazon from accurately recording the number of pages read. You know, the thing they use to pay authors.

I have to say, this new bit of information was enough to make me pull FG from the KDP Select enrollment when its 90 days were up. I now have it available in different formats on multiple sites. However… I just got my royalty statements for this past quarter, and despite the fact I haven’t had a new release with my own publisher this past quarter (heck, not even this past year) my sales were up. WAY up. As in, I must have received a boost from FG being so visible and purchased by so many people–and they enjoyed it enough to check out my backlist.

I’m probably going to continue a hybrid model for the future. I will continue working with my publisher–they provide so many wonderful things that I have to outsource and pay out of pocket to receive as an indie author. But once a year, I think I’m going to self-publish something. Will I enroll in KU again? Not sure. We’ll see if Amazon can work the glitches out. Especially since, in their zeal to prevent people from scamming the system, they seem to keep catching up innocent people in their widespread nets.

If you’re looking for a good summation as to how KU works for authors, I thought this post explained things well.

shrimp-cat-2-halloween-2016And just to show I’m not always so serious, here’s a picture of my cat dressed as a lobster for Halloween. 🙂

Blasty: Fighting Pirates and Illegal Downloads with a Single Click

pirates-bill-davenportBack in June, I posted an open letter in response to the ‘broke reader’ on Facebook who’d asked for weblinks so she could download stories from her favorite authors without paying for them.

The post, Dear Broke Reader: Your Sense of Entitlement is Killing Me, went viral. It’s been shared on Facebook over 10 K times and I got over 100 K hits on the website over a period of a few days–nearly 25 K hits in one day alone. Obviously, this post resonated with a lot of people! I wrote a follow up post as well, you can find it here.

By far and large, the comments were supportive. Many were from fellow authors, also sick and tired of battling illegal file-sharing of their works. There was a lively discussion of semantics, with some comments stating that nothing more than copyright violation was at stake here, and that copyright laws were stupid, therefore, they need not comply with them. There were some who defended their right to continue procure stories in this fashion. Several believed that because there was no ‘real cost’ to producing an ebook, they should all be free anyway. When I pointed out the financial investment it took to produce a finished product–cover art, professional editing, formatting, etc–one person suggested that once these financial outlays had been met, the price of the book should automatically drop to zero. I respectfully suggest they try that argument on their plumber the next time  they have a leak. I’m sure if he has paid off all his tools, he’ll be happy to work for free.

Alone by Cherie/freeimages.com

Alone by Cherie/freeimages.com

I even had one person tell me I must suck as a writer because if I was ‘good enough’ I would be making a living from my writing despite the widespread suctioning off of potential buyers through such illegal downloads. And yes, I heard ALL the arguments about how these readers would never buy my books anyway, so they don’t truly represent lost sales. In fact, I was told I should be happy people were illegally downloading my stories in the sheer volume they were doing because this could potentially introduce me to readers who would then go out and buy all my stories. Hard to see why they would need to do so when someone keeps uploading bundles of four or five of my stories at a time to torrents, but then, I digress.

This post isn’t meant to be a rehash of the reasons I wrote the original posts in the first place. I eventually had to stop responding to the comments on the previous posts–I was spending more time commenting than working on writing projects. But I would like to share with you what I’m doing about it.

I used to use Google Alerts to notify me of anything to do with one of my stories–including reviews as well as pirate sites or uploads to torrents. Sadly, Google Alerts missed a LOT of things, so I stopped relying on them to watch the Internet for me and took it upon myself to do a title search every couple of months or so. I would turn over links to pirate sites to my publisher, but dealing with torrents was much more difficult. They didn’t respond to DCMA notices, and when I contacted them directly, they basically shrugged and smiled.

Then someone showed me this handy little link: Google DCMA Removal Request Form. I began using this, though it was very cumbersome and time-consuming. I’d select a title, hunt down a number of illegal links, and then spend several hours copying and pasting information into the form, jumping through all the necessary hoops to get Google to block the page in a search of my story title. It’s not a perfect system by far: the site is still up and running, and if you already know the site, you can probably find the stories within it, but at least someone googling “Unspeakable Words” won’t immediately come up with 20 sites where they can get this story without paying for it. Because it was such a hassle to do, I confess, I would only do it every few months when I had a big block of time. Haha, you know how rare that is, and I’d rather use it to write the next story, thank you very much.

Even more frustrating was the fact Google frequently questioned my request to remove the links to works in copyright violation, demanding I prove I was the copyright holder. Funny, no one asked the illegal file-sharing site to prove they held the copyright to my work before they uploaded it! The irony here was deliciously bitter.

More recently, I was introduced to Blasty, a service that searches out weblinks associated with your titles, allows you to review them for legitimacy, and then file the DCMA removal request with a single click of a button. It’s still in beta, but when it goes live, you can bet I’ll be on board. Yes, I will happily pay a fee to have this tool at my disposal. I have to tell you, I still spend hours searching for illegal downloads of my stories, but removing the links from web searches is immensely easier now. And while I am disheartened by the numbers of illegal files out there (and I have to grind my teeth at the sites that offer a ‘pro’ download system to their users so they can avoid detection and lawsuits–their words, not mine), at least my battle has gotten easier. Now I can check titles once a week and hopefully spend less time keeping up. Sure, I’m constantly bailing out a leaking boat, but it’s MY leaking boat to bail.

Put in other terms: yes, I know that people are going to continue to illegally share files. Yes, I know I’m fighting a losing battle. But darn it, I don’t have to make it easy for them to obtain my creative works without paying for them. When the average story runs between $4-6 dollars and my publisher runs sales all the time, it doesn’t feel like too much to ask. Try not only getting that cup of Starbucks coffee for free, but then taking it home and sharing it with over 16 K of your BFFs online.

People often ask me where I get this ‘magic number of 16 K’. That was the recorded number of illegal downloads for one of my stories from a single site. Last night, I ‘blasted’ over thirty sites. You do the math, and then tell me that it can’t possibly be affecting my bottom line.

EDIT: Since this post went live this morning, I’ve received 523 alerts from Blasty to verify. FIVE HUNDRED AND TWENTY THREE. *sigh*

The Number One Rule of Writing: Have Fun!

sorrow-and-worry-1434786-1918x1274I’ve been away from the keyboard for a while. The week before last, I was on vacation, and then I came home with a nasty respiratory bug that has knocked me flat for several days.

As per my norm when I’m ill, I tend to enter a weird shadow zone of ginger ale and crackers, comfort reads and cheesy television shows from the past. I don’t want anything that requires too much concentration. I don’t want anything that is going to blindside me or hurt. I read or watch TV until I doze off, sleep as long as I need (or until one of the dogs wakes me to go out), then get up, get a little something to eat and drink, and do it all over again.

As long as I don’t have to work while I’m sick, more and more these days, I don’t want the cycle of reading and snoozing to end. I am constantly on the go, and sometimes it seems nearly everyone’s needs come before my own. I’ve come to enjoy sick days. Once I get over how much time I’ve wasted being sick, I find I wish I could continue lying on the couch, binge-watching old television shows and reading favorite books.

Not all of the old favorites hold up to the test of time. Sometimes I reach for something I loved as a teenager and wonder what was I thinking when this was a favorite thing of mine. But there’s a common thread through most of my favorite entertainments: they know how to have fun.

Not just outright humorous stories, mind you. I rarely find the typical comedy shows funny. No, what I mean is a story or show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That knows its premise is ridiculous and doesn’t mind poking fun at it. Bonus points if the *characters* themselves take it seriously–that just adds a delicious layer of irony to the whole process. Even the more serious shows, such as the gritty crime dramas I love, know when to place a ‘silly’ episode in between three or four more intense ones.

And after several days of re-reading and re-watching these old classics, one thing struck me about my current WIPs: I’m not having fun with them.

I’ve started and abandoned four stories in the last year–very unlike me. The first dealt primarily with job burnout, and whoa! Too close to home. I just couldn’t finish it. Not now. Maybe never.

The second is a Regency I’m revamping, adding in more secondary characters and fleshing out the backstory of the MCs. I love Regencies, but this isn’t my period or my forte. I know there are people out there who do this sort of thing better than I will and they already have an audience. Part of me wonders if it even makes sense for me to write this story when it’s not part of my ‘brand’.

The third is a contemporary story in which one of the MCs is a former solider and an amputee. It’s important that I get the details right, which means lots of research. Again, there are people who do this sort of thing better than I do. That’s not to say I’m afraid of hard work, just that again, is it part of my brand? I don’t really know. My ‘brand’ is all over the place, to be honest. I tend to write what I want to write when I want to write it. Perhaps a little more discipline and development of a recognizable brand would be useful.

The fourth is a major departure for me: set in the 1950s and dealing with an agency that investigates paranormal events (you read the part where I said my brand was all over the place, right?). Oh, yes, and instead of male/male romance, it would be more along the lines of a traditional romance, perhaps even with the sex scenes fade-to-black. It’s been so important to me to get the heroine right that it dawned on me the other day that the story has bogged down–and it took being sick and bingeing on my favorite stories of all time to see that I’m not having fun with this, either. I’ve been tossing obstacles at my heroine left and right in order to justify her attitude, and really, the fact she’s a woman in the 1950s who desires to be more than a housewife or secretary is enough of an obstacle right there. At least 25 K of what I’ve written so far needs to be scrapped. And what could be more ridiculous than Ward and June Cleaver meets the X-Files, which is how I refer to this story? I should expand on the wackiness here, not try to dress it up like a serious story. It was a relief figuring this out, let me tell you.

oh-these-photographers-1430111-1600x2400So yeah, first law of writing: have fun. Write what you want to write, not what you think will sell. Cross genres. Hell, mix them up. Don’t take yourself–or your characters so seriously. Sure, do the research (you have to respect the genre and the character) but don’t belabor it to the point of tedium. If it bores you, it will bore your reader as well. Let your wild creative side out to play. Sometimes you have to write 25 K to realize who your character is. Sometimes you have to write 25 K to realize who your character is not. Either way, they aren’t wasted words. Don’t dole out your sentences like each one is a precious heartbeat you can never get back again. Words are more like Doritos. We can make more. We can also trim them when they don’t fit the story we’re trying to tell. So don’t be afraid to be outrageous. You can always ‘tone it down’ in edits. When I look at which of my stories were wildly popular compared to others, they are usually the ones where I let it rip, threw in every trope but the kitchen sink, and in general said, “Yeah, I know this isn’t grand literature, but it’s fun.”

Have more fun with your writing. If you’re having fun, your readers will too. That doesn’t mean you need to turn every story (or piece of art, or whatever your medium is) into a 1930s screwball comedy. Some people find horror fun–I’m not one of them but I’m all for whatever floats your boat and makes you happy. These days, I think we could all use a little more fun in our lives.

The Value of Your Tribe…

the-gang-is-all-hereFor some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something that’s deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

john-and-rodney-hanging-outIn the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the rhetoric I heard on the television and radio was all Us against Them. So much so, I stopped listening to commercial radio altogether. I have to rely on friends (and YouTube) to introduce me to new music and artists because I simply couldn’t bear to hear what was coming out of the announcers’ mouths. For the most part, I stopped watching the news as well. I still have a fairly low tolerance for both, and mostly listen to my iPod.

Fast forward 15 years: this election has been one of the most polarizing Presidential races I can recall. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends this past weekend, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current race without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

oh-captain-jackSometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

I had that experience this past week. Once a year, I get together with some friends for what we call “Squee Weekend.” We come from all over the world to laugh, talk, watch movies, drink wine, eat food, and share what we love and the things we are passionate about. Over the years, the group has grown in size and expanded from a long weekend to a full week. We joked about how the name would soon become Squee Fortnight, and then Squee Month, only to grow into Squee Season, and so on.

Most of us are writers. Some of us knit. Others do crafts. Others are whiz bangs at computer tech. It’s rare that I come home without having learned something about a new-to-me social media platform, or how to podfic, or discover a fantastic story because someone shared it with the group.

raincheck-bookmark-decoratedThe best part is that because the group is so organic, we can gather in the main conference room to discuss topics of interest (such as some of the things I learned at Writer’s Police Academy this year) or we can subdivide into smaller groups to watch a television show or brainstorm with someone about the story we’re working on. The person on my left could be filling in the pages of a coloring book while listening to the discussion on the degree to which sex is necessary to romance stories, while the person on the right might be pulling up a link to an editing website they wanted to share. Someone might be upstairs baking brownies to bring down later, while another group might be sitting around the fire discussing stories they wish someone would write. One of my friends is a talented crafter, and every year she helps me create decorated bookmarks to give away at conventions. Another is into journals, another into jewelry-making, and so on. I can sit with someone and learn how about their passions while having meaty conversations about the art of storytelling.

A few years ago, a bunch of us were sitting together, clicketedy-clacking away on our laptops, when one of the Squee Members looked up and said, “Ah. The sound of my people.”

on-the-gateWe all laughed, but it was because it was true.

That is not to say that there is never any friction between the members of your tribe. You put a bunch of writers in a room together and they are torn between socializing with people who understand the writing process and the frequent need to go some place quiet and decompress for a while. And though we are all walking the fine line between being introverts and extroverts (because anyone who shares their art is an extrovert to some extent), we have strong opinions and tend to bridle easily on certain subjects.

That said, when push comes to shove, we still recognize our tribe when we see it. It’s like that Firefly episode, Safe, when the villagers wanted to burn River at the stake for being a witch. You cheer when Mal demands her release, saying, “Yeah, but she’s our witch.”

Wraith Photobomb

Wraith Photobomb

I can’t think of many people with whom I could announce I’m going outside to take pictures of action figures, only to have someone say, “Let me get my camera and join you.” Maybe it’s a little weird for a middle aged woman to be rolling up her jeans so she can wade in the pool while re-enacting a scene from a television show. My particular brand of weird isn’t everyone’s brand, either. But a tribe mate merely nods and tells you when the brownies will be out of the oven.

The only bad thing about Squee Weekend is the depression that comes when it’s over for the year. The link between us is elastic, however, and stretches across time and space as we make our way home, only to pull us back again the following year. Because, yeah. Our tribe.

 

The Elephant in the Room that the Diet Industry is Ignoring

elephant--freeimage.com

elephant–freeimage.com

At the beginning of last month, I posted a little rant about an article I’d read, which suggested ways in which the ‘average’ person could easily lose weight throughout the day. I found the article so ludicrous, so not in keeping with the daily lives of most ‘average’ people I know, that I felt I had to say something.

I got that off my chest (with a fair amount of bad language on my part), but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. You know, the diet industry has a vested interest in making us feel bad about our appearance. So-called fitness magazines frequently feature models so nonathletic and frail-looking it’s hard to believe they could complete a single set of exercises they’re depicted performing. Their articles claim to help the reader to lose an unbelievable amount of weight in a ridiculously short period of time. Again and again. At some point you have to wonder if these ‘tips’ and fad diets were so successful, why does the next magazine come out with a new suggestion the following month? In fact, you have to kind of admire the whole set up: let’s make people feel bad about their appearance and then let’s persuade them to spend lots of money trying to live up to unrealistic ideals, only to have them fail and come back to spend more money. Clever, eh?

I read a statistic today from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and that said two thirds of every American are either overweight or obese. Why does this seem to be a uniquely American problem? I would have to say it’s multi-factorial. It probably has a lot to do with the abundance of fast food and processed food, both of which are cheaper than fresh clean foods you have to prepare yourself. One of the things I discovered on a trip to the UK was how much healthier much of the food is there. For one thing, they don’t allow all the additives that are considered a matter of course here in the US. Then there’s the difficulty of finding the time and energy to prepare healthy food when you’re always on the run. Not to mention exercising, for heaven’s sake.

Just this morning, I took an online ‘test’ to determine my ‘metabolic age’ based on a few questions. Of course, once I took it–and received the information that I was metabolically six years older than my given age–the whole thing was designed to scare me into buying into some program guaranteed to reverse this terrible condition, probably for three easy payments of only $19.99 each.

I think all of these health and fitness recommendations overlook one very important thing: the level of stress most of us are under every freaking day. It’s all very well to talk about willpower and increasing your metabolism, of getting up early and working out before breakfast, or eliminating all carbs, no wait, eliminate all meat, no… scratch that. Anyway, the one thing most of these lose-weight-fast and improve-your-health-in-12-easy-steps programs seem to overlook is that most of us are walking around with adrenal glands the size of cantaloupes from all the stress we’re under.

sleeping cat freeimage.com

sleeping cat freeimage.com

I don’t know about you, but I have to fight hard to get seven precious hours of sleep a night. You know what they say about lack of sleep? Among other things, it makes it easier for you to gain weight. Lack of sleep also ravages your immune system, and driving while sleep-deprived is every bit as reckless as driving while under the influence.

Then there’s the average work day in America. You think it’s eight hours, right? Well, I can’t tell you the last time I worked nine to five. More like eight to six or longer. A forty hour work week? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve worked sixty plus hours a week for years and I didn’t get paid overtime because I was on salary, not hourly employment. Add to that the fact the job itself is stressful, and you get the triple whammy: you’re eating junk food on the run and you’re eating to keep moving AND your own stress hormones are both demanding you eat more and storing everything you eat as fat. When your entire day is one long ‘flight or fight’ mode and you do neither, the constant influx of cortisol in your body with no outlet does bad things to you. And this makes it ten times harder to do anything about your weight.

Unfortunately, stress in America seems to be a way of life. Our work day and work week is not likely to get any shorter. Our jobs are probably going to remain one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives. Most of us are also trying to balance raising a family and taking care of elderly parents as well. And I’ve said it before but the thing so many ‘experts’ seem to overlook is we’re all starving: emotionally, physically, financially. We’re all pinching and scraping and sacrificing–and to come home at the end of the day and deny ourselves something else seems like asking too much.

But you have to. At some point you have to say, “You know what? Yes, I probably deserve that second helping of lasagne, but I also deserve better health. And I have to choose.” At some point, you have to accept that your job/family life is stressful and that it’s not likely to change–but how you react to it is under your control. You can manage your stress in other ways besides eating. Meditate. Walk the dog. Ride bikes with the kids. Hell, talk to the kids, for some other reason than to tell them to go clean up their room. For me, watching less television, spending less time on social media, and spending more time reading and doing quiet activities helps.

But cut yourself slack on the nearly Sisyphean task of losing weight. Because like any other goal you seek to achieve, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to have good days and bad days. Toss out the diet and fitness magazines, ignore the latest fad trends. Remember that most of those magazines aren’t even depicting images of real people–they’ve been Photoshopped into unrealistic standards.

Take a deep breath. Maybe the most important thing today isn’t the number on the scale or whether your thighs rub together when you walk. Maybe it’s the fact you made someone smile, or you played with your dog, or you solved that really challenging problem at work. Let’s not make your weight one more thing to stress about. It’s not the most important thing about you.