How I’m Spending My Book Advance

Motivation & Inspiration, Self Publishing

Twitter was on fire this week in response to an article about a YA author who mismanaged her advance money and ended up with basically nothing. This is not a critique on the author or the article.

What I will say in regards to my personal reaction to the piece is that like many people who read it, I was struck with a gut-punch of anxiety. See, I have a complicated relationship with money. It wasn’t something I was really aware of when I was a kid but when my father passed away during my teen years, money, or more specifically, the lack of money, was like this big scary monster that followed my mother and I everywhere.

I won’t get into the specifics but the compounding trauma of being broke while also grieving (and all of the scary stressful events that went along with that) solidified in my psyche that money = safety and security and that no money = danger and chaos.

When I found out how much my publisher was going to pay me for my book, one of my first thoughts was–this is more money than my parents ever had. I don’t actually know anyone who has this amount of money. And that’s scary.

As much of a blessing as this is, it’s also scary venturing into this great unknown where no one in my family has been before. It’s scary to think that with the right choices, I could elevate us all and it’s even scarier to think that with the wrong choices, I could destroy everything.

I don’t actually believe that I’m going to choose ignorance, that I’m going to make terrible decisions, or that I’m incapable of controlling this part of my life. I’m a teacher, which means I’m teaching myself new things constantly.

In fact, the first thing I did after getting my deal was begin working with a financial advisor. I also have an accountant who I’ve been working with for several years and who I’ll be meeting with next month to discuss how much I should set aside from this first check for taxes. I recently worked hard to pay off one of my student loans.

I’m doing the right things. And yet, there is still a part of me that worries something will happen, something horrible and catastrophic, and all of the money will suddenly disappear–just like it did when my father got sick–and my life will once again devolve into chaos.

This fear is unlikely to come to fruition but it is not entirely irrational. I suspect that other creatives who’ve had negative experiences involving money might feel the same anxiety upon receiving that first check. What has helped me though, is getting crystal clear about what I value in life so that I can see how my money does or does not honor those things.

In case you’re curious how I’m applying my first royalty check to those values, here’s a breakdown of how I plan to allocate these funds:

1. Financial Planning

Financial planning isn’t free. If someone tries to tell you that it is, making promises that they won’t charge you a cent until your investments with them turn a profit, be wary. Instead, you want to work with a fee-only fiduciary because they actually have ethical standards they must adhere to and instead of selling you investment products, they sell you professional education and advice.

Try to find a CFP who specializes in or is familiar with variable income (bonus points if they’re used to working with creatives like my financial advisors at The Art of Finance in Austin, TX). FYI, the Art of Finance works with clients via Skype as well, so if you’re not able to find someone in your area, feel free to check them out.

6-months of coaching: $1,525 ; 3.5% of 1st advance check

2. Taxes

It’s recommended that after securing your deal that you incorporate ASAP. Establishing an LLC through which to process your earnings can help protect you in the case that you’re ever sued, as well as open up your options when it comes to filing your taxes. This can be done by a lawyer (usually for a very expensive fee–I previously paid about $1,800 for this service) or there are online DIY options for much cheaper.

When you meet with your accountant, ask them if filing as an S-Corp may be right for you. This option softens the blow of that 30% self-employment tax by allowing you to designate some of your earnings as dividends, which are not taxed, as opposed to claiming it all as salary. If this isn’t a good option for you, make sure your accountant is at least familiar with all of the deductions available to writers.

Because I’ll be filing as an S-corp this year, my accountant has advised me to set aside $10,000 of my 1st advance check, which is about 24% of the total amount, with the caveat that not all of this will actually go to the IRS. But better safe than sorry, especially since I’m still earning royalties from my self-published books and don’t know how much that’ll total to by the end of the year.

Accounting Services: $1,000-$1,200 ; 3% of 1st advance check
2019 Taxes: $10,000 ; 24% of 1st advance check

3. Student Loans

You better believe I am getting rid of this thing with my very first advance check. If one of my values is financial freedom, being debt-free is a crucial part of that. It’s hard to be creative when you’re worried about paying off loans or credit card debt. Having debt delays so many important financial milestones: saving for retirement, investing in your business, buying a home (if that’s a goal of yours because it totally doesn’t have to be).

I worked hard to pay off one of my loans this past spring and I’m definitely going to celebrate once I finally knock out the other two because it means that money can now go towards reaching other, more important, goals.

Student Loans: $8,600 ; 20% of 1st advance check

4. Roth IRA

Putting some money towards retirement might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you get your first advance check. But it should be. Living paycheck to paycheck is stressful and scary and you don’t want to still be stuck in that cycle when you’re finally at retirement age.

Sometimes creative risks are only possible once you’ve mitigated your financial risks. In other words, you’ll be able to work longer in the creative industry of your choosing if you don’t have to choose between your art and a corporate 401k. Look out for you now by setting money aside for your future self.

I recommend stashing that money in a Roth IRA because it grows tax free (you pay taxes in the present to avoid paying them in the future), which means you’ll have more buying power later even after inflation. Also, if you’re an investment newbie, stick to index funds that are tried and true like the S&P 500 through Vanguard (they have super reasonable fees).

*If you’re not sure what I’m even talking about, ask your financial advisor.

Roth IRA: $6,000 (this is the maximum contribution you can make per year) ; 14% of 1st advance check

5. Emergency Fund

Having an Emergency Fund has saved me a few times in my life and I recommend starting one ASAP! In case you’re not sure what an Emergency Fund is, here’s what it is and here’s what it isn’t.

To summarize, an Emergency Fund is not for “true expenses” or the things we pay regularly but not frequently enough to show up on our monthly budget and therefore have a tendency to slip our minds (i.e. semi-annual vet bills, scheduled car maintenance, annual doctor’s visits, etc.). The Emergency Fund is for just that, emergencies (i.e. layoffs, trips to the emergency room, roof replacement after a hail storm).

Some people advise starting with a 1-month Emergency Fund. Others advise 3 to 6 months. I already have a 1-month Emergency Fund built up and my goal is 12 (my risk tolerance is low and since it takes me about 8 months to write a book, I want to have plenty of cushion built in to develop something and go on sub with it). With this first check, I’m contributing what I can while also leaving some room for writing-related expenses and a few *fun* things (see below).

3-Month Emergency Fund: $8,500 ; 20% of 1st advance check

6. Writing Expenses

I know some people actually warn against paying to attend conferences and writing retreats because the cost can be ridiculously high but next year AWP will be in San Antonio, which makes it much more accessible to me this time around than probably any other. I can drive instead of fly and split hotel or Airbnb accommodations with family. Being a debut, I’m pretty certain I’ll find value in so many of the sessions offered and I look forward to learning as much as I possibly can about the industry.

AWP Registration: $250
Lodging: $425

7. What’s Left

After all of the above expenses, I’ll have $6,000 left, which will be deposited into my checking account in $800 intervals over the course of nine months. Month to month, I’ll decide how much of this to put towards the following: my HSA account, a vacation fund, self-care activities, clothing, and household remodeling/repairs.

These are technically low priority items because they’re not necessities. Are they important to some degree? Yes and I’m grateful that I will have some extra money to prioritize them in a way I haven’t been able to pretty much…ever. I’m especially looking forward to how some of these things will help me stay healthy and balanced while writing under contract for the first time. But if I was in a pinch and that money needed to be used elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Also, those four months will bring me pretty close to my second advance check (I hope) so if I need to make adjustments at that point, I can.

Miscellaneous: $6,000 ; 14% of 1st advance check

Please keep in mind that I am not a CFP and I don’t have a degree in finance. Everything I know about handling finances as a freelancer I learned through self-publishing, which is just as unpredictable as traditional publishing, if not more so. There were some months when I made close to $7,000 and some months when I barely made $20.

When I first started making consistent money, I absolutely made some rookie mistakes but I also did some smart things too. This time around, I’m grateful that those hard lessons are behind me and that I have an opportunity to make even more smart choices that will hopefully allow me to create a sustainable career in this industry.

The categories above are by no means an exact template for you to follow. You have to think about your values and what’s right for you and your family. But if you’re feeling any anxiety or apprehension about what to do with your advance, I hope my examples and explanations above are helpful in some way. Maybe they’ll help you realize that some of those things are your values too. Or maybe they’ll help you realize that you value something totally different and that’s okay.

The most important thing is that you take the time to really listen to yourself so that you can make the kinds of decisions that will safeguard your creative life rather than put it at risk.

*Stay tuned for what I’m prioritizing with advance check #2!

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Being Struck by Lightning

Mental Health, Motivation & Inspiration

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Since getting my book deal, I’ve felt this flood of creativity. Sparks of so many different ideas and not just for new stories but multimedia projects, creative giving, and new collaborations It’s like this very public validation has somehow given me permission to explore other aspects of my creative identity and I’ve found myself, a few times, being struck by an idea so big and scary that it I know it’s my heart’s desire.

I’ve spent the past four months trying to untangle my intuition from my anxiety; trying to see which fears signal that I’m actually moving closer to my goals and therefore should keep moving in that direction. But it’s hard. I’ve made so much progress. I’ve had so many setbacks. This journey of becoming is not a straight line and sometimes I worry that I’ll be stumbling the entire way.

And it feels so familiar, this hesitancy. This apprehension about what comes next. About all of the ways I might screw it up. But hasn’t writing, more than anything else, taught me that the only way to make something is just to begin.

A lot of the ideas I’ve had are in a completely different medium than the one I’m used to working in. They require me to be creative in a completely new way. To learn new skills. To reach out to strangers in order to build relationships, to ask for help. And the first thing my brain wants to do is worry and tell myself terrible stories about how it could all go wrong.

But hasn’t writing taught me that too? That failure is part of the process. A necessary part of the process. One that no forward motion can be achieved without.

So I’m going to stop waiting for the right time. I’m going to stop waiting to be ready. There is no ready. No perfect circumstances under which to create. All creativity requires a bit of risk-taking. It’s the part of the process that makes me feel alive. That’s like being struck by lightning, every dream and desire illuminated from the inside.

I want to coax out those tiny flames, letting them grow. Even if I get burned in the process.

Beginnings

Motivation & Inspiration

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I did it.

I made it through the proverbial gate, stood on the other side, and breathed the words, “So this is how it all begins…”

This meaning my life, my dreams, my reason for needing my hands on the keys, drudging up words made of strings attached to every aching question inside of me.

I wrote a book. That book is going to be in readers’ hands. But just because it feels like new doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of this journey. Because this journey is over ten years in the making and I have had that “so this is how it all begins…” moment more than once.

The first time was when I started writing my very first book. I was seventeen and I wrote desperately, feverishly for more than twelve months. I wrote that book by my father’s hospital bed. I finished it shortly before he passed away. And with every word, I thought, this is it. This is why I’m here.

The next time was when I won $100 in a short story contest.

Then again when I finished my second book.

I thought “so this is how it all begins…” when I self-published for the first time. And the second. And the third.

Every time I finished a book and shared it with readers I felt this sense of new beginnings, this wonder at what was to come.

Now I’ve reached another milestone. One I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid. And it feels surreal and scary and so freaking fantastic.

But calling this the beginning completely negates the past ten years that I have been writing and exploring and growing. I am proud of this moment but I am also proud of all of the other moments that led me to this one. All of the shelved manuscripts and half-written stories. All of the hours spent doubting, forcing out one word, one letter at a time. The wrong turns and the wishful thinking. The daydreaming. The daydreaming about this day.

I have a book deal.

I have a book deal.

But I wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for all of the things that came before. The things that shaped me, hurt me, saved me. Because it’s those things that have made all of this worth it. That have made this moment mean that much more.

Dear Laekan

Motivation & Inspiration

Before I got my agent, when I was still daydreaming about the moment all of my hard work would meet the right opportunity, I did everything I could to make my hope a tangible thing. I put sticky notes on my computer at work, set countdowns in my Google calendar, and even wrote myself a letter. A letter speaking about the future as if it had already happened, each word a stitch in the fabric of this dream, slowly making it real.

Everything in that letter was true and honest and heartfelt. All I had to do was write it all down, believing every word and the sentiments behind them were going to be my reality. Without a doubt. And then wait… But more importantly, trust. Trust that I had done all I could to prepare myself for this moment that belonged to me.

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Dear Laekan,

Five months ago, you decided you were going to make your dream of being an author a reality. You gave yourself 18 months because you like structure and deadlines and making things seem real far sooner than they actually are. You like to dream, those dreams so much sweeter when you can measure every step, every mile that you covered in spite of your doubts and fears and anxieties. They did not stop you. And now you’re here. Today, you have reached another milestone you’ve been dreaming about. You got an agent!

It feels surreal and you’re trying desperately to temper your emotions (the way you always do). I get it. You’re afraid to feel excited because you think that good news is always followed by bad. That one step forward means two steps back. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something terrible to swoop in and steal this moment from you. As if losing it now would be worse than having never gotten it at all.

But stewing in your worries makes you a thief too. Because every time you give in to those fears, you steal your own joy. You hold it captive, waiting for everything around you to be absolutely perfect before you set it free. But if it can’t be free, neither can you.

Over the next few days and weeks, allow yourself to feel everything you’re so afraid to. Pride. Joy. Excitement. Hope. Lean into them, not because they’re permanent, but because they’re not. Because you, of all people, know how fleeting these things can be. So savor them. Let them energize you.

When that excitement hijacks you at 5AM and pushes you to write, let it. When that hope seeps into your muscles, loosening them, relaxing those parts of your body you hadn’t even realized were tied up in knots, let it. When that pride perches on your lips and has you sharing the good news with people you used to hide this part of yourself from, let it.

Let yourself be in this moment. Absorb the magic of it and let that magic carry you forward.

But most importantly, don’t let the appearance of new milestones, of new sources of stress, cause you to forget why you did this. Your why is the only thing that matters. Because even if this dream did implode, your why would still be there, waiting for you to try again. Trying and failing, trying and failing, that’s not going to stop just because you have an agent. So you need to hold tight to why that struggle is still worth it.

Think about that little girl who didn’t know where she fit, who tried on so many different masks, who never felt happy in any of them. Think about all of the other kids who have been written out of children’s literature because they didn’t wear the right mask or speak the right language or pray to the right God. You’ve been writing about straddling worlds and identities since the very beginning. You have been searching for answers for so long.

Now it’s time to share what you’ve found.

So when things get hard, when things get awesome, remind yourself that none of it matters unless the kids reading your books believe they matter. They are the reason for all of this. So celebrate knowing that you have the power to give them space on those shelves. That every day you aren’t just telling stories but building bridges, making mirrors, opening doors and windows, and giving little girls like you permission to take off their masks, to matter, to dream. To shed the pain of being in-between and celebrate the beauty of it instead.

You are one step closer to all of this. Each step that comes next doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to be sure. Sure of where you’re going and why. You can doubt the words but not why you’re writing them. You can fear the journey but not the destination. So go. Stumble. Fall off the path. Claw and crawl and climb. But get there.

That little girl is waiting for you.

How I Got My Agent

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

I can’t believe I actually get to write one of these posts. I can’t believe it’s going to pop up in someone’s Google search as they’re looking for guidance/solace/inspiration while on their own querying journey.

I can’t believe how much has changed in the past ten months.

I’m not going to go all the way back to the beginning when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and writing my first book. If you want to read about my writing journey, my self-publishing career, or any of part of this ten-year process not covered in this post, feel free to peruse this blog, which I’ve been keeping since 2012.

What I will say about self-publishing is that while it was a great choice for my earlier works, especially my paranormal romance series, there was still something about the dream of seeing my books in an actual bookstore that I just couldn’t let go of.

So when I finished the initial version of Pen & Xander and realized that it was by far the best thing I’d ever written, I started to feel this spark, this itch to take a risk. To try something new. When the initial feedback from beta readers was resoundingly positive, I knew for certain I was ready for the next stage of my career and that this was the book that was going to get me there.

I spent a couple of years completely re-writing the story, interrupted constantly by the demands of my new teaching career. By year three of teaching, I finally found my footing, and as a result the time to write. By October 2018 I felt ready to query.

I didn’t do a ton of research. Instead, I focused on agents who were very vocal online about the inequities in publishing and who were also actively working towards addressing these inequities by signing clients from marginalized communities and championing books from diverse voices.

That October I sent out two query letters to two agents of color who I really admired. One sent me a form rejection. The other gave me some incredibly helpful feedback about my opening chapter and also commented on the overall word count being too long for YA. She was right. I knew I needed to cut several thousand words but I was still underestimating the amount of revisions I still needed to do.

Between November and December I re-wrote the opening chapter using the agent’s feedback and slowly began the process of making cuts.

December was a revelatory time for me. I’d been feeling like I was stuck in limbo in terms of my writing career, not sure if I was still on the right track; if I was actually talented enough to keep doing the work. I doubted myself. I doubted my life’s choices. I realized that most of them had been made out of fear. But I didn’t want to keep doing that. All of the sudden I felt this desperation to be brave. To make a declaration to the Universe that I was ready to go full force after this dream.

By January I took another step forward. Another agent who I was interested in querying, but who was closed to submissions at the time, was offering a manuscript critique through The Manuscript Academy.

The price for feedback on the first 100 pages was pretty steep. It felt like this enormous risk. But declarations to the Universe are no good without action behind them. Dreaming requires doing. And I’m so glad I did.

That agent’s feedback and encouragement lit a fire under me and I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript in two months. Then, in March, I stumbled across some information about DVPit, a Twitter pitch contest created by agent Beth Phelan to highlight writers from marginalized communities. My manuscript was ready just in time to participate and the whole thing felt meant to be.

I had one week to come up with my pitches and I used the videos and resources on the DVPit website to help me craft each of them. It was my very first pitch that got the most likes.

I made a list of all of the agents who’d liked my pitch, narrowed it down to agents who I thought would be a good fit, and then waited for the weekend to start querying.

Meanwhile, I was still working on manifesting my dreams. On setting specific goals and giving the Universe a specific timeframe by which to deliver them. For weeks, I kept a sticky note on my computer at work forecasting that I’d have an agent by Thursday. Why did I pick Thursday? I’m not sure, but like I said, it’s important to be specific.

As you can see below, several Thursdays passed before I got my wish. But I got it!

After querying, it didn’t take long before agents began requesting the full MS. Then an agent wanted to schedule a phone call.

That agent was Andrea Morrison at Writers House!

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I want to pause here to say that I really didn’t know much about the differences between specific agencies. I couldn’t name any offhand, which meant I certainly didn’t know who represented which authors.

If you’re interested in doing some of this homework before you start querying (which, you probably should) I would suggest checking out the following resources:

  • Query Tracker: This provides detailed agent info, as well as how long they typically take to respond to queries.
  • Manuscript Wishlist: This profiles agents’ tastes and what they’re looking for.
  • Publishers Marketplace: This shows how many deals an agent has represented, what kind of deals, and sometimes for how much.

What mattered most to me in an agent was working with someone who wanted to champion work from diverse voices and someone who was kind. Other authors may prioritize the business side of things more and that’s totally okay. But I wanted to feel safe in the relationship, safe to be vulnerable with my work, and supported emotionally as much as professionally.

What really helped me make my decision was speaking with Andrea’s current clients, who all adored her, and talked a lot about how kind and patient she is. I had a rough year concerning my mental health and there were times when my symptoms felt really out of control. So kindness, and especially patience, mattered a great deal to me. I’ve been doing better lately but I will deal with mental health issues for the rest of my life and I’ve yet to attempt to manage them under the stress of traditional publishing. For that reason, feeling emotionally supported was at the top of my list.

After signing with Andrea, I celebrated with cake, of course. But it still felt very surreal. I knew my manuscript was polished but I wasn’t expecting to get an agent that quickly after the contest. At first, my anxiety tried to convince me that it was a total fluke. But now I realize that it just meant I was ready. That the Universe had been waiting for me to get out of my own way so it could start to deliver those things I desired. Like a team. Connection. An awesome agent. Oh, and a book deal!

Just four months after #DVPit, I got an agent (a dream come true), and I got a book deal (my biggest dream come true). Was there luck involved? I’m sure. But was the entire thing a fluke? Absolutely not. Because I decided in December of 2018 that this would be my new reality. And from that moment on, I didn’t just wish for it. I ran towards it, arms out wide, scared but still reaching. Until those things I longed for reached back.