Should We Just Be Grateful To Be Here?

The Guardian recently published a piece on the fact that “publishers are paying writers a pittance.” This is true. Traditional publishers made billions of dollars last year while the writers whose books they published worked second/third jobs, pinched pennies, and lived paycheck to paycheck. Traditional publishing has always been exploitative and it’s because of the allure, the exclusivity, the inability for authors to organize against the monopoly, and the expectation that POC writers must show their gratitude for being allowed in that space by being as amenable as possible.

I am not stating this to be critical of other authors. I’m simply acknowledging that in order to be allowed in that majority-white space we have had certain expectations placed upon us. Expectations that include being grateful for a contract, any contract, even if it values the machine dispensing the art more than the human creating it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this last point as I consider what I want to do with my Fantasy WIP. I’d love to query it but doing so will just subject me to the same exploitation. Unless things change. Unless writers start being honest about how they are being taken advantage of and call out their publishers to make it right. Unless writers stop seeing traditional publishers as gods who can subject them to any kind of mistreatment if its in exchange for a book on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble.

This is going to be the hardest part of the cycle to break–our own toxic beliefs that we are not good enough to ask for more. That we are not worthy of a bigger slice of the pie. That we should just be grateful to be acknowledged at all.

Back in 2012 I decided to self-publish because I didn’t believe there was a place for me in traditional publishing. Characters who were not white or Christian were not easy to find and it was clear they were not valued. Which meant that I would not be valued. My stories would not be valued. So I published my stories on my own.

Six years and over $125,000 later, what was once an act of defiance against the inherent bias and racism in publishing, has led me to an even bigger revelation about how it is not just a spot on a shelf that determines a book’s value but it’s how much an author was paid for the rights to that book. The paltry percentage publishers are currently paying their authors is yet another way of saying, “We are in control. You are no one without us.”

It is another way of saying, “Don’t bother trying to get into this profession unless you already possess the wealth and privilege to make it a career.” Which is simply another way of keeping marginalized people…exactly where they are. In other words, the belief that they are lifting up our voices is simply an illusion until the optics match the money in our bank accounts.

So do not be fooled by the celebrations of diversity or even the number of diverse books being published in recent years. Racism has not been eradicated from traditional publishing. It may no longer show up in the lack of marginalized authors on book shelves but it still shows up in the monetary value that is placed on those authors. Which means there is still a lot of work to do and it starts with us not being so damn amenable. It starts with us acknowledging our own worth and then demanding that others do the same.

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Rebuilding

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For about a month I could not write a single thing. Before that I’d spent several more months trying to force out words across two different WIPs hoping that something would spark and I’d be able to get back to my pre-P&X-publication numbers, which were about 2,000-3,000 words a day. For me that is a lot of words. A lot of words I was only able to produce because I’d been working on that version of the novel for about a year. By that point I knew the world and the characters so well. The effort of problem-solving was no longer slowing me down as much as it had in the beginning.

This is the part I always forget—the beginning. And I don’t mean the first couple of days or even the first couple of weeks when you’re so high on the potential of this shiny new idea that you’re writing like crazy, just trying to get it all out. I’m talking about the point in that first draft when you hit a wall and don’t know where the characters should be going or why. Or maybe you do know but you don’t know how to get them there. The initial excitement has worn off and you are now forced to slow down, to think, to figure it out.

I am in that place with my current WIP but instead of panicking that the words aren’t coming fast enough or that the ones I am able to produce are total crap, I am trying to focus on that fact that even one more word is still progress. I’ve been using pacemaker.press (which I absolutely love even though the website is always wonky and takes forever to load) and setting a daily goal for that WIP of just 500 words. That’s a little less than a full page, which means it’s just enough for me to see that this idea is growing into a book but not so much that I feel defeated before I even begin.

During this very fragile rebuilding period in which I am trying to find my confidence again as a writer while also protecting my mental health, these small victories are crucial. As a teacher, I know how impossible it is for a student to take risks, to learn and grow when they feel like the task ahead of them is impossible. I know that setting students up for failure (i.e. an assignment that is too difficult or does not honor their learning style, cultural background, etc.) has damaging psychological effects and can prevent them from engaging in that task/topic in the future. As a creative person with severe anxiety I must also be careful not to set myself up for failure. For me, that means not putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on one WIP. That means finding other sources of income so sliding book sales don’t completely derail my mental health. It means setting goals I can actually reach and still giving myself grace when I don’t.

So, what does that look like? Well, in order to avoid putting all of my eggs in one basket I’m working on a new Fantasy series alongside my current WIP. It’s an idea that’s been ruminating for several years and because of that I was able to outline the first book in the series in just a couple of days. Now, if I’m having a bad day with the contemporary YA novel I can switch gears and still feel like I’m making progress towards the much greater goal of querying at some point in the next couple of years. I know some people discourage writers from following the “shiny new idea” because if you do that every time you have one you’ll never finish anything. But I’ve finished eight novels so finishing is not a problem for me. Doubt is. And that doubt is much less severe when I’m making progress on something, anything.

As for finding another source of income, I’m really lucky that I have the summers off to earn extra money. This year I’ll be teaching both sessions of summer school and a review session for the English end of course exam students must pass in order to graduate. It’s enough to supplement my income until December-ish, which is when I hope to put out the contemporary novel I’m working on. Then I’ll set the companion novel, Pen & Xander, to perma-free and hope that drives traffic to the new book. If that book doesn’t sell then I can always try to teach summer school again next year. It won’t be easy making ends meet without my royalty income but it’s not impossible.

Making sure my daily word count goals are just as possible is another key to the rebuilding process. Right now, my word count goal for my contemporary novel is 500 and my word count goal for the Fantasy series is 350. In total I’m holding myself to about 850 words a day and often I’m able to produce much more. Part of this is because psychologically I’ve tricked myself into thinking the 500 words for one WIP and 350 for another is no big deal. I can sprint that before school starts or during my lunch break. And if I don’t, I’ve written in excess of these goals on so many occasions that I now have a nice cushion for myself on days when I’m too distracted to get something down.

Right now, this is a system that is working for me but it’s taken a long time to find that balance. And who knows? Once I finish the contemporary novel I may not be able to continue writing two novels at a time or I may not be able to keep up my current pace. I may find my current pace too easy. Lots of things can change and part of giving myself grace is allowing myself the time and space to change with them. To be flexible and forgiving. To focus on my health before my art. To remind myself that one cannot exist without the other.

2018 Goals

2018

2017 Goals

  1. Buy a Home
  2. Finish Pen & Xander
  3. Start THE BOOK (aka Maite & Phoenix, which was temporarily shelved because of *this*)
  4. Hire a website designer
  5. Create paperbacks for my backlist

Goals Accomplished: 2/5

The most life-changing year for me professionally so far has been 2015. That was the year I stopped being invisible and people started buying my books. 2018 is going to be just as life-changing. Why? Because I said so…and because I have been very meticulously putting things in place so that I am more than ready for the opportunities that will inevitably come my way (again, inevitably, because I said so).

This year I am going to find an agent. I am going to get a traditional publishing deal. I am going to step even further outside of my comfort zone. I am going to take the necessary steps to eventually become a full time author. And these are the new items on my to-do list that will help me get there:

1. Finish TWO novels
This goal is a BIG one. It usually takes me about eight months to write one novel from start to finish. This year I’ll be starting and completing two. I’ve already begun writing the first in a new series and hope to finish the first draft of that project by April. Meanwhile, I’ll also be drafting another contemporary novel in the Nacho’s Tacos universe. It will focus on one of the restaurant employees and a new character who shares his love of music. It’ll be paired with a novel soundtrack and *hopefully* be ready for release by August/September.

2. Query a dystopia/fantasy series
This year taught me a very important lesson about creative work–this industry is volatile and nothing is guaranteed. I’ve realized that I shouldn’t put all of my eggs in one basket and that becoming a hybrid author might be able to offer me some more stability. In other words, it’s time to branch out and more importantly, it’s time to reach a wider audience. The novel I’m working on now deserves a wider audience, which means I’m going to query for the first time in seven years. Wish me luck!
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3. Get an agent
I’ve been a lone wolf for a long time but I’m ready to take my career to the next level and reach more readers. Once I finish and polish my WIP I’ll be focusing my search on agents that represent POC authors and that champion diverse books. One of the reasons I was drawn to self-publishing all those years ago was because I wanted to write about characters who looked like me and shared my experiences–something I’d craved but rarely been able to find in books growing up. Now, traditional publishing has become much more inclusive and I finally feel comfortable enough to try to enter that space again. But the only way I’d be willing to give up some of the freedom I’ve enjoyed as an indie author would be to find the perfect partner–someone who believes in my stories and my characters as much as I do. Someone who understands the importance of positive and diverse representations of POC in all types of media. I hope to begin querying this summer and find my perfect match by the end of the year.

4. Hire a website designer
This was on my to-do list last year but then disaster struck and spending $2,000+ on a new website design didn’t seem that essential anymore. I’m hopeful that Pen & Xander will find an audience soon, which will drive sales to the contemporary novel I plan to publish in the fall. Then I might be able to direct some of that extra income to a fancy schmancy website design that better brands me and my books. It’ll also serve as a safety net when Amazon (which currently accounts for 90% of my total sales) inevitably makes another change to its system and/or guidelines that ends up harming authors.

5. Take professional author photos
This was another one of those non-essentials I had to cut from my to-do list last year. However, due to the fact that my only author photo looks almost nothing like me now–I haven’t had blonde hair in years–I think it’s time for an update. Hopefully, it’s something I can swing this fall when I’m updating my website too.

6. Sell a thousand copies of Pen & Xander
The first reviews are coming in and the feedback from readers has been really good so far. But I can’t expect this book to reach thousands of people based on word of mouth alone. That was a giant stroke of luck when it happened for TGIB series but this time I’m writing in a different genre, which means I might just have to find an entirely different audience. It isn’t going to be easy but one thing that will make the success of this book a lot more feasible is setting specific goals. That way as I experiment more with marketing I actually have a means of measuring that success. If you’ve already gotten your copy, thank you for helping me come one step closer to my goal! Need yours? Get it here.

7. Commit to a bi-monthly newsletter
Updating and maintaining my newsletter is just one of those methods I’ll be experimenting with to see if it increases sales. My first newsletter for 2018 will go out at the end of January and then I’ll be sending bi-monthly updates. They’ll include a blog post round-up, updates on my WIP, excerpts, and exclusive giveaways/freebies. Click on one of the free goodies below and get it emailed to you upon signup!

Newsletter-Song BonusNewsletter-Bonus CookbookBackmatter Newsletter Sign-up8. Create audiobooks for my paranormal romance series
This is another one of those goals that requires money. But I think it’s worth the investment and hope to begin the pre-production process this summer.

9. Connect with and learn from other authors
Because I have declared that 2018 will be the year I enter the mysterious world of traditional publishing, I’m already brainstorming ways to commemorate the experience and connect with other writers in the process. One of the key differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing is the level of transparency between and among the people involved in each industry. Indie authors are notoriously generous, community-oriented, and constantly giving away valuable information free of charge. The OGs learned as they went and then created blogs where they shared what they’d learned with the rest of us. Traditional publishing is much more opaque and therefore intimidating. As a hybrid author I want to be as open as I’ve been about my self-publishing journey and share the growing pains along the way.

10. Pay off grad school loans
Last year I bought my first home, which completely drained my savings. Once I finish building up my 3-month emergency fund all extra income will be put towards paying off these loans, which I vowed long ago would not haunt me for the rest of my life!
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11. Invest in my retirement
Once the student loans have been obliterated it’ll be time to look toward the future again and start maxing out my retirement accounts. If you’re following my blog because you’re hoping to make writing your full-time gig someday, please understand that as a traditional or self-published author you are technically self-employed. This means that it’s your responsibility to make sure all your ducks are in a row as far as retirement is concerned. Personally, I love reading and learning about finances. They’re such a huge part of being self-employed and a business owner, which is what you are as an author. I plan to blog on those topics more over the coming year.

And there you have it–my master plan! If you don’t have one yourself, you’re truly missing out on the forward momentum that a clear vision can bring to your life. So figure out what you want, identify actionable steps to make it happen, and then write it down. More specifically, somewhere you can see so that you can pause on those promises at least once a day, reminding yourself what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for.

You. Always, remember you’re doing it for you.

What To Do When You Realize Your Idea Isn’t Original Part II

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A long, long time ago when I was working on the first book in The Girl In Between series I came across a newly released traditionally published book that shared several similarities with my novel. Of course, I completely panicked and started rethinking everything to the point of almost driving myself mad.

And then I came to the realization that lots of books have things in common–characters, setting, plot, conflict. There will always be an aspect of one of my stories that someone else has attempted to explore before. The difference? Well, the explorer, of course.

No one else has lived my life and therefore no one else has my same experiences to draw on for inspiration. No one has my voice or my perspective. No one is me. And that is how I was able to push through and continue with that series.

But then disaster struck again, only this time my WIP didn’t just share similarities with the traditionally published book I came across. The synopsis for both were practically identical.

Here, I’ll show you…

Rough synopsis for my WIP, which I used to teach my students about stakes & inciting incident during the outlining process:

Maite has just lost her twin brother in a tragic accident. His organs are donated, saving several lives. One of them is Phoenix who’s been waiting for a heart transplant for almost six months. He wants more than anything to meet the family of his organ donor and thank them for their son’s amazing gift but Maite and her parents are still in the midst of their grief and can’t imagine anything more final than hearing their son’s heart beating in someone else’s chest.

Even though they denied a meeting with him, Phoenix manages to find out the identities of his organ donor’s family. He learns that Maite is in his freshmen photography class and even though he knows he should keep his distance, something else, something stronger keeps pulling him in her direction. After partnering up for a semester-long project Maite and Phoenix slowly begin to develop feelings for one another.

Shortly after discovering that she is in love with Phoenix, Maite also discovers his true identity and realizes that he’s been keeping his connection to her twin brother a secret. Feeling betrayed and confused Maite is faced with the decision to forgive her soul mate or lose him forever.

And here’s the synopsis for Tamsyn Murray’s new novel, Instructions for a Secondhand Heart:

Jonny knows better than anyone that life is full of cruel ironies. He’s spent every day in a hospital hooked up to machines to keep his heart ticking. Then when a donor match is found for Jonny’s heart, that turns out to be the cruelest irony of all. Because for Jonny’s life to finally start, someone else’s had to end.

That someone turns out to be Neve’s twin brother, Leo. When Leo was alive, all Neve wanted was for him (and all his glorious, overshadowing perfection) to leave. Now that Leo’s actually gone forever, Neve has no idea how to move forward. Then Jonny walks into her life looking for answers, her brother’s heart beating in his chest, and everything starts to change.

Together, Neve and Jonny will have to face the future, no matter how frightening it is, while also learning to heal their hearts, no matter how much it hurts.

And cue mental breakdown…now.

I was absolutely gutted.

This…this was SO MUCH worse than the first time I discovered another book similar to my own. Because this book is practically identical!

FGHSHSGSNUDH!!!

That’s how I felt in that moment because what choice did I have but to shelve my novel? After having already spent years daydreaming about these characters and learning what makes them tick. After grieving the loss of Maite’s brother right alongside her. After diving deep into existential questions with Phoenix. Like…why do some people get to live while others don’t? And what is our responsibility to those who’ve passed on too soon?

And why, oh, why did the universe plant this story seed inside me if another writer was about the publish the exact same thing?

Did I mention how crushed I was?

But worse than that…I was confused.

I’m a very intuitive person. I’m a strict student of Fate and constantly in pursuit of my purpose. I look for signs everywhere and I usually follow them. So far, I’ve felt like Fate and I have pretty much been on the same page. But now I find myself knee deep in a very emotionally taxing project, which I now have to abandon because someone else has reached the finish line first.

And my only recourse is to CHOOSE to see it as another sign. Maybe that sign is that the next book in my queue, the one I’ve decided to query, MUST be written now. It can’t wait. And the universe had to practically shout it at me before I finally noticed.

So Fate never abandoned me. And just because I’m abandoning this story doesn’t mean I won’t be able to tell it eventually. Because even though it seems identical on the surface, below that surface is an ocean, the depths of which only I can explore.

We Are Not Alone

austin-chan-275638I’ve been in desperate need of a reminder that I am not the only person on the planet trying to make art their full time gig. I know I’m not alone because I’ve met dozens of artists with secret identities that allow them to function in the “real world”. But sometimes it can feel like everyone else is making progress in leaps and bounds while you’re backsliding into obscurity.

The biggest perpetrator of artist envy? Twitter. People rarely tweet about the bad writing day/week/month/year they’ve had and instead only hop online to share their triumphs. When other people’s successes are all you see it can make your own failures seem even more devastating.

What I’ve realized over the past several months is that only seeing when an artist has reached the finish line helps absolutely no one. Other writers might think that celebratory tweets about landing an agent or a book deal or a million dollar contract might motivate the masses, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. But the truth is these things are not helpful for an artist in the trenches. These announcements do not inspire me. They make me want to crawl into a hole and eat an entire tub of ice cream.

So if watching others reach the finish line isn’t really all that helpful…what is?

Well, the journey of course. The good, the bad, the ugly; the twists and turns and falling off a cliff that you didn’t realize was just around the bend.

I’ve been chronicling my journey here for almost 5 years now! But recently I’ve been gripped by this new idea for a massive, totally out of my comfort zone project. One that involves a nonfiction book, a podcast, and possibly setting up a Patreon. Oh, and talking to other human beings. Like face to face and not over the internet. A notion both absolutely terrifying and…somewhat exciting? I don’t know what’s gotten into me but I’ve already written the foreword for this thing and I really think it’s the next step of this journey, which I will continue to share the good/bad/ugly of, but possibly in a way I never would have expected.