Friday, February 28, 2014

Weekly Update: 2-28-14

I tend to be a bit bipolar when it comes to work.  One day, I might fly high, crossing tasks off my checklist, with quick, vibrant swoops.  Then, without warning, I crash.  I plant myself in front of a TV in a stupor, watching one show after the next, obsessively playing Candy Crush or Chickionary.  All the time I hate myself for being dull and useless, but I cannot for the life of me put a stop to it.

This was one of those weeks.

Monday I was on fire.  Subbing.  Critiquing two chapters for the OC Inklings and three works for the Brea Library.  Transcribing the tangle of my Civil War notes--some 2000 words.  Finishing the article about Sonia Marsh.  Going grocery shopping.  Making dinner.  Doing dishes.  Answering emails.

But I was tired and that weariness began creeping up on Tuesday night and Wednesday night.  I still did tasks.  I finished organizing the 42,000 words of notes I'd done on The Originals during January and February.   I re-wrote Chapter 27 of Three Floating Coffins.  I cleaned.  But I could feel the burn out creeping up on me.  Then, on Thursday, I finally crashed.  

The crashes come, I think, when I push myself too hard.  I don't like to accept when I've reached a limit, because I never feel like I've done enough work to justify a rest.  I berate myself against all the published writers who churn out books like paper-wrapped sticks of butter and tell myself, If you can't even handle this, how will you handle real work when it comes?  How will you handle deadlines and marketing and pressure and juggling schedules? You're just pretending to be a writer.  You can't really do it.

Needless to say, this kind of self-criticism doesn't actually help me produce work.

Weirdly enough, what did help me--this week, at least--was picking up a new fantasy book (Graceling by Kristen Cashore) and reading it from cover to cover, until I was done.  Reading gives me energy; I can never understand how people fall asleep while reading every night.  Reading puts new ideas in my head and reconnects me to my love of stories.  After I finish reading, I look at writing not as one more task I need to accomplish, but as something fun, something that ressonates against my soul.  

So what if I don't have perfect butter-stick novels yet?  There's lumps in the cream and I'm ready to start churning again. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Sonia Marsh at El Toro Library

Event: "How to Write, Publish, and Market the Gutsy Way" by Sonia Marsh
Where: El Toro Library

When: Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sonia Marsh is the award-winning author of a travel memoir, who now offers "gutsy" book marketing and coaching to indie authors.

Books: Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family's Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island (Travel/ Memoir); My Gutsy Story Anthology: True Stories of Love, Courage, and Adventure from Around the World (Nonfiction/Anthology)
* * * Sonia will be appearing at the Costco in Tustin on March 15 th from 11am-2pm. On Friday she will be hosting her first webinar.* * *
My friends and I are the first guests to enter the white-walled conference room of the El Toro Library.  We’re greeted by the library's event coordinator and a slim woman in a bright blue dress.  This is indie publisher Sonia Marsh, and the color of her dress will turn out to be subtly significant later on.  Speaking with a slight accent, Sonia asks us how we found her event, then hands us slips of paper for a raffle of her books after the event.  (We don’t win.) 
Her books sit upon the central table alongside laminated newspaper articles.  Another table holds business cards, book marks, and gold and silver chocolates. I take a can of cranberry juice from the snack counter.  More and more people arrive until the room is full.  Between greeting guests, Sonia set up a camera on a tripod.  She says she’ll post her lecture on YouTube later on.
Well, that makes my notes superfluous, I think, but take them anyway.
The event coordinator formally introduces Sonia.  She begins to speak.
(Please note: I scribbled the presentation on plain old notebook paper—no recording devices.  The quotes should contain the essence of what was said, but they’re not exact.)
"I'm a writer, marketer, publisher, and public relations specialist," Sonia tells us.  “I have to do it all, but I don’t have the 6-figure budget of a major publisher.  I’m just like any of you.  So how do you publish and market with the integrity of a 6-figure budget, when you don't have one?"
The slides go up.
6 Steps to Gutsy Indie Publishing
  • Writing
  • Pre-publishing
  • Publishing
  • Marketing
  • Promoting
  • What Next?
* * *

Step 1: Writing


"On average, it takes 6 years to write a book. When I heard that, I thought, 'What's wrong with these people?  I can do it in a year.' "  Beat.  "It took me 7."

  • Classes
  • Conferences
  • Critique Groups
  • Professionals
  • Volunteering

Sonia's first book, called Freeways to Flip-Flops, is a memoir of the time she uprooted her family to live and reconnect in Belize.  It begins as a series of journal entries.  In order to convert them into a memoir, Sonia had to take classes, go to conferences, and enlist the help of editors.  As a bonus, meeting new people and maintaining those connections also helped her gain endorsements. 
Sonia doesn’t always find critique groups helpful, because sometimes they include writers of different genres who don’t understand her writing.  She likes to use professional help.  Her team includes a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proof reader.  When an audience member asks how she got them, she replies that she connected with them in conferences.

* * *
Step 2: Pre-Publishing

"It's quite unlikely, in this day and age, we'll get published by a traditional publisher without a platform...."  (A member of the audience asks what a platform is.)  "A platform is a way to make yourself visible, whether online or offline.  You do this by developing expertise, connecting with other people...  A platform is visibility."
  • Blogging
  • Branding
  • Building a Platform
  • Quality Relationships
  • Networking

Constant blogging, Sonia tells us, is a great resource for a writer seeking exposure. 

“But what is constant?” an audience member asks. 

“At least twice a week.” 

After a year, you should start receiving results.  Sonia cites Seth Godin who recommends starting a blog three years before your book comes out.  The audience heaves a breath at that.

She advised us to find a theme that goes with your brand.  (This is easier for Non-Fiction writers.)  Sonia’s theme is "Gutsy living."  Her tagline: "Life's Too Short to Play It Safe."  When you blog, it shouldn’t be for yourself, but for your audience.  Ask yourself, What is it I can give them?  Picture your audience almost in pain, that they need you to help them through something.

You need to establish yourself as an expert.  What do you know better than anyone else?  One of the problems Sonia encountered when she first began trying to write was that she was all over the place.  Narrow the topic down.

“But how do you get noticed?” asks a man in the audience.  Sonia’s reply is simple: Fresh content.  “Google loves that.” The more you write, the more your blog will rise to the top of the search engine.  It also helps to tag your themes.  (Hers include the words “adventure and Belize.”) 

Contests and giveaways also work to generate excitement. Every Monday, she posts a gutsy story written by her readers, about 1000 words.  The article links back to the reader’s blog.  Good publicity all around.  You can use the same idea—or go to her blog and submit your own story.
If you’re hoping to turn blog entries into a book, she recommends, "How to Blog a Book" by Nina Amir.
In this day and age, you have to be on Facebook and Twitter,” Sonia says.
She suggests starting a Facebook group.  She founded Gutsy Indie Writers—again pushing her “Gutsy” brand.  Rather than just trying to sell their books, they help each other with information and form quality relationships. 

A member of the audience has a question about Twitter.  “How do you come up with new tweets all the time?” Answer: You don’t.  “80% should be re-tweets as well as articles from other sources that are of interest to your followers,” Sonia says. “20% is your own.

If you want to be successful, eventually you'll have to go out and speak.  An audience member mentions Toastmasters, not only for improving public speaking skills, but for networking and promoting your work
* * *
Step 3: Publication

"There's only 1 or 5 % of writers who can actually make a living at it.... But I'm foraging ahead to do everything I can to make it a full time career."
  • Professional Design
  • Publishing Company (dba)
  • ISBN (International Standard Book Number, aka the barcode) ; PCIP (Publishers Cataloguing In Publication), ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copy)
  • Endorsements/ Reviews
  • Virtual Blog Tour
  • Book Launch Party

Midway through a discussion on book cover, I finally learn the significance of her dress.

Sonia’s talking about the elements that make for a professional cover, citing information from Joel Friedlander. "When you have a book cover, you have to be able to read the title from 10 feet away. The author's name should not be at the top unless you're well-known. You don't want to clutter it with too many pictures. You have to consider the font, the colors.”

She tells us she uses island colors.  In fact, turquoise is part of her brand.  Whenever she goes out on promotional events, she wears a turquoise dress.  I sit up.
Going back to Joel Friedlander, Sonia says that although he offers cheap templates ($34) for book covers, she doesn’t use them, opting instead for 1106 Design’s more specialized—and expensive—designs.  A single cover costs $400.  For around $800-$900 you get three concept covers and can choose the one you want. She went with three. 

How did she choose the best?  First she went to Barnes and Noble and asked the manager which cover would sell.  Then she went to her indie bookstore in Laguna Beach and asked the manager the same question. Then she showed the pictures to people at her gym.  90% of those people chose the same picture—the one that now graces her cover.

Being professional is important to her.  Sonia wants indie publishers to be taken seriously.  To that extent, she created her own publishing company.  Name your company, but don't do make it your own name,” she advises.  She chose “Gusty.”  Of course.

Shes about to move on, but I have a question.  Whats DBA mean?

Im still blank.

A member of the audience tries to explain.  For less than $25 you can register your own business.  The license lasts for 5 years and is useful for opening bank accounts.

Sonia wants to move on to ISBNs.  Shes trying to tell us why its better to purchase them on your own rather than accept the free one Create Space gives you, but a discussion breaks out amongst the audience.  Why bother to create your own company at all?  Why not simply publish your book on Create Space and be done with it?

The problem, Sonia explains, is that not all bookstores will carry a book published by Create Space.  Barnes and Noble won’t.  Costco won’t.  Bookstores expect a 55% discount.  Although Create Space does not disclose their discounts, many people believe it's only 25%.  Aside from that, having Create Space as a publisher seems to mark authors as amateurish.  You want to seem professional.

In the midst of this back and forth, information starts to fly:

At last, we move onto ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copy), which are basically your final book with a thin strip of red saying, “Not For Sale.”  These go out to reviewers before the books are released, so that they’ll give you an endorsement.  Of course, printing an ARC costs more money than, say, sending someone a PDF.  But best-selling authors will take you more seriously with a print copy.
Speaking of best-selling authors, one of the things Sonia does to solicit a review, is to first review one of their books by video—for some reason people tend to like it more and it gets more visibility than a written review, which are more common. 
A month after the book is released, you can start a virtual blog tour.  Some people actually pay to go from blog to blog to publicize their book.  Sonia says if you have the connections, you shouldn’t have to pay.
Last on the list is a launch party.  "Think of it like a wedding,” Sonia advises.  “It takes several months to plan." 
When she launched her book at her Laguna bookstore, she looked around the local community for sponsors.  First she went to stores and asked them to donate gifts.  They said yes.  Then she went to a bistro and asked them to donate appetizers.  They said yes.  Then she found a Jamaican restaurant that made a delicious rum punch and got them to serve it to her guests.

"The audience was real happy," Sonia adds.
With all the numbers flying around, someone is bound to ask how much the total cost of producing a book actually is.  (I’m thinking of asking it myself.)  Sonia heard from a publicist at a conference that the average cost is $10,000, including editing, design, and cover.

* * *
Step 4: Marketing
On book signings: "You sell more books if you have a presentation.  People don't like it when you're just sitting there."
  • Book Signings
  • Indie Bookstores
  • Local Libraries
  • Presentations
  • Different Locations (Shops, Gyms)
  • Costco

The last few sections have gone long.  Now we start to zip through.

For indie bookstores, Sonia advises to make sure you get a contract.  When they sell the books (which you provide), it should be at a 60/ 40 split, with the larger half going to the writer.

It’s hard to get your book into Costco, though sometimes they will show interest in a local author.  Make friends with the manager.  You fill out a form and if you don't hear back in 6 weeks, they aren't interested.  Do not call them.

She'll do a webinar about how to get your book into Costco.

* * *
Step 5: Promotion
"Developing a relationship and asking."
  • Radio
  • TV
  • Create an Event Sponsors
  • Give Back a %  (to charities, for example)
  • Get a Keynote Speaker
  • Hire local Publicist

* * *
Step 6: What Next?
  • Keep Marketing
  • Keep Writing
  • Crowdfunding

Pubslush is crowdfunding especially for writers.  Usually, they help in the production of a book, but Sonia got them to fund her event.  The trick is to make it entertaining.  She produced a video with her (seemingly) standing on her head and riding a bicycle.

* * *

Sonia plans to produce free webinars, so be sure to check out her website at for more info.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Weekly Update: 2-21-14

Everyone has a list of things they mean to do over the weekend, but when all's said and done, they don't.  Considering I spent my President's Day weekend in Victorville with my parents, it's a small miracle I got anything done at all.  I did finish my taxes and put flowers on my grandma's grave--and, well, that's about it.
Does taking pictures of fairies count as an accomplishment?
Since Monday was a holiday and since half of Tuesday was spent at the dentist (see entry below), I fell far behind my workload.  I could barely keep up with my normal writing, to say nothing of submitting to agents, to say nothing of researching credentials, to say nothing of looking for a summer job, to say nothing of stuying Japanese, to say nothing of properly cheering on Team USA in the Olympics!  On the other hand, I did manage to write a random short story inspired by the loss of my tooth, finish Into the Wild, and make a double batch of almond poppyseed muffins.  So I guess it's a draw?  

I'll do better next week!

Toothy Update: Crowns

From tooth, once solid,
now splinters remain.  Within 
pink gums, a dark well. 

I thought the worst was over.  I thought getting crowns over my root canals would be no big deal.  I was wrong.   Tuesday, 8:30 AM I strolled serenely into the dentist office.  Tuesday, 1:30 PM, I left, shaken to my core.

Up until this point, a substance akin to cement covered the hole in my teeth.  It felt mildly painful and weirdly flat.  I'd run my tongue over it in the forlorn hope of eroding it with my spit.  When the dentist said she had to drill to get the temporary filling out, I thought it would take a few minutes at most.  Well, she drilled and she drilled and she drilled, all the while filling my mouth with ice cold water.  Her assistant attempted to suck it out with some sort of tube but didn't always suceed.  Some trickled into my throat and I'd gag.  The drill's buzz would come to a halt and I'd apologize for my movement.  Four or five times this happened, rubbing my nerves raw.

The worst part, though, was when the drilling stopped and I got to actually stick my tongue into the hole in my teeth.  That was about the time I realized they had taken out the nerve via root canal so that they could put in a new tooth.  It was sort of like finding most of your hair ripped out of your head, seeing that enoromous bald spot, and then having someone stitch extentions back into your scalp.  I felt weirdly deformed.  When the dentist filled my mouth with white powder to take pictures of the hole in my gums and then had me go to the bathroom to rinse the chalky stuff out, I took the opportunity to stare at the damage in the mirror.  The hole was every bit as bad as I imagined, and the powder made it worse by marking out the depth, like layers of limestone on a cavern wall.

I only got a glimpse of the crown before it went in my teeth, but it reminded me of a white mushroom, with a bulbous top and tapered stem.  Snap.  The dentist fit it in my gums like a puzzle piece.  X-rays were taken.  The crown was cemented in place.  Then more drilling, as the dentist customized the ridges in the top of my crowns so that I could bite down perfectly.  By the end, my gums were tender and my mouth tasted like chemicals.  The tooth felt bizarre in my mouth, like I'd been given some bionic implant.

Then the dentist told me I had five smaller cavities that I should take care of as soon as possible.  The receptionist was standing by to make an appointment.  I walked out of the dentist wondering if, after all was said and done, I'd have any teeth left!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

3 Books that Changed How I Write

While subbing for a language arts class, a student came up to me and asked if I would recommend some writing books for her.   A pretty basic question—yet I hesitated.  In the last 15 years, I've read at least two dozen books on writing, along with countless magazine and blog articles.  After a while, they all start to blur together.  How can I choose the best when I barely remember the titles?

But there were some books I remembered, books I kept coming back to, books whose advice I applied and found my story all the stronger for it.  I cannot guarantee they will transform your writing.  All I know is that they transformed mine.

1. Elements of Fiction Writing: Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

At some point in his life, my dad wanted to write stories with his sister; subsequently, he gathered a huge collection of writing books.  The dream never panned out for him, but the books lay on the shelf, ripe for the picking.  The most prominent of the collection was the Elements of Fiction Writing series, several white-spined books that each broke down the fundamentals of plot, setting, scene, etc.  In high school, when I became serious about my writing, I devoured the books.

When I came to the Character and Viewpoint book, I was startled to find it was written by Orson Scott Card.  I'd only just finished reading Ender's Game, one of my all-time favorite books.  Needless to say, I read with rapt attention. 

At the time I was just starting what was to become an epic pokemon fanfiction, and I realized to my dismay that some of my secondary characters (Karen and Kris) bore all the hallmarks of a flat character.  I remedied this immediately.  The character became infinitely more complex and interesting.  They ended up being my favorites.

I recommend this book to a beginner writer who wants to add depth to characters and understand the subtle, but powerful way point of view influences the story.  You do not have to take all his suggestions.  (At one point he says an audience could not relate to an intellectual herofrom a man whos best-selling book revolves around geniuses!)  But it gives good insight into what makes a character tick.

2. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

I was in Japan mid-deep into The Changelings, the epic fantasy I'd started four years ago in college, but I was getting frustrated because my writing just wasn't good.  That is, the story was okay, but the actual words did not conveying my ideas in the smooth and elegant way I'd seen in published novels.  Sometimes, if I wrote and re-wrote the chapter a dozen times, Id get close.  But I had no idea what I was doing. 

This book broke down the craft of turning story into prose bit by bit, using lots of examples and a few obscure comics.  I started practicing it on my Ramna 1/2 fanfiction (yes, I wrote a lot of fanfiction) and was amazed how much emotion I was able to evoke.  Not only that, I understood why it worked and how, through a lot of sweat, to replicate the result.

I recommend this book to intermediate to advanced writer, who knows the basics of storytelling but wants their prose to read in a clear, professional manner.

3. Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Boy, I wish I had this book in college, back when I was flailing about to turn the sprawling plot of my novel into something comprehensible.  If I'd known how to outline then, I'd have saved myself a lot of trouble.

When I started The Changelings back in January ’04, I thought I’d write it like I had my pokemon fanfiction—one chapter at a time, no planning ahead.  But this story was infinitely more complex, and I spent three years of college spinning my wheels.  4 years after that, I finally had a complete draft.  Now, as I revised The Changelings, I knew I had to start thinking about the sequel, The Originals.  But I did not want to spend another 7 years in developmental hell.  I wanted a short cut.

Scanning the shelves at Barnes and Noble, the bright orange cover caught my eye.  A sticker announced 30% off sticker and I thought, Why Not?  Roughly 5 weeks later, I banged out 100 pages of The Originals.  While not even close to being a whole novel, I did in fact locate the core plot, while teaching myself a valuable lesson about how to plot out the novel in advance and then write it down and see where it would lead.   

I recommend this book to beginner writers who are ready to jump into their novel or to intermediate writers who are stuck in the middle of the plot and want practical advice for getting back on track.  Though the cover says, Book in a Month, I personally recommend giving yourself two: the first month to read the book and do the exercises, the second month to actually write it all down.