Friday, August 28, 2015

Post "Meh" Debut—Your Options

So you've debuted, and you're not, in fact, a bestseller. Maybe your book/series didn't even do so hot. Or maybe you did alright, but now your genre is out to pasture and your project on sub isn't selling. Or maybe your editor has changed houses or left the business and you're left up a creek. Or maybe your imprint/small press is closing.

I'm writing this post for you all—which I suspect is most of us—in hopes of sharing some knowledge now that I've experienced a lot of post-debut, well, crap. (AKA: All of these things I described above.) Many of us are left wondering what comes next. How do we keep going if we want to still be a writer? How do we let go and move on if we don't?

Well, the first step is to eat your weight in cupcakes. Because this all sucks and you're allowed to feel like it sucks and to be upset about it. The publishing industry is brutal, no matter what path you pick, and for this moment you don't have to pretend otherwise. I won't tell your agent/editor/readers/fellow aspiring authors. Promise.

I'm going to divide my advice into two parts for ease—if you want to keep writing and if you want to stop. So, here we go!


IF YOU WANT TO KEEP WRITING
(Any and all options may be combined or used more than once or not at all. Whatever.)

Option 1: Keep doing what you're doing. You totally can stay on course if you want. Keep subbing new work, keep trying to sell what you love to write regardless of market swings, push forward knowing it'll be hard but it might happen again. This can be disheartening when the rejections and stories pile up, but many people have done this and sold more at some point in time. Just know that if you don't sell for awhile it's not you—it's publishing. Markets swing, editors' hands get tied, bottom lines are analyzed and you may be found wanting.

Option 2: Change genres. Many an author has switched up their genre and found great success in doing so. Either they change within, say, YA—from paranormal to sci-fi, or dystopian to fantasy, or steampunk to horror. Or they switch age group/subject entirely, moving from Middle Grade to YA or vice versa. Some leave YA and move into adult genre fiction. There and many ways to switch up your genre and still find success. If what you're doing doesn't feel like it's working or it's just too heartbreaking—try something new.

Option 3: Pen name. Look, it's not that publishing has "black-listed" you. It's just that the second you debut, you have numbers attached to your name. How much you sold. If you earned out. If you continued to sell or buyers dropped the title quickly. If you're being circulated in libraries. That stuff…yes, it impacts your chances to sell another book. Yes, all publishers will look at those numbers and factor them into their decision to buy a book from you. Sometimes? It's just better to change your name if you're writing in the same genre and pretend you're a debut again. Because debuts are shiny and new and have no numbers to be liable for.

Option 4: Try a different publishing path. Maybe your first book was small press and the press went under—trying Big 5 or indie publishing could be something you want to do. Maybe Big 5 burned you bad and you want control over your next project just to gain some peace of mind and enjoyment back, so you try indie (I did this). Maybe you're tired of  indie and want to try to get an agent and see what happens. All of these choices are yours to make! And it really can be refreshing to try and different path and experiment.

Option 5: Contract work. Sometimes while you're waiting for your original work to sell, you can fill in the financial gaps with something called "contract work." If you don't know what this is, it's basically when a publisher is looking for a certain type of book and they hire an author to write it. You don't own rights to the story and the pay/royalties are not as great, but it can keep you going. Many an author has done contract work and done it well and benefitted greatly from it because it gets their name out there and then their original work sells better.

Option 6: Explore other forms of writing careers. There are more than just novels in the world. Some authors I've known have put novels on the back burner and are writing for video games or table top role playing games. Some have moved into non-fiction for blogs and websites. Some of taken a "day job" where they're writing materials for companies. If finances are an issue for you, don't be afraid to try any writing gig you can find.


IF YOU WANT TO STOP WRITING
(Any and all options may be used or combined or you can ignore me entirely. My kids never listen to me and they've turned out alright.)

Option 1: Be bitter the rest of your life and complain about how publishing ruined you. That sounds ridiculous, but it is an option and who am I to tell you how to go about this? I spent a good 6 months feeling like this before I got over it some. But I wouldn't recommend it. Being miserable and letting publishing drag you down is no way to live.

Option 2: Accept that publishing is not something for you right now, for whatever reasons. There are no rules saying that once you publish you have to keep doing it. No one is going to make you feel ashamed of stopping but yourself, and you don't need to do that! Writing is not the only way to live a fulfilling life. It may not be something you can do under current circumstances. You might need a long break before you're ready to face it again. Whatever the reason, do you. Be proud of yourself. Move on. Come back later if you want.

Option 3: Find things that bring you joy. If it's not writing anymore, that's okay! But there might be other things to try out there that give you that same "high." Learn a language, start painting, take a dance class or try yoga. Spend more time with your family. Travel. Once you are in the author mindset it can be hard to think of life outside our little publishing world, but it's beautiful out there and worth exploring. Go do stuff. Have fun. Don't feel guilty about doing instead of writing.

Option 4: Maybe stop publishing, but keep writing. Much of the time it's really publishing that kills the joy of writing. Sometimes you might still feel the writing bug itching you, and you just want to write something but not publish it. You can totally do that! There is no shame in writing just for fun and for yourself. In fact, that might bring you a lot more happiness than throwing your work to the wolves. Maybe that is what suits you and brings you peace.

Option 5: Get help if you need it. If publishing has left you with scars, please don't ignore that. Creative pursuits have a huge impact on our minds and we are all more susceptible to mental illness than the average person. If you find yourself unable to pull out of the bitterness and sadness, talk to a doctor and find the help you need if you're depressed, anxious, or both or anything else. Sometimes it can take time to heal from what your mind might be considering a "loss." You are making a life transition, and those can be rocky. No shame in finding support while you figure it all out.


Ultimately, my friends, you have to find the path that's right for you. I wish I could tell you what that is, but you know I can't. Debuting and becoming a "professional" author is a hard thing, and you don't know what your future holds. And even if you think you do, it can all change at the drop of a hat. But hopefully this post will help you explore the options you have. It can be easy to get stuck in tunnel vision, but really there is still a whole horizon of possibilities out there for you. And really, none of those possibilities are wrong, they're just different. And that's okay.


Friday, August 21, 2015

On Depression, Gaming, and Not Writing

My hair is starting to grow back. That's how I know things are turning around for me. I'm always a fan of talking about depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses, but I admit that, at the same time, it's been difficult for me to talk about this time in my life while I've been going through it.

Why? Mostly because it's exhausting. When I'm depressed, I don't want to do anything and I don't have the patience to sit there and tell someone I'm depressed and then have them try and fix me or ask me what triggered it or have them treat me tenderly when I just don't give a crap. It's wasted energy for them and me. At least while I'm in the thick of it.

But of course there was a trigger. Of course I want to be fixed. Of course I want to be loved. The problem is that with depression I just can't feel any of those things. That's the most insidious part, the part that people who haven't gone through significant depressions can't quite grasp. You're just numb. You think, "Oh, I should be feeling happy right now, so I better pretend that though I feel nothing." Or, "Oh, I should be mad, try being mad." "I probably should feel sad about this, but I literally do. not. care."

That's been my life since last November. Having no feelings.

It really all began when I realized that there was almost a 100% chance that I'd never be able to use my own name on a book again. That, due to my lackluster sales, I was already "washed up" as an author. As author Natalie Whipple. It took less than two years, really, though I tried so, so hard to pretend it wasn't happening in 2014…the year after I debuted. How quick the shine of authorhood can wear off. How swift the industry can declare you a failure. (And please, for the love, do not tell me it's not true and I'm amazing and all that crap. It only attempts to negate the feelings that were/are very real to me.)

I was mad. I was devastated. I was confused. And, ultimately, I was helpless to change any of it. I had tried—all the events and more books and pretending I was amazing and trying to sellsellsell. Maybe I could change it. Maybe I just wasn't working hard enough. Maybe…but no.

By October-ish of last year, I was spent in about every way. I'd used what little money I had to travel and market and indie publish. I used all of my creative power and killed the rest in this blitz of overworking myself. I used up all my feelings and hope and willpower. I had nothing left to give, so I cracked and broke and I didn't even care to pick up the pieces.

I tried to keep writing. Did NaNo. Did some contract work. But it only made things worse. I only broke into more pieces.

So I stopped writing. I ate a lot. Gained almost ten pounds. Slept at least 12 hours a day. I played my part at conferences, pretending that writing was still something I cared about and not something that had shattered me once again. I tried to keep my house and children cared for, but failed a lot. I started forgetting almost every conversation people attempted to have with me. I got shingles. That was fun.

And, I started gaming more. I've always gamed, but in this time when writing has become torture and not an escape, gaming has saved me. It's given me a place to go and hide, a place where I don't have to think about my life, a place where I can be safe while I work through all this shit. It's hard to explain to people who don't game, who think games are a waste, who don't understand what they mean to some people. But sometimes I think Guild Wars 2 saved my life. It kept me from going to uglier places, more dangerous thoughts. I got to meet people who didn't expect me to talk about writing and who didn't just see me as a writer.

Because it's really hard to be a writer who's not writing. The best I can equate it to is "being the single person in a room of married couples." Everyone's talking about how great marriage is, and what they're doing together, and their plans for their amazing future as an amazing adorable pukey couple. And you're single and kinda cool with it and you want to roll your eyes a lot.

But not only that, it's the questions and reactions. "So, what are you working on?"

Sweet murder, I hate that question right now. Because when I say, "Absolutely nothing." the reaction is exhausting. There's usually a pause. And then a "Oh, well…must be nice to be on a break." And there's this awkwardness in the air because what do we even talk about if it's not writing and books and publishing?

If I feel like really freaking out a debut author, I mention that I've even considered quitting and that my writing career is already shot two years in. You can see the fear in their eyes, the realization that maybe the same thing could happen to them. And then they run, run away as fast as possible. Probably because I have bad luck and they worry it might rub off on them. And, hey, it might. I don't blame them. No one wants to hear the kinds of things publishing has handed me. No one wants it to be them.

But my hair is growing back. I'm losing weight. I'm not sleeping all day and I'm finding meaning in things that aren't writing. My house is cleaner. My mind is waking up. Slowly, slowly, I'm starting to feel things again. The chill of fear. The heat of anger. The ache of sadness and the brightness of joy. And feeling…I have hopes that feeling will lead me back to writing.

At some point, at least.



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

How To Write A (Dreaded) Synopsis

Most writers wholly agree that writing a synopsis is the worst thing ever. While we all want to avoid this particular summary of our work, I hate to tell you that they come up a lot. 

I've published 7 novels now, and 2 of those were first submitted as a synopsis (Blindsided and My Little Brony). For my ninja sequel, my editor asked me to write synopses of ALL the ninja series so she had a reference to keep in mind as she worked through edits. Just this last week I wrote another one for a potential writing gig I want. Whether the synopsis is for a sequel or a work-for-hire or just reference, they are an important thing to know how to do. They can be the difference between selling your whole series or just one book. They can get you a job as a packaged book writer. 

So, how do you write these synopses things? Well, first you need to know what a synopsis must and must not do. Then the rest is up to interpretation.

1. Your synopsis needs to demonstrate that you know how to plot a novel. 
This is really the major thing an agent or editor is looking for when they request a synopsis. If you don't have a strong enough understanding of plotting—it will show in your synopsis. You will choose the wrong things to focus on or the plot points will be clearly weak. 

If you feel like you can't write a synopsis, my number one tip is to learn more about plotting. Read Save The Cat. Check out Dan Wells's 7-point Plot Structure. Brush up on the 3 Act Play set up. Dissect your own plot and the plots of other novels/movies/television. A synopsis will reveal all the holes in your story's plot, so use that as a tool to gauge your novel's strengths and weaknesses.

2. Your synopsis must not be boring.
This is more difficult than the average person realizes. You must reduce your novel to the bare bones, and then make those bones sound super interesting. How do you pull that off? 

Focus on the stakes, emotions, and complications for your main character that push them through the plot.

Don't strip your synopsis of voice.

Avoid clich├ęs.

Use active verbs to push action forward. 

3. Your synopsis must be focused.
Your novel will likely have way more characters and subplots and settings than you can put in the synopsis. This is okay. It is not a novel, it's a focused look at your plot structure. If you don't need to mention a character's name, don't. If you can skip a description, do. Look at your novel as a whole and pick out the most essential pieces. These will likely be your main character and their motivations, the plot twists and turns, and your villain and their motivations. 

4. Your synopsis cannot be too long.
While this is a longer version of a query in a way, your synopsis should not be 12 pages long. At least not one that you expect anyone to read with interest. around 1000-1500 words is about as much as you can get away with before it just starts to feel like too much. 

**

And that's the basics! I know this doesn't look like a lot, but these are the most important things when it comes to a synopsis. They certainly don't have to be perfect—they are mostly requested when an agent or editor wants to see if the book progresses like a well-plotted novel before taking a closer look. If you are struggling, please feel free to ask me more specific questions in comments.





Monday, June 29, 2015

The Quiet Life

It's amazing how much can change in five or six years. When I was 25, I wanted to be famous, essentially. I wanted to be a bestselling author that everyone knew and complimented and thought was amazing in every way. This would make my life meaningful, somehow. Then I would feel like a valid human being. Or whatever.

Now I'm 31, and not only do I know that being famous (though I'm not exactly famous) sucks, but that none of that stuff fills that hole like I hoped it would. Having people talk about you and your book…it doesn't make you feel better or more important. Sometimes it even feels just plain weird that anyone would pay attention to what you're doing. But maybe that's just me.

This past 6 or 7 months has been a big struggle for me. I think it's been clear from my posts and my general lack of social media presence. I've just been, well, depressed. I've wanted to quit. I've questioned every choice I've made as an author ever. In a lot of ways, I've stepped back. And oddly enough I feel like I haven't even stepped back enough, what with all the conferences I committed to attend this winter and spring. But my conference blitz is finally over. And I'm back to just me and my own words.

You know what? I'm actually happy to be there. Just me and my stories.

All this publishing stuff—the marketing and cons and selling and interviews and on and on—I thought that was what I wanted for so long. What I'm finding now is that, as authors constantly say, it really always comes back to the writing. When I take away all the stresses of the business side, I still do love to write and edit my own stories. That part…that's something I can never get away from and it's something I personally need to focus on if I want to stay sane.

I suspect I may not be the only author this applies to. No matter you are on the journey—aspiring writer, debut, on your 3rd published novel or 20th or 50th—focusing on the writing seems to always be the answer. At least it's what I continually come back to: a quiet life filled with my own worlds where I can escape and have fun and explore my own views on life. That's the best part of all this. It's the part we can all have if we sit down at the writing desk with gratitude for the work we do and what it gives us.

As I move into a quieter time in writing for me, I find I'm actually looking forward to the "reset," so to speak. No deadlines. No contracts. No events or publicity or whatever. It's like I'm a brand new author again, and for once I really want to be that. I want writing to be magical again. I want editing to be satisfying and educational. I want to be proud of my work regardless of what other people think, much like I was when I was an aspiring author. And I hope by wanting it, I can make it happen.

Here's to the quiet author life. If you're there right now, savor it, because the busy times are exhausting and you'll find yourself wanting the slower pace in the future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WIFYR Novel Intensive!

New author photos! I'm getting my
use out of them lately:)
I've mentioned this before, but this summer I'll be teaching a week long class about novel writing and Writing & Illustrating For Young Readers. It's a fantastic conference, and well worth the price if you are looking for a lot of personal one-on-one instruction from a professional writer.

Here is my class's description, should you be interested:

Great fiction is all about the lens you bring to a story and how you choose to crop and manipulate what’s on the page. Utilizing my art background, I will teach my students how to compose a novel on every level, from creating a solid world to painting vivid characters to choosing the details that will give your story nuance and flair. Each student will submit 30 pages of their finished novel for critique by the class, and through detailed critique of your work I plan to give you every tool you need to make your novel a masterpiece.

And after I’ve taught about crafting your book, I will give you all the knowledge I have about how to sell your art. It’s a difficult business, both emotionally and financially, and as a hybrid author I can give you an honest look at the many paths now in publishing. Never have artists had so many choices, and I’d love to help you decide what direction is right for you.

If you'd like more info about the conference, check out www.wifyr.com.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Writing, Publishing, & Solitaire

I've been playing a lot of Solitaire lately. Which probably sounds a little weird, but with my Mac devices not having the program it just hadn't occurred to me to get the app or whatever. But my mom recently visited and I saw it on her phone and was like "Oh, I should download that."

Like most people, I used to play Solitaire back on my family's old Dell when I was a kid. It came with the computer and was one of the few games we had, so it got played by all of us at one point or another.  There was something addicting about it, like Tetris.

We all know the game—basically you're organizing cards over and over in the hopes that you can organize the whole deck. You alternate between black and red. You play it all on your own. It is at once boring and somehow entertaining and also a bit challenging.

Because, even though it's a game for one, you can lose.

Who are you even losing to? Yourself? Fate? Chance?

Funnily enough, as I've been playing I've realized that Solitaire is a lot like writing and publishing.

Though it doesn't feel like it sometimes, being an author is really a game you're playing all on your own. Just like Solitaire. Sure, other people are playing the game, too, but they aren't playing your game of Solitaire. They've been dealt a different order of the same cards, which may or may not end in a win for them. And you've been dealt your own cards—it's up to you to follow the rules and see if you can organize them just right.

Writing and Publishing have rules, too, vague ones, at least. But how you get to that end goal is different for everyone…and sometimes a certain deck just isn't going to get you a win no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you just have to shuffle the cards and start over. Hope you get lucky this next time. Maybe all the cards will line up just right next round, or it'll be challenging but ultimately you'll work them into the right order and win.

Most people have accepted this fact in Solitaire. When I hit that point where I know I can't win—the freaking ace of hearts is buried under cards I can't move—I accept defeat and start over without much thought. It's just how the game is. I can't change it.

Well, writing and publishing are the same. Sometimes no matter what you do, a story isn't going to work and you have to shuffle the deck and start over. Sometimes, you get really, really close to publishing a novel but then that one card is buried and you can't move it. And it doesn't feel fair but that's the game and you have to start over whether you got blocked on card twenty or card fifty. Except it hurts a lot more when we are playing Writing Solitaire, and reshuffling that deck can discourage us. It feels, after we've tried and failed many times to get our publishing cards to line up just right, that it might never happen.

But anyone who has played Solitaire knows that eventually your luck will change. Just like you lose against the chances in the deck, sometimes you can win, too. And it's those wins that keep you playing, that keep you thinking, "Okay, just one more game."

You just need the courage and determination to keep shuffling the deck.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

When It Feels Like Everyone Is Getting What You Want

It surprises me that people still find my post from 2010 when I talked about being on sub for the first time and how crushing it was to fail. When I wrote that, all I wanted to do was get everything off my chest that I had to keep secret for those long 15 months. I had no idea it would not only go "viral" in the writing community that day, but still have a lasting impact on people. I actually got a sweet email from a writer on sub just today that is triggering this post, because I had so much to say I figured I should say it on the blog instead.

So, to that aspiring author and all the rest, I'm grateful that I could provide any comfort. It's hard. I haven't forgotten how hard it is because it's still hard for me.

When it comes to being on sub, I wish I could provide some kind of positive quip about how if you never give up it'll happen! But, well, I'm more realistic than that. And I know it's not true. I have only sold my original work ONCE in America. In 2011. Yes, I'm published, traditionally and indie, and I'm still on sub and failing on sub consistently. 

Truth be told, I tried to sell four different books to my own US editor and they all got turned down. Then I went wide with FISH OUT OF WATER, and while it sold in the UK it was on sub in the US for a year and a half. Longer than my first failed sub. And it did not sell. I've been on sub with another project for…7 months? I'm losing track. Hardly a word from anyone. And of course all rejections. So sub pretty much always sucks, unless you are one of the few who makes it big and can sell almost anything. (But even they can't sell everything, I have bestselling friends and know this to be true.)

In the email I got this morning, this heartbroken writer talked about how hard it is to see other people selling in the blink of an eye. How they felt like there was something wrong with them because it hasn't been that way for them. Oh, how this tugged at my heart, because I know those feelings. I've bathed in those feelings for years, feeling insufficient and sometimes an utter failure even now.

I remember watching the success stories when I was on sub for those 15 months, how difficult it was, how conflicting. I was at once happy for those authors and hopeful that I, too, could sell—but at the same time viciously jealous and frustrated that I couldn't sell and had no way to make it happen.

Because it feels like you should be able to make it happen. If you're brilliant enough, if your book is perfect enough, or whatever…and yet really none of that matters when you get to sub. All that matters is the whim of a publisher and a lot of luck. Both are things you have absolute zero power over. And you feel helpless and annoyed that all your work, your whole life basically, every hope and dream, are resting on something as shifting and unstable as the book market. It's enough to drive anyone insane.

Beth Revis. That was the story that killed me when I was on sub, actually. Which is hilarious if you know her full story, but we all have those authors we attach our icky feelings to when we're on sub. Jodi Meadows was also on my list to some extent. (I'm mentioning these people because I know they'll understand and won't be mad at me—I think all published authors get these feelings more than aspiring authors think.) They both got agents around the same time as me. Both sold pretty fast. They seemed like such big deals to me, and on top of that their books were agented and published within the time I was just on sub. All that time I spent waiting…that was all the time it took for them to get what I wanted. And it was hard for me to watch, even though rationally I knew I was being stupid and ridiculous and just plain jealous.

Why am I going over all this? Well, I guess to tell you that in someways is does get better.

Not in a "you will become a rich and famous published author" way, but more of a "it won't hurt so much after awhile" way. The first time I was on sub, I thought about it a lot. I waited and imagined and hoped. The second time—the time I sold—it was really hard but I knew what to expect and I was prepared to distract myself. It worked a little better. Each time…it's gotten a little easier to accept the unknown, to accept the possibility of failure, to be more at peace. This sub? Sometimes I forget it's even happening. I'm not over here crying at the prospect of it not happening like I used to do. It sucks, but it's not anything I haven't been through before. And I'm still alive. Sub hasn't killed me yet despite its best efforts.

I've filled my life with other things. After my first failure on sub, I realized how out of whack my life was, how solely focused on writing I was. I started stepping back, putting other things at a higher priority than my writing dreams. I realized it wasn't the end of my world if it never happened. I still wanted it, but in a lot of ways I made like Elsa and let it go. I didn't have to stop enjoying writing just because I couldn't publish.

It hasn't been a walk in the park. I think that's evidence by all my recent blog posts in which I've vaguely referred to my trying to decide if I really want to keep trying when it seems so futile. But looking back at 2010…that was my rock bottom in a lot of ways. And I'm not that far gone currently and I'm glad for that.

So when you feel like everyone else is getting everything YOU have wanted forever, I know it hurts but don't forget those feelings don't have to rule your life. I won't tell you not to feel that way, because we all go there now and then, but pay attention to how often you go there. If it's more often than not, try to look deep and figure out why. For me, it was a feeling that "all the spots were getting taken." Sometimes it felt like if I didn't sell NOW, that publishing wouldn't be around long enough for my writing to become a book. Which was silly. Publishing is tumultuous, but it's not going anywhere.

And, who knows? It could happen. You could eventually sell a book, or a few. And then suddenly you've only been published for 2 years but you have 7 books out in the world. Maybe I'm not a huge bestseller, but that's what happened to me.

If someone told me in 2010 that I'd have 7 books published by 2015, I'd have laughed in their face and maybe called them insulting things for being such a sunny positive person raining sunbeams on my negative parade.

You just never know. That's the hardest thing. We can't see the future, and we hate waiting. But we have to wait. For who knows how long. I'm sorry for that. Truly. It sucks.

But at the same time, you don't just have to sit on your hands and watch your email until it happens. You can do other things. You can keep growing as a person (which I've found has made me a better writer). I've found solace in exercise (yoga, running, biking), in my family, in cooking, in drawing and playing video games and gardening and Kdrama and anime and traveling and hanging out with good friends. I've filled my life with all sorts of things I enjoy that have become just as important to me as writing, and some more so. You might be waiting for one thing, but you don't have to pause the rest of your life or withhold your own happiness until that one thing happens that you think will make everything better.

Spoiler: It doesn't make it better. It won't fill that hole you're carving out in your heart as you want and want and want. Publishing is great, but it comes with its own bucket of crap.

So, if you can, find the joy now. Find ways to laugh and accept and relax. It might be hard, but try anyway (just like with writing!). You'll need those skills in the future, if and when you do publish. Hang in there.

Luv,
Natalie