Embracing ignorance

I entered my first marathon as a favor for a friend. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend by running one with her, but he needed a training partner.

I was fueled by ignorance.

I didn’t train enough. I wore shoes made for running 5Ks. I knew nothing of protecting myself from chaffing and other long-distance injuries. My legs were leaden pegs when I crossed the finish. My toes bled through my sneakers (I eventually lost nine toenails.). I was so sore in the days after that even driving was difficult.

Still, I finished the 26.2-mile route in less than four hours, pretty respectable for a first-timer.

I wrote my first novel the same way. I knew nothing of novel writing. I had too many primary characters in the first draft. The pace in the first half differed from the pace of the second half. I edited as I wrote, which slowed me down. It took me six years to write my first novel, and I spent another two years revising it.

Still, it was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, respectable for a first novel. It remains my favorite and it has been the favorite of two literary agents. I have shelved it for another look at a better time in my career.

I credit ignorance for my success in completing that first novel, the same kind of ignorance that carried me through my first marathon. I believed all through the writing process that novel would sell, and I became more firm in that belief when I signed with my first agent. I even told the kids we would celebrate its sale by buying a Wii.

A year later, my husband and I caved and bought them a Wii anyway.

For first-timers, the novel-writing process can seem daunting and the goal, unachievable. The greatest obstacle is self-doubt and the greatest feat is pushing through that doubt to cross the finish line. So why not allow them that ignorance? Why clue newbies in on the perceived impossibilities?

Let them write. Let them make mistakes without knowing they are mistakes. Let them cross the finish line just once with pure joy, unaware of the bleeding toes, chaffed skin and torn muscles they acquired along the way.

I had started my next novel before I knew the first one wasn’t going to sell immediately, and that was a good thing. I had learned from my mistakes and inefficiencies. The next novel took two years to finish and that is a pace I feel comfortable with at this stage in my life, with young children to raise and elderly parents who need me.

I recently signed a contract with Black Opal Books for that second novel, a thriller entitled No Stranger Here, and for the two novels I wrote next, which are part of a mystery/suspense series. I am happy with my work and thrilled by the contract, but I’m not sure I would have made it to this point without the gift of ignorance that first time around.

I ran five more marathons after the first one. I trained smarter and ran faster for the second two. For the last two, I focused only on finishing injury-free, relying on my previous experiences as a guide. I ran a few minutes slower than my first marathon, but I finished without lasting pain and was able to hit the roads and the track again two days later.

I loved it.

I stopped running marathons when I started my first novel. The two decisions were unrelated, influenced by other factors in my life, but I am not sure I would have succeeded in one without the experience of the other. Marathon training prepared me for novel writing, but it was ignorance that got me hooked on both.

 

 

 

Happiness is a book contract

I have waited a long time to say this, and here it goes:

I have signed a contract with a publisher, a three-book contract with Black Opal Books.

I am beyond thrilled.

I am beyond giddy.

I am sore from jumping up and down, but I still hop whenever I think about it

I have no release dates yet. The editing process takes a while — anywhere from six to eighteen months — but my thriller, No Stranger Here, and the first two books of my mystery/suspense series, A Dead Man’s Eyes and Never Broken, will finally make their ways into readers’ hands.

I have Pennwriters to thank.

I first heard about Black Opal Books in May during a Pennwriters conference, where I met a couple of authors who had signed with the Oregon-based company. It is important to be cautious with small publishers. I’ve heard stories about contracts and rights lost when small publishers folded, but Black Opal Books has been around for a while. They are also approved by Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, two high-profile groups that advocate for crime writers.

Even more important though was that the authors I met were happy. Black Opal Books was founded by people in the publishing industry who wanted to do more for authors. They wanted to publish high-quality, well-edited works while offering a percentage of royalties that surpasses the big publishing houses.

I looked into submitting when I returned, but the publisher was closed to submissions until June.

The summer got busy with a family reunion and the high school graduation of our oldest. In the midst of it all, I forgot about submitting to Black Opal Books, focusing instead on writing a new novel. Then I got an email from Pennwriters. I had won first and second places in the organization’s 2017 Novel Beginnings Contest. Pennwriters wanted updates from past contest winners for its newsletter. I remember my conversations about Black Opal Books.

This was in November. Black Opal Books was open for submissions until Dec. 31.

So I did it, and I am glad that I did.

I will post more about the release dates when I know more.

And now, if see me hopping, you’ll know why.

 

Authors: Don’t quit your day jobs

A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.

He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.

I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.

We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.

But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.

The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.

From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.

But those figures include everyone.

Here is a more specific breakdown:

  • Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
  • Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to  $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
  • Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.

These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017.  Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.

It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:

  • Traditionally published: $305,000.
  • Self-Published: $154,000 

But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.

Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?

We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services.  We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.

Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)

I want that for him.

A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.

 

 

 

On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

My Fitbit died … and I woke up

feetI remember well the day I first wore my Fitbit. It was nearly three years ago, and I strapped that thing on my wrist certain it would prove how conscientious I was about getting up and moving between bouts of writing.

I quickly forgot I was wearing it, so I didn’t peek at the steps screen until the end of the day. I was shocked. Only three thousand steps. I was embarrassed – no – ashamed. Before having kids, I was a regular road racer and a veteran of six marathons. Life, not necessarily kids, got in the way after that — a couple of cross-country moves, freelance writing, contract work, elder care, injuries, surgery.

Over time, I stopped running, but I hadn’t realized that I had also stopped moving.

It was a revelation so intense I became obsessed with my new toy, challenging myself to hit 10,000 steps and 20 floors each day. When I was short of my goal, I sometimes walked in circles around the living room, often carrying a glass of wine in one hand and ducking into the TV room to catch the next development in a show because it was time to relax, but I wasn’t ready.

I learned my Fitbit didn’t record steps when I pushed a shopping cart or my father’s wheelchair, so I shoved it in my pocket during those adventures to ensure that I wasn’t cheated of my goal. The hip movement triggered the step counter. I connected online with other Fitbit users, including my sister and my husband, to compare achievements and gloat when I beat them.

I made sure I carried the mail up our quarter-mile driveway in my left hand, so my right hand could swing with my body and accumulate steps. I monitored my sleeping habits and my pulse on my Fitbit, getting so worked up about getting a good night’s sleep that I couldn’t sleep. I wore that watch night and day and regardless of my outfit. I worshiped that thing.

Then it broke.

It happened in August. My Fitbit had stopped working before, but I had always been  able to resuscitate it with the help of customer service. Not this time. This time it was dead-dead, probably because I so rarely took it off that I had accidentally dunked it in a hot tub on spring break three times. It had been behaving oddly ever since.

Fitbits are expensive and I couldn’t afford a new one.

I felt naked.

I was lost without it.

I bought a cheap knock-off, but it didn’t work. Sometimes it counted steps. Sometimes it didn’t. I probably would have rejected it even if it counted steps precisely the same. It wasn’t a Fitbit. I wanted my Fitbit. I was sad.

But something strange happened a few days after I chucked the knock-off. I was at the grocery store wearing pants with no pockets. For an instant, I stressed about where to put my Fitbit. Then I felt my wrist and remembered. And I smiled. I didn’t have a Fitbit, which meant my step total didn’t exist. Since it didn’t exist, it didn’t matter.

Without a Fitbit, I was free.

I have to wonder if fate played a role. Over the next few months, a nerve problem in my foot worsened, limiting my ability to walk long distances. If my Fitbit had been functional, I would have failed to meet my goal every day. I found I had gained weight over those three years, not lost it. In trying to figure out how to battle the weight gain with fewer cardio opportunities, I realized I had forgotten all about strength training. I used to do floor exercises regularly. I had stopped in favor of steps.

Last month, I resumed my floor exercises and, this month, I signed up for Weight Watchers. I am down five pounds and I am feeling stronger every day. I am sleeping better and I am living better. I will soon have surgery to fix the nerve, which will allow me to run and hike again, but I won’t get another Fitbit.

I know better now.

I know I didn’t own that Fitbit. It owned me.

 

 

Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and A Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and A Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.

Distance and the evolution of friendships

I remember a conversation with a friend a few years back, when we still lived in Cincinnati. I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.

Not since I moved.

My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends anymore?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I were planning to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.

Not at all.

But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.

They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.

It is a lesson I have learned over the past 19 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cincinnati to the hills of Northern Pennsylvania, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presence of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails, text messages and occasional visits.

I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.

But then something happened.

Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. The older ones became teenagers, applying to colleges and taking dates to the prom. Suddenly, I noticed my old friends and I had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the texts less detailed.

The kids were one factor.

The other was simple logistics.

In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks – some more than others – but, for the most part, the networks remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.

I had left them with everything, but me.

But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperament of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to build a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.

It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.

In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.

Too easy, especially with social networking apps, like Facebook.

But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.

I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.

That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.

It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones in their lives, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a certain situation in my life.

And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.

I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And thank goodness I did. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in person. In that time, she also moved, leaving old friends behind. She gets me and I get her.

We don’t speak on the phone often, but we make sure we do if it’s been too long. We both understand the struggles of being the new person in the place that is old to others. That shared experience adds a new and unique dynamic to our friendship. Hers is a new kind of long-distance friendship for me. She didn’t leave a void in my life when we parted ways. She fills one I didn’t know I had.