Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Downside of Discipline, or why I allowed myself to loaf for a bit

Feet up in Paradise - Time to Relax (XXXL) : Stock Photo

Those who have been reading my blog for a while know that my biggest point of writing advice is: Consistency! Consistency! Consistency! Write 1000 words a day, every day. I don't believe in writer's block. My "writer's block" consists of a kid or three blocking my way to my laptop because they want to watch cartoons on it.

I do know, however, that there is such a thing as burnout. I was quite alarmed, once, at my sudden intense aversion to books and daydreaming of never having to write a single darn thing again. Was this me? Me, the one who has identified as a writer and storyteller since the age of six?

I give myself more slack now. Well, perhaps "slack" is not the right term. I work as a fiction editor, so basically, my whole life revolves around books. Every month, I edit the equivalent of two full-length novels. I read no less than 50 pages of fiction, sometimes written so poorly it makes my eyes water, every day just for work. Is it any wonder that when night rolls around I often feel so run down I can't bring myself to read anything but crochet patterns?

In 2017 and 2018, I released four books per year. In 2019, I released two, and my output is not about to increase in 2020 if the volume of work I perform each month remains the same. I enjoy what I do, but I just had to come to terms with the fact that it takes up, in addition to time, some of the "writing space" in my brain.

So I just had to let my brain lie fallow for a while. Remember the concept of the Sabbatical year? Not working the land and just leaving it to soak up the rain and dew and letting the worms work their magic? A year might be a bit excessive, but after the release of The Breath of Earth in September I stepped back and allowed myself to slip into hibernation mode. Read for fun, no review copies. Watch inspirational videos (Antarctic scenery. Who doesn't love to watch whales frolic and call it research?). Just sort of vegetate until writing started to be fun again, rather than a lifetime penance.

Now that the mojo is back, it's time for some discipline again. Time to tell myself, No, you won't just 'check your email for a moment'. You won't get up to get yourself another piece of chocolate, you glutton. You'll keep at it until your 1000 words are added to the daily word count, you lazy slug.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Walking on eggshells: diversity in literature

Image result for diversity

Here is another article that serves as a perfect example of how diversity in literature is becoming a scattering of sharp eggshells authors find extremely hard to walk on, because whatever you do (or don't do), there will be people wielding a large magnifying glass, scrutinizing your work and tsk-tsk-ing about your shortcomings. And the shortcomings are there, believe me. Because whether you underplay or emphasize race, whether you include many minority characters or not enough, someone out there will complain.

And even if you have the perfect nonwhite, non-standard main character and do it all perfectly, it's a shame you had written this at all, because #ownvoices, you know?!

A disclaimer: I hate racism and bigotry. I hate those things with a passion and whenever I encounter them, my blood pressure rises, my heart starts racing, and I normally won't walk away without taking a stand. You want some background? Hitler nearly wiped out my family. Being Jewish, I belong to one of the most ethnically diverse peoples in the world, with a Jewish diaspora having existed in almost every country from Finland to Ethiopia (and yes, they are all MY people! Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ukraine. People who speak Yiddish, Arabic, Amharic. People who make gefilte fish and people who make couscous. Isn't that awesome?)

I find the very beginning of this article - "adding diversity to your writing is a difficult task" - a bit problematic. I can honestly tell you I have never gone through a manuscript saying, "hmm, is this diverse enough? Have I included enough minority characters?" - nor do I think it would be reasonable. My books don't generally focus on race. Neither do, or should, most books. I do have characters of various ethnicity, but it has always been a part of who I was, not a "let's include this character and that character because DIVERSITY!" thing. 

And how about, "Also, don’t dehumanize us. A common example is equating skin tone to food. Avoid this insensitive technique as it’s a grave reminder of our history as slave labor involving commodities like coffee, cacao, sugar, et cetera. We are not products to be consumed, so do not treat us as such."

Really?! What about peaches-and-cream skin? Honey-colored hair? I could go on but you get the idea. Once, I recall reading about a farm worker's freckles described as "a smattering of golden wheat grains". Does this allude to social oppression?

It is true, however, that description of characters' looks shouldn't boil down to redundant cliches. I have learned some important lessons in this during my work as an editor of translated Chinese novels. In books written by Chinese authors where all the characters are Chinese, nobody has "silky black hair and almond-shaped eyes" (you could as well describe someone as 'the dude with two ears and one nose'). Characters are described as having heavy brow ridges, high cheekbones, light or heavy build, thin or puffy lips, and so on. And the occasional European or American foreigner? He doesn't get any description beyond "the middle-aged Caucasian man". 

My own novel, Land of the Lost Tribe, takes place in Ethiopia. You can bet I didn't describe any character as "dark-skinned" or "with kinky hair" (beyond the encounter with different-looking foreigners). I had to get a lot more creative!

As usual with diversity posts, I feel I could go on and on. But you know what? I won't. Just go ahead and write that story. A darn good story with awesomesaucy characters and spot-on brilliant descriptions. Write what fires up your imagination and don't worry about anything else, because you can't please everyone anyway.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Marketing a book series: initial insights

It has been a month since the release of The Breath of Earth, the third book in my Frozen World Antarctic sci-fi saga, and though I am not a metadata whiz like many of my fellow indie authors, I can share two observations:

1. The amount of sales and KU page reads for the whole series has definitely jump-started.

2. I see the most dramatic increase in the sales of book 2.

Part of it is no doubt thanks to reader-funneling after a free book promo for book 1 (The Last Outpost) which I ran on the release of book 3. However, even taking this into account, the read-through from book 1 to book 2 has definitely increased with the release of book 3, even though book 3 hasn't made any substantial waves yet.

Which brings me to the following conclusion, which might or might not be accurate:

Readers are more eager to keep reading when they see an actual ongoing series, not just a book and a sequel.

Psychologically, I know this is definitely true for me as a reader. When I read the first book in a series and like it, I'm more motivated to keep going with the next books in the series if I see I have a lot to look forward to, and the more the better. Therefore, you could argue that the very existence of book 3 is prompting me to buy/read book 2, even though it will be a while before I get to book 3 yet.

All this tallies with the advice to indie authors to not even bother doing much marketing for a series until at least three books are out.

Bottom line: keep writing and getting those books out there! The books in a series work as a team, promoting each other and making it easier for you to make sales.

Also check out this excellent article, How to Launch and Promote a New Book That's Part of a Series

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Author interview on Paul's Fantasy Writings

In perfect timing with my latest release, I've been granted the honor of an interview on Paul's Fantasy Writings. Pop over and check it out:

The Breath of Earth (the third instalment in The Frozen World series) is your most recent book. What would you like readers to gain or learn from the story?
What is your next book called and when will it be released?

The entire Frozen World series is in the sub-genre of what can be defined as environmental science fiction. It tells about a near-utopian society of the Anai, an isolated tribe living in a warm microclimate pocket in Antarctica. The themes, or rather the universal questions of these stories, revolve around humankind and its relations with nature. Namely, can people coexist with nature without despoiling it? Can the desire to do right and preserve the world we live in overcome greed and power struggles? What are some things one is never justified in doing, not even in the name of survival?
I am currently outlining the next book in the Frozen World series. It will be titled The Bloodthirst Gene, and it will explore the question of whether violence is a necessary trait for human survival. It will also, of course, include elements from the previous books in the series: an Antarctic setting, a dystopian world, and an oasis of harmony between man and nature.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Breath of Earth is here!

It has been longer than I planned, but The Breath of Earth, the third book in my Frozen World Antarctic sci-fi series, is finally here!

Like all of my books, it's a living example showing that once you want something badly enough, the impossible becomes possible. I have four children aged 10 to 1 at home and a husband who works from home and who, let's face it, thinks taking the time to write is never justified if it clashes with housework - which is kind of always, because I don't think I'll ever reach a point in this life where I have no housework piled up. Furthermore, last January I had taken on an editing job to help pay the bills. If anyone can legitimately say that they have no time to write, it would probably be me. I have no set hours, no private work space, no budget for any extras, and zero support from my family.

What I do have is a brimming well of stories within me, a laptop, and a virtual cheerleading community of indie authors and amazing readers that keeps egging me on. Oh, and an overpowering, burning desire to make money from what I love and do best - writing fiction.

The Last Outpost, the first book in the Frozen World series, was a pivotal point in my writing career in the sense that it was the first book I didn't try to pitch to agents and publishers before going the self pub route. I didn't want a publishing deal even theoretically. What I did want was to have that book out in the world as soon as possible, working on my behalf and, hopefully, earning money. I also wanted a full measure of control over my story and how it would see the light of day. I knew I would make mistakes, I was prepared to do that and bounce back and keep learning.

While I had some ideas about a sequel to The Last Outpost when I released it, I was also prepared for the possibility of the book remaining a standalone. I knew I was tired of writing and publishing books nobody would buy. I no longer bought into the starving underappreciated artist trope. Just like a storyteller of old wouldn't be spinning their tales if nobody came to take a seat next to them beside the fire, I wouldn't keep writing things nobody else was interested in. But I got some very positive reviews for The Last Outpost and, for the first time ever, a trickle of sales that didn't fizzle out after the first few days.

Encouraged, I did two things:

1. Wrote a freebie short prequel, The Frozen Shore, and offered it for free on Smashwords to funnel readers to The Las Outpost. I don't have exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure I gained a few new readers that way.

2. Went full steam ahead with writing the sequel, The Ice Fortress, which took a few months. Once it was released, I was glad to see that the conversion rate from the readers of the first book was pretty good. It means that many readers have enjoyed the first book enough to buy the second, which is thrilling.

I have been holding off on paid promotion until I would have at least three books in the series, but even so, I have had daily sales with the first two Frozen World books - without advertising and initially, with no reviews to speak of. I do have a social media presence (this blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and lately Instagram), but it is relatively modest.

My marketing plan for the near future includes making the first book of the series free for a few days, some AMS ads, and most importantly, working on the next book in the Frozen World saga.

So is there more to come? You betcha! I am currently working on an outline and getting pretty excited. Give me a few late-nighters, and it should be well under way.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Little Victories

This week, I wrote those two glorious words - The End - at the bottom of the first draft of The Breath of Earth, the third book in my Frozen World series. Yes, it's a first draft, and yes, it's a hot mess, and yes, it will probably (OK, certainly) require a whole lot of editing, but I still got this novel out of me, and I'm taking full advantage of this opportunity to celebrate. 

I don't remember ever working so hard to finish a first draft. Most of it was due to sheer exhaustion. I would spend the day taking care of the house and the kids and working on editing projects for the company I work with, and then, finally, the house would be quiet and I'd carve out some time for writing, and I'd sit down to my laptop and write a few paragraphs, and then my eyelids would droop and I'd wake up half an hour later, slumped forward with a crick in my neck. 

Or I would write in the living room, surrounded by my kids, who are always busy making sure my life wouldn't be boring. I'd type on, with the sounds of "Mom, mom, mom, mom!!" in my ears, and eventually I would stare at the screen and realize I've written total nonsense. 

Please don't think I've been intentionally neglecting my family. I'm an extremely efficient writer intent on making the most of the minuscule amount of time I have, and can churn out a 1,000 words in half an hour. Usually I split this into two 15-minute daily writing sessions. My kids can survive without having my undivided attention for 15 minutes. 

I'm not telling you all this to complain, but rather to reaffirm the efforts of anyone who is struggling. If you really want to, you can do it! It may be slower and harder, and building a backlist will take longer, but you will have that book in your hand eventually, and then another and another. 

Having very limited time, I've been focusing entirely on Frozen World during the past months, because it's my best-received series, and the only one for which I have mostly organic reviews. I have some thoughts about subsequent books, too - four and beyond - with plans for a POV shift and new characters. 

I'm also tweaking the first book's cover and changing the second book's cover entirely to create consistent branding for the series. But that's a subject for another post. 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Mental health for writers

It has taken me years to acknowledge that I do indeed suffer from legitimate emotional/mental issues and do need help to cope from time to time. During my first session with my therapist, when I mentioned that I'm a writer, she smiled and said, "Well, you know, depression and anxiety are something like professional diseases."

Indeed, depression and anxiety do seem to be something like an athlete's foot for writers. The same acute receptivity that makes us good at transmitting shades of emotion into words makes us extra sensitive to existential fears, insecurities and mood swings. Throw in the loneliness of the writer's work, the long-term uncertainty and struggle, and oftentimes the financial instability, and you've got the makings of General Anxiety Disorder.

Obviously, mental health issues are something anyone might struggle with, but I do believe writers had better pay attention to themselves because sometimes those things are elusive. Are you suffering from writer's block or are you simply too anxious to think straight? Is your home extra messy because of your irregular work hours or because of depression?

What made me more open about this was the loss of a dear friend to suicide caused by depression. I would never have believed it of her, such a sunny person overflowing with life. Apparently she was struggling by herself and few people knew about it. So please, please don't suffer in silence.

1. Acknowledge there is a problem. Don't try to push through, holding it all together at any cost. You don't deserve this, and neither do your loved ones.

2. Be kind to yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, keep a healthy posture while you work. Avoid unhealthy habits such as overeating and smoking.

3. Writing is an excellent therapy, and I certainly have found that putting words down helps me feel grounded even during the toughest of times, but keeping one's hands busy is therapeutic in a whole different way. I garden, bake, and crochet. Many of my writer friends are also painters, crafters, bakers, etc. Try it - you might just discover a new hobby you love.

4. Don't be alone. Find your tribe, whether in real life or online. Whatever you are going through, chances are many people are in the same boat as you, and things are easier to deal with together.