The Weather Outside is Frightful…

Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84, by Thomas Wyke

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Thames Frost Fair by Thomas Wyke

 

It’s that time of year again. Grey skies, ice storms, hard freezes, frigid mornings and bitter nights. I’m not talking about the holidays—I’m talking about winter! The solstice is rapidly approaching, but for most of us, I think winter begins when the last of the colorful leaves has fallen and the world around us takes on the fragile white shell of frost.

I actually love winter (up to a point). I’m a January baby, and I always love it when nature celebrates my day with snow. As a kid, it was a point of pride any time the school district declared a snow day on my birthday. I’m fascinated by the crystalline structure of snowflakes, and any fairytale set in a snowy landscape has my riveted attention. Winter has a duality to it that I love: all at once, it’s beautiful and soft and barren and dangerous.

It is, beyond a doubt, a great time for stories.

When we were kids, we learned about the different types of conflict: man versus man, man versus self, man versus society, man versus technology, and man versus nature. Nowadays, we don’t read a lot of man versus nature. Tales set in the wilderness often morph into stories about finding the self in the landscape—journeys of self-discovery that happen only when we pare away the external things and find ourselves alone in the elements.

But the classic man versus nature story doesn’t involve the hipsterish, navel-gazing twist of really being a story about the self. (Though I suppose we could argue that most stories involve a conflict of man versus self, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) True conflict with nature strikes a note of fatalism and fear that can’t be recreated when writing exclusively about self-discovery.

When nature—particularly winter—marks us out for conflict, all we can hope to do is endure. We may discover new depths in our own character, but ultimately, the struggle is to fight back against nature using any tool at hand, including nature herself.

One such story that comes to mind for me is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A seven-month winter besieges the frontier town in South Dakota where the Ingalls family has settled, and they have to find ways to survive without regular sources of food and fuel. As the darkness deepens, Laura and her family must twist hay into sticks to burn in their stove, and they must make do with less and less food. Finally, Laura’s future husband and another young man venture out into the snow in search of wheat to keep the town alive. This was always one of my favorites of the Little House books, not just because of love the details of historical life, but also because it demonstrates the tenacity Laura and her family showed regularly, just trying to survive.

Another collection of wintry tales I adore is The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries, a collection of short (even tiny) stories set during the moments the Thames has frozen. From glimpses of the frost fairs to the story of Queen Matilda’s escape across the Thames from her cousin Stephen, these stories give glimpses of the magic we humans can make when the winter threatens to freeze us alive.

What are your favorite wintry reads? 

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Holidays Are For Reading

christmasbooksI was always a voracious reader. As a kid, most of my free time was spent reading. Picture books, chapter books, horse magazines, fairy tales; pretty much anything I could get my grubby little hands on. But as I got older, school and friends and extracurricular activities started taking up more of my free time, and my reading time was more and more often confined to bedtime and weekends (heavens forbid). And that’s when I discovered the magical time known as the winter holidays.

Just think–two glorious weeks empty of schoolwork and extracurriculars! Friends off to visit relatives or tied up with family obligations. Shorter days. The winter break was, for me, a series of long, beautiful hours just asking to be filled up with reading. Plus, for Christmas I was guaranteed a pile of new and exciting books just waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

In middle school, my grandmother sent me Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I sat curled up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire for hours and hours and hours. I did not come up for air until I had read every wonderful word of that book, and when I finally dragged myself off the couch it was to insist that my mom drive me to the bookstore to buy the next two installments (The Goblet of Fire wouldn’t come out for two years yet.)

Even though I’m older and the winter holidays are no longer completely free of obligations, this time of year still provides a special opportunity to curl up and read. Some of my happiest memories involve Christmas lights, a cozy blanket, and a great book. No matter where in the world I am, or who I spend the holidays with, I can always count on ample opportunities to stick my nose firmly in my novel of choice  and keep it there until I choose.

I’ve devoured a lot of books in my life, but some of my favorite and most memorable reading experiences have happened over the holidays. The first Harry Potter book. Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. I had my heart broken by The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. One Christmas, I even burned through both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. And those are not short books. 

In short, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas for me without a healthy dose of binge-reading. So if you’ve been busy with gifts and cooking and entertaining, maybe take a minute (or hour) to sit down with that book you’ve been meaning to read. Or check out my list of Favorite Holiday Reads from a few years ago if your TBR (To-Be-Read) list is looking a little thin! You deserve it.

Do you love reading over the holiday season? Do any books feature in special holiday memories? Share your thoughts below!

*This post originally appeared at LyraSelene.com

Read, Watch, and Think Happy Thoughts

I’ll be honest, I totally forgot I had this post coming up until I got a notification on my phone last Thursday. As you can imagine, it was the last thing on my mind, but I knew I still had to write something.

Anything.

On the podcast this week, Kristin and I decided we’d just talk about stuff we’re geeking out about to keep it upbeat and positive for the listeners. That seemed like the right, and important thing to do. It ended up being a pretty cathartic experience, so I decided I’d do something similar for this post. In the spirit of positivity and happy thoughts, here’s a little list of some fun and lighthearted books and TV shows that might help take your mind off what’s going on in the world.

heroine-complexHeroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

You probably think it’d be cool if your best friend was a superhero. And if you could be her sidekick, that would be pretty rad too, right? Maybe not so much.

Heroine Complex is the story of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to her very demanding and very superpowered friend Aveda Jupiter. Evie is always playing second fiddle to Aveda, forced to cover for her antics and clean up her messes. But when Aveda is injured in combat, Evie is forced to stand in for her superfriend. And guess what? Evie had powers of her own!

This is a super (lol) fun and smart romp that highlights the important bonds of both friendship and family, even when trying to deal with burgeoning superpowers and battling demons from another dimension (demon cupcakes even!)

genrenautsGenrenauts by Michael R. Underwood

If you asked me what my favorite “type” of SFF or comic story is, I’d be hard pressed not to pick “Adventures Through the Multiverse”! Comics have done this a bunch of times, but I don’t see it as much in prose. Genrenauts does it, and in a spectacularly fun fashion.

The story follows floundering stand up comedian Leah Tang, who is given the opportunity to travel the multiverse to fix unraveling stories. Each world the Genrenauts attempt to save represents a different genre trope – western, sword and sorcery, romance – while at the same time turning those genre conventions on their heads.

The stories are lighthearted and adventurous – Leah is a snarky but loveable main character and her surrounding cast is full of diverse and engaging personalities.

steven-universeSteven Universe

I wrote a post about how wonderful Steven Universe a couple months ago on the Scribes, so I’ll keep this one short. While that post was mostly about how the lessons of SU can be applied to writing, it also gives you a good idea about the major themes of the show and how incredibly positive it is.

Steven Universe is one of the most heartfelt and inclusive shows I’ve ever seen. It eschews the bleakness and coldness of the real world for a warm, pastel-colored vision of place governed by the love of friendship and family.

 

 

 

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Azumanga Daioh

Okay this last pick is a bit of an oldie, but if there’s one piece of media I’d describe as “comfort food”, it’s Azumanga Daioh.

This anime is a simple slice of life comedy about a group of Japanese high school girls and their teachers. There’s no huge overarching plot, not big stakes that must be resolved, just a glimpse into the everyday lives of a quirky group of students and teachers.

It’s a low key and charming series, that can also be uproariously funny at times as well. Wrap yourself in this show like a warm blanket and let the worries of the world melt away.

Also there’s a cat who may or may not be Bill Clinton.

So friends, care to share some of other positive and uplifting media are you’re enjoying right now?

10 Things I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Published Indie Author

Image purchased from Adobe Stock
Image purchased from Adobe Stock

When I originally picked this date for my post, I thought I would be writing something about making history with our first female president and a tie-in to my book Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to ever run for president in the US in 1872. 

Yeah, not so much.

The last thing we all need right now is another political diatribe (believe me, I’ve written many in my head in the last 24 hours). So, as they say on Monty Python “and now for something completely different…”

My one-year anniversary of being a published author is coming up on January 1. As with all other things, you learn as you go. Here are 10 things I’ve learned from experience this year.

  1. Set a realistic publication schedule. Don’t try to publish four books in seven months like I did. I am living proof that is possible, but you will wear yourself to your breaking point. I set that schedule because I didn’t know what I didn’t know – namely, that even if you indie publish like I did, all the rounds of editing and cover design and layout take a lot longer than you think they will – especially when you’re juggling them with a full-time job. My suggestion is one book every six months at the most. That way you’ll have time to take things slowly and carefully, as you should. That being said, releasing several books in a short time frame is great for marketing and sales because it gives people more things to read once they find one book they like.
  2. Have some kind of a marketing and production budget. I did not because I didn’t save before I decided to publish. I also had no idea how much things cost. You can do some/all of these things yourself, but I know my skills and what I have time for. There are also ways to save money on some of these (don’t sacrifice the editing or cover!), so your mileage may vary. Here’s a run down of approximate cost ranges:
    1. Editing = Can run you $1,000-$3,000+ depending on who you hire and how many rounds you do
    2. Cover design = $250-$500
    3. Layout = $1,000
    4. Audio books = varies by length of book and cost of talent but mine were $2,000-$3,00o each
    5. Printing/distribution = There will be a setup fee in IngramSpark (Createspace is free, but bookstores won’t order from them) and you have to pay for your own copies that you hand sell. You’re looking at around $50 for setup and $4-$6 per book you order depending on length.
    6. Marketing = This is totally up to you. I went overboard, but I’m glad I’ve tried just about everything. That just means it will take a while to earn that money back and pay off my credit cards.🙂
  3. Audio books are worth the cost. Yes, they are expensive and time consuming, but they are also great passive income once they are done. I’ve sold more audio books than print and ebook combined. They are also a ton of fun to be involved in, and many sources say audio is the next big thing in books. As soon as I can afford to get Madame Presidentess made into audio, I’m going to, and it will be part of my publishing budget for every book I write.
  4. Your book will find it’s audience. No matter what you write, there are people out there who want to read it. You can help them find you by blogging even before you publish and by attending events related to what you write. And of course, through targeted marketing. Most writers are niche writers, so don’t be disappointed if you start out small. Indie publishing is not about the overnight success; it’s about the long tail career. You never know what may happen that will expose you to a wider audience over time.
  5. Marketing is hard. I say this as someone with 15 years of professional marketing experience and a master’s degree in public relations. Marketing a book is unlike any other kind of sales/PR/marketing you will ever do. And it is harder than ever to break through the noise, regardless of whether you are traditionally or indie published. But you have to try. I learned a lot through what didn’t work.
  6. Don’t drive yourself crazy over sales. There is more to life than your sales numbers. Yes, we all want to make the big bucks, but if you focus solely on that, especially as an indie, you will drive yourself mad. Some authors take the perspective of “if it doesn’t translate directly into sales, it isn’t worth doing.” I respect that mindset, but it isn’t mine. I started out writing because I have to, not for the money. So I look at how creatively fulfilled I am and how things are working from an exposure/branding/PR perspective in addition to sales.
  7. The writing community is incredibly supportive. I knew that already, but man will indies join together. This year I have experienced so much love from the community and little to no competitive ire. I even got the best support from a man who wrote about the same subject I did. I think a lot of the reason for this mindset is because we know what it’s like to go it on our own and we don’t have to worry about being dropped by a publisher/agent.
  8. You get better at everything as you go along. Whether it’s writing or marketing, you hone your skills with practice. Just keep going.
  9. Keep writing. The best type of marketing is another book. It gets your name back out there and draws attention to what you’ve already written. This is why it’s so important not to get caught up in too much marketing. We have to remember that our #1 job is to be writers.
  10. Take breaks when you need them. Says the girl who hasn’t taken one in four years. But this is how I know how important they are. If you don’t refill your creative well, you won’t have anything left to give. I’m taking at least the rest of this year off to do just that.

I feel like given other subjects I could have covered today, this is a pretty generic post. But it’s honest. And this is all I have in me at the moment.

Politics aside…

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Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re about to have an election here in the US. Actually, if you haven’t heard about our election, I want to be where you are, because I’m so ready for it to be over. Maybe not the election itself, but the divisive rhetoric we’ve been drowning in just needs to stop.

I’ve already voted, so no amount of advertising dollars – or November surprises – is/are going to change my mind. And if you haven’t cast a ballot yet, I’m pretty damned sure nothing I say in this blog post will change your mind, either.

Though to listen to some blogging gurus, it might keep you from buying my next book.

And I’m not really sure how I feel about that. See, I write because I have something to say, and to an extent, I believe that anyone who’s going to be interested in reading about Thaddeus the gay, vampire, monk probably won’t come down too hard on my liberal leanings.

Because the stuff in Vespers will likely require a more open mind than the occasional #ImWithHer meme.

There are writers I follow who’ve been very vocal about their support for the Democratic Presidential nominee and a slew of other socially progressive causes. Other writers I know keep their Facebook and twitter feeds full of writing-related posts, cute kid pix, and kittens. Or sometimes puppies.

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PUPPIES!

I believe two things. First, now matter how you’ve approached this extraordinary election, you do you. I know people both from the internet and in real life who are voting differently than I did, and I respect their right to do so.

However, it’s important that whatever public platform I’ve been able to develop expresses my values. To me, that means sharing thoughtful articles or thought-provoking memes, making it clear where I stand on the issues. It doesn’t mean trolling someone else’s discussion threads and blasting everyone who’s opinions are different than mine. It also doesn’t mean un-friending people who share thoughtful or thought-provoking material from opposing points of view.

This election’s going to be over soon (please God) and we’ve all got to live together afterwards.

True confessions: I’m more likely to be aggressively liberal on Twitter, because stuff goes by so fast and as a medium it doesn’t seem as substantial as Facebook. I’m @LivRancourt. You’ve been warned. (lol!)

In the end, I think it’s like that rule we learned for taking multiple-choice tests: if the answer has ‘always’ or ‘never’ in it, it’s probably wrong. One of the guiding principles behind social networking is to allow others (like, you know, potential readers) to see the real person behind the novels. And well, this real person votes Democrat.

To say “never post about politics” is unrealistic, at least, and potentially harmful. Social change requires all of us to participate, and to speak up. Although, you know, we might need a time out from now until a couple weeks after the election.

Peace out…

Liv

Hey, in case you’re ready for a holiday read, check out Bonfire…

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Silent night, holy hell.

Thaddeus and Sarasija are spending the holidays on the bayou, and while the vampire’s idea of Christmas cheer doesn’t quite match his assistant’s, they’re working on a compromise. Before they can get the tree trimmed, they’re interrupted by the appearance of the feu follet. The ghostly lights appear in the swamp at random and lead even the locals astray.

When the townsfolk link the phenomenon to the return of their most reclusive neighbor, suspicion falls on Thaddeus. These lights aren’t bringing glad tidings, and if Thad and Sara can’t find their source, the feu follet might herald a holiday tragedy for the whole town.

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How Amazon’s New Review Policies Hurt Authors and Book Bloggers

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I’m popping in for an unscheduled post because I have something I have to get off my chest. Ahem.

In my 10 months as an indie author, I’ve learned many lessons, the biggest of which is probably that the industry changes really fast. But I have a big problem with one of the latest changes, which affects not only indie authors, but ALL authors.

Amazon has decided that reviews that are part of a paid blog tour can’t be placed on their site. Now, I understand that they consider this part of their “you can’t pay for book reviews” rule which is a valid rule. But I don’t think they understand how blog tours work. Here’s the deal. On a blog tour, you are paying for space on the blogger’s site – whether that is purely promotional with cover, blurb and buy links, or a review, if the blogger chooses to leave one – and for them to receive a copy the book, not for the review, which is optional. I’ve been with a few companies that say if the blogger doesn’t like the book, they shouldn’t post anything, a rule I like because I’d rather see nothing than see them publicly skewer my work. (Granted, in that case I get no publicity either, but the person did read the book, so I didn’t pay for nothing.)

Not allowing these reviews to be posted (or later removing them, which is worse) puts authors in a bind and lessens the value of blog tours. Reviews are SOOOOOO hard to come by, especially for indie authors who don’t have the same level of exposure as some traditionally published authors. I don’t understand why, but a lot of people are hesitant to leave reviews. Of course, I know some people won’t like the book and some just forget, but others worry that they have to write something worthy of the New York Times. I keep telling everyone that even if they just give it a star rating and say “I liked this book,” that is enough. But yet I have people who I know loved a book because they told me by email or on social media but they have never left a review.

And that’s not even counting Amazon’s policy that reviews left by anyone they deem may know you can be removed. That’s a whole other level of trouble for authors. I know they are aiming to remove bias, but when you are just starting out, friends and family are a large chunk of your audience. Plus, nowadays a lot of our readers connect with us online, which is a totally different nature than an in-person actual friendship and shouldn’t fall under this rule.

At the same time, we live and die by reviews. Amazon uses the number of reviews we have to trigger their marketing and promotions efforts, including the “customers also bought” and “you might like lists.” These may not sound like much, but they are crucial for exposure. Perhaps the biggest way Amazon reviews affect us is that in order to even be considered for the Holy Grail of promotions – the BookBub feature – your book must have at least 50 4- or -5-star reviews on Amazon. (I’ve tried getting a feature on a book that doesn’t meet that requirement; don’t bother because they will reject you right away.) Not to mention that when people are trying to decide whether or not to purchase a book, they look at the reviews. Correctly or not, the more reviews a book has (assuming they are positive), the more attractive a book is.

But getting back to my original point, blog tours used to help us reach those goals. On average, a blog tour will net you between 10-20 reviews, depending on how long your tour is and how many people liked the book. Now, those reviews don’t help toward our marketing goals. Yes, you still get the eyes of the blog subscribers and maybe Goodreads users (if they post there) on the review, but that’s not nearly as many people as would see it on Amazon. And you can excerpt the reviews in the Editorial Reviews section, but those don’t add to your ratings score and most people ignore them. Reviews used to be a value ad for doing a tour. Now that that is gone, I don’t know if tours are worth the money. Where does that leave us and where does that leave book bloggers? Only time will tell.

Amazon pretty much built the self-publishing industry with the Kindle. Now they are restricting the possibility of success for the very people they need in order for their sales to continue to be strong. That makes no sense to me. Before you say, “if you’re not happy, don’t use them,” I will note that I have my books on many platforms and 95% of my sales (not including hand-selling) come from Amazon, so I’m dependent on them. Right now, I’m just grateful they exempted authors from their rule that you can’t give away free goods in exchange for a review; if they hadn’t we’d be totally screwed and ARCs would be a thing of the past.

As a customer, I love Amazon. As an author, I find their business services easy to use and I love the exposure I get to their audience, but their review rules are bewildering. Why outlaw something that will help them make money? Aren’t sales what they are after? Now they are basically asking us to find a bunch of total strangers and magically convince them to buy a book from an author they’ve likely never heard of and leave a review. Easy-peasy, right? Maybe if you already have a following, but if you don’t?

I fear that these rules, especially if they continue to get tighter – which I imagine they will – may well discourage people from self-publishing or make authors think twice before continuing to do so and hurt the industry Amazon helped build. Will it kill the industry? Probably not, but by restricting reviews to this extent, Amazon is certainly shooting itself in the foot and dissatisfying one of their biggest customer groups.

What do you think? How do we thrive despite increasing restrictions? If you’re an author, will the changes affect the way you market your books? How? Am I thinking about this wrong? If so, how do you see the changes? I hate to be wrong, but it’s always possible.

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Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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