How Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Feminism Influenced Guinevere

That may be the oddest blog title I’ve ever written.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the society and culture around us impacts the work we produce as writers. What got me on this train of thought? Well, I’m working on a non-fiction book on the evolution of the character of Guinevere in literature from the Welsh triads through my own novels. My thesis is that each version of Guinevere reflects the society in which and for which she was written.

And this is true of my own version. I started writing her in 1999. The 1990s, especially the late 90s, were a time when women were coming into their own in pop culture. It’s the time that started what we now call “Third Wave Feminism.” (Buffy has even been cited at as Third Wave Feminist Icon by The Atlantic.) Here’s the brief timeline:

  • The original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film (still my favorite) debuted in August 1992.
  • A novelization by Joss Whedon came a few months later (I read it like five times and still own it. I have the soundtrack on cassette, too. Obsessed much?)
  • The TV show ran from  1997-2003.
  • The show was continued on in graphic novels for two more seasons, but that’s really beyond the scope of this post.

Anyway, Buffy was really the first kick-ass female character in pop culture that I can remember. We had female superheros before (She-ra for example), but Buffy was the first woman to be both physically awesome without traditional superpowers (thought you could argue that The Slayer’s super-strength and quick self-healing abilities are superpowers) and by the end of the movie, have some depth and agency. No, Buffy would never be considered a genius – that’s what Willow and Giles are for – but especially by the time the TV show started, she had a bit of a brain and was realizing she could make her own choices, even though her overall fate as The Slayer wasn’t up to her. And the fact that she got more intelligent and strategy savvy as the series went on is even better.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but seeing (and personally embracing) this female icon left a lasting impression on my psyche. Maybe it helped that Buffy also coincided with my time at an all-girls high school (where we were taught be strong women), but regardless, I came to writing my Guinevere knowing I wanted her to be able to kick some ass like Buffy, something I hadn’t seen reflected in the Arthurian legend I’d read to that point. Plus, it is historically accurate for Celtic women, although possibly not as late as post-Roman Britain where/when my story is set.

In many ways, I think the physical toughness is related to a desire to no longer be repressed by or dependent on men. My Guinevere – the Guinevere of a new generation, if you will – was not going to be raised to sit around and await her husband to usher her into a new era of life. As a “self-rescuing princess,” she forged her own life away from and outside of her parents. Even later on, when she was subject to father’s legal control over her, Guinevere did what she could to live the life she, not her father, chose for her. Like Buffy, she eventually had to face the role destiny had in store for her, and like Buffy, she accepted what she couldn’t control and made the best of it with strength and determination. And if she kicked a little ass along the way (more so in the second and third books than the first), so much the better.

There is also an interesting tie between Buffy and the 1990s fascination with all things Wicca. During that decade, the movie The Craft (or, as many Wiccans call it, The Crap, for the lack of realism in its portrayal of their religion) was an introduction to the neo-pagan religion and/or goddess movement for many young people. Entire sections of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores were dedicated to books on witchcraft, and you couldn’t swing a cat (pun intended) without hitting a New Age Store in most major towns. (I am sad that this is no longer the case. Ahem.) Buffy has obvious ties to the supernatural (not to mention more than one Wiccan character) and it’s popularity was due in part to the culture of openness regarding all things mystical and occult.

What does this have to do with Guinevere? Well, in that same period of occult fascination, I chose to break the mold and give Guinevere a role that has been heretofore reserved for Morgan: that of priestess. This is important because traditionally in literature one of the few powerful female characters was the witch (also known as the priestess). By whatever name you call her, the priestess/witch, wields power on her own – no male intermediaries here – and uses her magic to get what she wants out of life. She also often has pre-cognitive abilities or other powers that threaten those in charge of society. In addition, witches have their covens or groves, in which they join together to become more powerful and use this community to train the young and protect the weak. For these reasons (among others) she is often viewed as a force that must be stopped. In Guinevere’s case, she has the sight, learns to manipulate the elements, and lives for a time in Avalon (which functions like a coven). For a long time she has no negative repercussions, but we all know one of the iconic images of Arthurian legend is Guinevere’s rescue from the stake…

(A powerful woman who says what she wants, does what she wants, and stands up for other women – and is persecuted for it – why does that sound familiar? Oh wait, that’s me reflecting on the culture of 2016-2017.)

In the end, Buffy saved the world (a lot), but not without sacrifice. While I can’t promise Guinevere will do the same, she was molded by the same cultural forces, so no matter how her story turns out (and only I know for certain), you can bet she won’t end her days moldering away in a convent, subject to the whims of men. Not while this Buffy fan still breathes.

An Open Letter to the New York Times Book Review

I’m popping in for an unscheduled post to share this because I feel very passionate about it and wanted the audience of this blog to see it too. This originally appeared on my blog on Monday.
nytbr

Last week, the New York Times Book Review announced they are eliminating several of their bestseller lists. Here’s the original article from Publisher’s Weekly. This will have profound effects on many authors, especially indie and genre writers. I emailed the following letter to the editors this morning [January 30]. It not only expresses my opinions on this issue, but also voices my (possibly far-fetched) hope that they will someday add coverage of indie authors to their pages. 

As both a long-time reader of the New York Times Book Review and an author, I have to say I am dismayed at the recent move of the NYT Book Review to remove many of the bestseller lists, especially the ebook lists. As an indie author who, due to the nature of my mode of publishing, is not carried in big name book stores, that is my only hope for ever hitting your lists. And I do plan to be on them. I still hold the moniker of New York Times Bestselling Author in high regard.

Whether you mean to or not, this move alienates a lot of authors, both indie and traditionally published, who rely on ebook and mass market lists to “earn our letters.” You are hurting traditionally published authors who are in digital-first or digital-only contracts, an increasingly common practice at major publishers, especially in the romance and other genre markets. In the traditional publishing world, foreign rights, bonuses, movie rights, and the money an author can demand on his/her next contract are often determined by making your lists. By eliminating many options, you are hobbling the very people you should be supporting.

In addition, readers are increasingly choosing ebooks over hardbacks/trade paperbacks for convenience and cost reasons, so you are essentially saying their buying choices don’t matter. Not to mention that eliminating the ebook and mass market paperback lists smacks of elitism and of a digging in/siding with the old guard traditional publishing industry in an era when prestigious publications like the NYT should be opening up to new modes of publishing.

Here’s the thing. Indie publishing isn’t the free-for-all mess it used to be. I, and many other indie authors like me, apply the same levels of rigor and professionalism to the production of our books as traditional houses – at least in part due to the hopes of selling enough to make your lists. We spend thousands of dollars of our own money on professional proofreading, editing, cover design and marketing. Yes, there are still those who slap their books on Createspace/Amazon without a second thought, but there are also low quality books produced by traditional houses. There will always be outliers.

We are no longer the authors who “couldn’t make it” in the traditional industry. Many indie authors are former traditionally published authors who have grown frustrated with increasingly anti-author contract terms and/or the antiquated slowness of the industry in an age of print on demand. Some are “hybrid authors” who publish some things traditionally, and some independently. Others, like me, have never been traditionally published and made the choice to go indie in order to control our work – our covers, our editing, our marketing, how/where our books are published – so that we are free to write the books we choose, rather than struggle with an editorial/publishing house agenda or idea of what will sell.

If you need proof that indies are professionals, look to the SELF-e Select books endorsed by Library Journal as the best of independently published books, or to the Indie BRAG Medallion honorees, who are put through a rigorous quality process before being honored. (Full disclosure: all of my books are SELF-e Select and one has earned the Indie BRAG Medallion.) Groups like the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) and Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) promote best practices among indie authors and reward those who produce high quality work. We’re trying to make our corner of the publishing industry better. We may not have traditional gatekeepers, but we want our best work to shine at a national level and make the same lists as our traditional counterparts.

That is why I am asking you to not only reinstate the ebook and mass market lists, but to cover indie books as well as traditionally published in your pages. There is room. Readers have written in before expressing dismay with the seemingly random essay/editorial/opinion sections that don’t adhere to what this publication is about: reviewing books. And I agree. Perhaps you can replace those with an indie book section. I’m not even asking for a weekly section, though that would be ideal; it could be monthly like your column that faces the back page that covers debuts or other groupings of books.

To date, the only indie authors I have seen your publication cover are those who were later picked up by traditional publishers. I’m happy for them, but they are the exception, rather than the rule, in our community. It would send a strong message of support to ALL authors if the NYT Book Review were to recognize indie authors and show you understand the changing nature of the publishing industry by keeping lists that allow a wider range of authors to be honored for outstanding work.

Sincerely,

Nicole Evelina
St. Louis, MO

If you agree or have your own opinions on this issue, I urge you to contact the NYT Book Review at books@nytimes.com. I’d also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Meaning of Life

adventureDon’t worry, I’m not going to get all deep and philosophical on you. Not today at least, 😉 One of my goals for 2017 is to have more of a social life. I’ve been really neglecting that part of living for the last few years while I holed up at home working to make my writing career come to life.

Now that it has, the meaning of the phrases “I have no life” or “get a life,” have been on my mind a lot. But I’ve come to realize that for writers (or at least for me) “having a life” means something different than for others. Bear with me here.

Like 95% of other writers, I have a full-time job. That means my writing/marketing, domestic duties, and social time are crammed into weekends and the five hours a day that aren’t spent sleeping, commuting, getting ready for work, or working. (I know, wah, first world problems.)

I’m in my mid-to-late 30s, so when I do go out, it’s not the same way I used to think of “going out.” I’m so beyond the bar/club scene of my early 20s, I never want to think about it again. Most of my friends are married and have kids (I have neither), so we don’t interact in the same ways we used to.

Given this, I guess it isn’t  surprising that many of my friends are now people I know only online (*waves to Spellbound Scribes*) or who I know from writing groups. I think part of that is just the way the world is going and part of it is because as writers, we’re online so much anyway and we naturally flock together.

Once you are out of college, making friends gets way harder. That is one of those things I wish someone prepared you for beforehand. Having a life morphs into finding your tribe, which for me, just so happens to be mostly online. (Without the internet or social media, we might be having a very different conversation.)

The more I thought about it, I realized, I do have a life, just not one that fits traditional parameters like a hobby, sport, or regular social gathering such as drinking or going dancing or playing poker. It wouldn’t play out well on a TV show. Let me explain:

  1. For me, reading and research are kind of hobbies, even though they both also feed into my second job as an author. They are both solitary pursuits and that suits my introverted self just fine.
  2. I interact with writing friends online on a regular basis by email, social media, blogs and messenger. I’ll be honest, I trust and like some of them way more than some of the people I’ve known IRL for years.
  3. I meet with my local Romance Writers of America chapter monthly, and several of the members have become my friends outside of the writing world. I am immensely grateful for them. Because that group doesn’t know a stranger, I’ve even come out of my shell more.
  4. I go to several conferences a year, so I have the chance to interact with my tribe face-to-face and also meet new friends. This also gives me a great chance to travel, usually by myself, to places I otherwise wouldn’t get to see.
  5. Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I don’t go out. I take myself to dinner frequently (dear God, I am an expensive date!), get a monthly massage, and sometimes go to the movies if there is something I really want to see. I’ve even been known to go to the art museum by myself.

Based on this, I think what I’m wanting to focus on is throwing in a few more “just for funsies” type things that don’t involve either of my jobs. Going to see a play/musical, taking a class not related to writing, something like that. I have a life, I would just like to enrich it.

How do you define “having a life?” How do you work in a social life with the rest of your life? What do you do just for fun? 

PS – Thank you to Shauna for posting for me in late December when a personal matter left me temporarily unable to think of anything else.

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.

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

book-review

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.

When You’re a Writer, Every Day is a School Day

This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don't ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)
This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don’t ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)

My name is Niki and I’m addicted to learning. Seriously. I’m convinced there’s a part of my soul that never left school. I would be a lifelong student if someone would pay me to go to school. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward historical fiction as my main genre. I love the research and learning new things. Sharing them on my blog is like a never-ending book report or research paper – my idea of heaven. (Yes, I know I’m odd.)

Every year around the end of August/beginning of September, I get the urge to further my education. I really think it’s because I associate the change in weather with learning. I still have major anxiety freak outs according to the school calendar (August, December and May – seriously, like clockwork), so it’s possible. In past years I’ve looked at Masters/PhD programs in history, religion or writing, my three favorite subjects. But since I can’t really afford tuition right now, I decided I can probably learn basically what I need to on my own. (Although I can almost promise there is more formal education in my future as soon as time and finances allow.) So a few years ago, I started my DIY MFA program.

If you bothered to look at that link, you’ll see that I am crazy. It contains a list of 78 books, DVD courses and webinars. (The crossed out ones are ones I’ve finished.) I started it in 2015 and have been adding to it ever since. It started out pretty short and balanced between categories, but now, with my transition to indie author, is heavily leaning toward marketing and history, which reflects where my brain is now. I learned how to research in college as part of my undergrad thesis in English, but I’m really curious as to how historians are trained, so I plan to read those books next. After I finish the pile of marketing books on my kitchen table. (You have to remember that marketing is my day job, too, so I’m doubly interested, even though internal health care communications is totally different from marketing a book).

Sadly, there are about 20 more books on my Amazon wish-list that I didn’t add to the DIY MFA because I’m not sure they’d be worth my time. And plus, I have 70-something books to read first. (Yay, library!) I’m also in the process of making my way through all the Netgalley books I’ve requested and never read (10), books I started but haven’t finished (10) and all the reviews I’ve promised people (3, I think), not to mention the 400 something books on my TBR list.

I think my recent trip to Oxford made me worse. It’s a city founded on learning with more than 30 libraries. How can it not bring out my inner student? If I had known in college what I know now (and had the maturity I have now) I would have gone to Oxford and studied history. But in reality, I wasn’t ready to move away from home, much less to another country, and I didn’t yet know how much I love history, so that wasn’t even on my radar. And I guess it’s good because I’d be a totally different person. My college experience was one of the most formative of my life.

You would think my crazy schedule over the last year – publishing and marketing four books in seven months with a full-time job, plus five conferences and a ton of speaking engagements – would have worn me out, and it has, physically. But I don’t think anything short of death (which I’m hoping won’t happen for a long, long time, like in 50+ years) will stop my brain from whirring. I know I can’t write right now (none of my characters are talking) and since I can’t fathom the concept of doing nothing, I’ll be gorging my brain on writing-related books and the occasional fiction for levity.

If you need me, I’ll be under a pile of blankets and books with two cats. Likely to emerge sometime in early 2017.

What do you think of my DIY MFA program? Have you read any of the books on the list? What do you do when your brain won’t stop?