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November 30th you logged into the NaNoWriMo website and verified your 50k words to win the damn thing. And it felt good, right? To see that massive word count concurred in just a few weeks. That was a great feeling, both of accomplishment and relief.

Until.

It hits you.

The book isn’t finished.

Now, if you went into NaNo with a couple tens of thousands of words, winning NaNo might’ve meant finishing your book. Or if you were writing a Middle Grade book, that sucker is probably done. But if you didn’t and if you weren’t, rest assured, that book ain’t done.

50k does not make most books, I’m sorry to say. You’d see far less writers ripping out their hair, staring dead-eyed at Twitter, and drowning in coffee if it did.

The one bad set up of NaNo is the holidays come right after. December is often a whirlwind for most folks, trying to get things done, seeing family more than ever, friends and food and stress and cold and all the things. And maybe you told yourself it was okay to take a short break after such a big accomplishment. And you told yourself that’s okay because look! You wrote so much and have far less to finish, so you can get back to it totes easy. No worries.

Then New Years comes along and you realize the date last modified on your manuscript is 11/30/18. And all those warm fuzzy feelings of accomplishment and relief are but a memory.

Trust me, kid, we’ve all been there.

But that doesn’t mean anything. It really doesn’t. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it doesn’t mean the book won’t ever get done, it doesn’t mean anything. It just means it’s time to pick back up where you left off and finish the damn thing. The good news (or maybe bad news?) is, there’s no countdown clock watching your progress now and you don’t have to do the next 50k or so words by January 30th. Of course, you now know you could, if you wanted.

So, cue up your playlist, fix yourself a nice cuppa, and put those fingers to the keys and hit your daily goal.

Now, for the rest of you. You know who you are: the ones who won your first NaNo, didn’t give up in December and finished your first draft and are so freaking ready to start querying this month.

Stop it.

Don’t.

Close that email and back away.

A first draft is never, ever ready for the slush. Do not burn bridges with agents by sending out queries premature. And if you’re going the self-publishing route, back away from KDP and BN Press and abort that upload. A first draft is not ready for that either.

When I finish a first draft I give myself a week at minimum and up to a month away from the book. I don’t look at it, I don’t print it, I don’t actively think about it (sometimes those thoughts sneak in though and usually for a good reason). Then I go back and read the whole thing from start to finish, making notes as I go, picking up on dropped plot threads, plot holes, inconsistencies, etc.

Then I make the changes I’ve noted. Or, worst case scenario, the total rewrite or massive edits.

Then I read it again. Yup, I get three drafts done before my editor or beta readers get it. And once they’re done, that means five drafts before I’ll call it finished. Sometimes more.

Your book isn’t ready. But it will be. You just can’t rush it. Rush that first draft, get that shit on the page, get it done. But now comes the work. Now comes the real book. Now comes the gold. Your work is worth the work. Do it.

Now comes the shameless self-promotion. If you’re a newbie writer and don’t have a circle of writer buddies you can go to for beta reading or content editing, I do offer both services and I do have some openings, so feel free to go to my website, have a browse, and hit me up. If you mention this post, I’ll give you 10% off!

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The Importance of Self-Care for Writers

So this week’s post is coming to you a little late thanks to a mild injury delay.

Yesterday, as I was doing something as simple as brushing my hair up into a ponytail, I felt one of my upper rips slip out of place. 

I know, sounds super weird right? If it’s not something you’ve ever done it probably sounds bad. But it’s not as bad as it sounds and yet is still pretty painful. Our upper ribs are in a pretty shallow divot in our spines so it’s pretty easy for them to slip out. If you’ve ever felt the ache of a joint that needs to pop, it’s like that, only you can’t really pop it. Sure you could use a foam roller or twist this way and that to try to crack your back, but that’s not really the same thing as being out of alignment and fixing yourself. You really need a professional for that.

As writers–and office workers–we’re facing a keyboard, hands forward, shoulders rounding, for hours. Yes, we do try to be conscious of posture and we all know to get up from time to time and stretch and walk around, but not everyone is very good about that *cough*.

Even me. I’m married to a personal trainer, I know that back problems run in my family, so I am very conscious of my back and taking care of it and exercising regularly. But once, a couple of years ago, after marathon weeks of writing, I was bent over, pulling something heavy out of my oven and I felt a sharp pain in my upper back. When I stood up, I couldn’t take a full breath without feeling a white hot shot of pain near my shoulder blade. I’d slipped a rib.

It’s easy enough to get fixed, you just go to a professional chiropractor and get adjusted and everything realigned. It’s still gonna be sore for a day or two but you better hope they can see you quick if you ever do it. Sitting around with this isn’t comfy. It feels like someone is pushing on your back and every deep breath is painful so you have to hope you don’t sneeze or yawn. Yeah, you just yawned. When it happens, you want it fixed immediately, even if that’s unreasonable.

You know I participated in NaNo this year and if you’ve been following my posts you know I had taken a long break from writing before that so after NaNo I knew I needed to go in to be adjusted because I could just feel my back tensing, I had some knots I couldn’t work out, and it was just time. 

But I put it off.

And yesterday my rib slipped out doing something so routine and simple.

So I couldn’t sit at my desk to write a post. I couldn’t pour over my outline that I was determined to work on. I swore like a sailor every time I sneezed as I waited for my 3pm appointment. And my chiro tsked tsked me when she felt how knotted and tense my back was. I hadn’t been taking care of myself.

Yes, I get my workouts in. Yes, I watch my posture as I write. But there’s more we need to do. There’s probably more you need to do. We all need to remember that it is both okay and important to take care of ourselves while we’re getting work done and while we’re taking care of others. It’s not selfish (and really, it’s okay to be a little selfish from time to time), it’s vital. You can’t get other things done if even breathing causes you pain. 

So don’t be like me. If you need a break, take it. If you haven’t stretched, go stretch and try to do it every day. If you need a massage, damnit, get one. If you need to be adjusted, go. Just because we sit to work doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll on our bodies.

Mushy Middle: The Mid-Month NaNo Slump

I know you’ve probably read hundreds of NaNo blog posts, so, here’s another one! YAY!

So right now we’ve hit the middle of the month on this little experiment and you’ve been killing it. Hitting par every day, you’re watching those word counts go up and up. You’re feeling like a gotdamn writer. Right? And then BAM! You hit the middle wall.

The beginning of a book is exciting and fun, it’s something new with new characters and new worlds and new, made up words only you know the definitions to. It’s so pretty and shinning and new! And you totally know the end of the book, you know if the good guy or the bad guy wins. You know if the world ends or if your rag-tag bunch of misfits saves the world at the last minute. You know it so perfectly well that you can see it like the epic climax of a movie scene. It is seared into your brain. You just gotta get to that part of the book.

And what is between you and the exciting end? The middle. 

I promise you, whether this is your first book or your fiftieth, the middle is The Worst for everyone. The action seems to slow, you’re starting to wonder if it’s any good, and if you can’t get through the writing of the middle, who in the world is going to be able to read it.

I can make you another promise: it’s not as bad as you think. The middle always feels terrible when you’re in it and writing it but when you go back and read it later, you’ll wonder why you hated it so much. Oh, it’s gonna need some work, it’s gonna need some rewrites and some editing, there’s no doubt, but you’ll find that you wrote what needed to be written. You’ll find some exciting bits that make the action rise and fall naturally–after all, it can’t all be rise. You just gotta get through it.

If you find yourself slugging through you can do a few things to make it easier. You can outline if you haven’t. A lot of people new to NaNo tend to pants their writing but when you get to the middle you realize you’re not sure where to go. Take sometime to plot out the next few pages, or even a full chapter so you have something to guide you for the next couple of days. If you’re really stuck, just skip to the end and write scenes out of order. The only thing you need to do to win NaNo is submit a full 50,000 words–the website doesn’t know if those words are in order, just get the words down and in December you can go back and fill in the middle.

That second option is a little scary, I know. When I get to a scene I don’t feel like writing I’ll just change the font and do this: AWESOME LOVE/FIGHT/ESCAPE SCENE HERE and then, when I come to it in review I can just add the scene in. 

Just don’t give up. Remember, you’re not alone when you’re doing NaNo and you’re not the only one who totally believes the middle part of their book straight up sucks. It doesn’t, or at least, it won’t. Just put the words on the page and come back to it later.

Also, BACK UP YOUR WORK. I email myself at the end of every day so I don’t lose my work. Yesterday, I emailed myself twice because I had 2 large writing sessions. BACK UP YOUR WORK. I have lost work when my computer went into critical failure. I lost tens of thousands of words because it had been a couple of weeks since I emailed myself. NEVER AGAIN.

The Benefit of the Exploratory Trip

One of the most important things a writer can do when writing a book, is to make the reader feel fully immersed in the world of the story. The reader should see the world as if they’ve been there; they should smell the city streets with its cars and restaurants, or country road with the sun-baked dirt and drying leaves, or the crisp, cool, lung-burning cold of snowy mountains; they should hear the languages, the voices, the animals, the hum of the world.

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If you’re writing a fantasy world, obviously, you just gotta make this all up and try to remember these precious little details and hope the reader can see what you’re trying to paint with your words. So often when books are made into TV and film you hear people say, “It’s exactly as I imagined it!” If so, then that means the writer did a great job conveying to multiple people to see the same thing in their heads.

But what if you’re writing about a real place?

If you’re writing about a place that people are familiar with, you gotta hit those notes and those notes tend to be different for everyone. Take Paris for example. For me, I have a scent memory of roasting chicken that evokes a neighborhood in Paris where I spent my honeymoon because one of the grocers from the neighborhood market always had roasting chickens in the windows. That’s pretty specific and might not work for everyone, but talk about warm rain in the summer, where the sun refuses to set until after dinner and almost late enough for bed? That’s more universal. But if you haven’t been there in the summer, you might not know that the sun doesn’t set until well into the night. If you don’t know a place well enough to describe it accurately, your world won’t be believable.

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Which is why a lot of writers will make sure they’ll set their books in places they’re familiar with. Like me, again, for example. I have one fantasy series set in the town I live in and one apocalyptic series mostly set in the county I live in. I know this area inside and out. So I can imagine it in an apocalyptic setting and what that might mean. I know what it’s like in summer and winter and I know what our beaches smell like and how long it takes to get from one side of town to the other. I can immerse a reader even if they’ve never heard of my town.

So what do you do if you want to set a book in a real place that you’ve never been?

I highly recommend an exploratory trip. Obviously, I’m talking about something that takes time and money and not everyone can do that, so if you can’t, try to reach out to locals, read travel blogs, check Insta posts, do whatever you can to familiarize yourself. But! If you can, then go.

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As writers we’re not always sure what we can and cannot claim as write-offs on our taxes, but an exploratory trip can be. Just make sure you’re actually going to do research and can back that up should you need to. (Also, do not take tax advice from me, go get a CPA or an accountant to help you make sure everything is on the up and up.)

Last year I was lucky enough to take an exploratory trip to Ireland. I’d studied many, many things about Ireland through my life, but nothing could give me the education that I got by actually being there. For example, I had no idea how many wild blackberry bushes grow all around. What a detail!

In a week I’m taking a road trip to Las Vegas. I know, Vegas, right, sure, it’s for work, wink-wink. But it is. I have a trilogy set in Vegas and I am on the verge of starting to write the last book (FINALLY) and I need some inspiration. I’ve been struggling all year to get back into writing after taking a much needed break, and I think immersing myself in the desert, reminding myself what that world feels, smells, sounds, and looks like will help me spark that inspiration. You behave differently when you’re some place different than home, you have new experiences even if you’ve been there before. You eat strange things and you meet new people. All fodder for a book and the world building of that book.

If you can do an exploratory trip, make sure you research ahead of time so you don’t forget things you wanted to see or do once you’re there. And take pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Notes are good and can help some people, but taking photos to remind yourself what something was like can be invaluable. Especially if you want to remember the details of something you might not write down.

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Family Myths and Facts–The Value of Research

When I was growing up and I’d ask my mom where we were from, what were we, she’d always answer, “We’re Heinz 57; a little bit of everything.” I love my mom and I know she was trying to be funny, but I always hated that answer. All I took away from it was that our history was lost and we didn’t know where we were from. Mostly, she assumed, we were some combo of Great Britain and Western European. So, you know, very specific and unique.

But she did know two ingredients for sure. She knew my birth father was Irish, and thought he was probably wholly Irish, so that would make me half, and she knew she had a Cherokee grandmother or possibly great grandmother.

Here’s the thing about Cherokee grandmothers: everyone in the South has one. That’s not something I knew growing up but it is a wide-spread myth in the American South. We’re all Cherokee and we all come from Cherokee grandmothers who were once Cherokee princesses. Apparently there were a lot of Cherokee princesses marrying white men and having a lot of white babies.

Obviously we’re Indian, we have high cheekbones and prominent collarbones. Obviously we’re Indian, look how well we tan despite all that British Isles blood.

So I grew up knowing just two truths: I was half Irish and a little bit Cherokee. I clung to these two things because I had nothing else. I was a Navy brat for the first part of my young life and then a Construction brat for the rest, which meant we moved a lot. So I didn’t even have a state that I could call home. Of course I now call Southern California home because I’ve lived here so long and I sound like I’m from here but it wasn’t until the internet became what it is in the last ten years that I was finally, finally able to figure out what was truth and what was myth.

Because I’d always clung to the idea that we were part Cherokee I’d studied a lot about them, I’d done many reports on them in school, I’d given myself a better education about what happened to that nation than anything even honors history classes could give me. But I was never sure who my Cherokee grandmother was. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy novel featuring a Cherokee heroine, but as I got older and the internet got better and I learned a few things about white people and their “connections” with being Cherokee, I stopped myself.

It was a little embarrassing to realize that we’d been perpetuating those bizarre, made-up claims and we probably weren’t even the tiniest of Cherokee or any other native nation for that matter. But it was also disappointing. It was one of only two clues I had about my heritage and I was sad to have that pop like a bubble.

Even as I was coming to terms with the idea that our family myth about a Cherokee grandmother was probably just that, a myth, I still wanted to know my family history. I wanted to know where we came from, when we got to the states, what made up my genetics. I wanted facts, not myths.

So, like any good writer, I began researching.

I plumbed U.S. Census Reports (by the way, I hadn’t realized just how important these things are until I needed them), combed through marriage licenses and birth records, mapping out years and decades and centuries.

Mostly I started only knowing my mom’s information, her mother and father, and some of their mothers and fathers. Luckily my mom was able to get some information, like maiden names from my grandfather.

Also, when people tell you women just aren’t important when it comes to history beyond who they give birth to, they aren’t exaggerating. If I didn’t know a maiden name, the line would just stop with her marriage. I was literally able to follow my grandfather’s paternal lines into the Crusades and early Scottish Royalty and so far I was sure I’d fallen into the Dark Ages to point where years were only three digits. But the women? The women were footnotes, asides, shadows that fell away with the years. So remember women’s names beyond their husbands, please.

But I digress.

With the little information that I had–and I know it’s more than a lot of people had–I was able to find out very quickly on my grandmother’s paternal side, that we were, in fact, English. Not a little bit of everything. English. Now I struggled learning about my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family. There are some hints of vikings and there is some lore about forest witchery and mountain men with great scraggly beards that live in cabins, which is all obviously spot on and doesn’t need research to be proven correct.

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But back to Granddaddy and his family. I was amazed to find out that our family name is an ancient and proud Scottish name. Scottish. Now that rang a bell in my soul. The family eventually moved into England, Kent, specifically. So English yet again. But that Scottish line was amazing to read about and I don’t know if I’d ever had so much pride in my body before. But there was one spot–one name that didn’t match the rest. Grandma Katie. Katie was my grandfather’s grandmother.

And according to the U.S. Census, when she was a little girl, she lived on “Indian Territory.” You’ll see the further back you go on the Censuses the more offensive and belittling they get when documenting certain groups of people. But Katie lived in a house on “Indian Territory” with her sister and father.

Mom confirmed with Granddaddy that Katie had a sister (whose name was butchered by the Census takers). And my heart fluttered a little bit.

To be considered Cherokee you have to be able to trace your family back to the Dawes Rolls, which were taken 1898-1906. Not a lot of time. But Grandma Katie’s Census record was from 1900. So, with trembling fingers I searched for Katie on the Rolls. And my stomach about dropped out.

There she was, with her little sister and father, all on the same card.

Reader, I cried.

And not because I wanted to point to this things and say, “See! I’m Cherokee!” No. It was more like, relief? Maybe? I’m not quite sure what emotion is the right one. But there was happiness, seeing her name there, giving me back this piece of history that I’d held on to as a child when I had so little. We actually had a Cherokee Grandmother–no she wasn’t a princess. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not a thing.

And no, I am not claiming to be Cherokee or Native because I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t grow up with lessons and stories and history and culture. But it was exciting to find out what made up part of me. The bio father side is still mostly assumption but I’m okay with that.

So I sat down and wrote a story to honor Grandma Katie. Yes, it’s a story with a Cherokee sister and brother as the MCs. Yes, it’s based on a Cherokee legend. No, I didn’t suddenly feel like I had “permission” to write the story now that I found Grandma Katie, and I’m certainly not claiming #ownvoices with it (but please go check out that hashtag on twitter for some awesome books), but it was something I’d always wanted to do and now that I knew Grandma Katie (and did research about her family), I wanted to honor her, like I’ve done with books from the rest of my background. And I was inspired. I was inspired to write something wholly different than anything I’ve ever written before.

If you’re interested in reading the story, I am going to be sharing it on Patreon, serialized into chapters. I’m making the first post free to the public so everyone can read it and get a taste, but beyond that it’ll be available to people who pledge $3 or more. If you’d like, pop over here to read.

I guess this was a post about inspiration. Or maybe the value of research. Or finding and separating the threads of myth and fact. I guess the post is about what you take from it, dear reader. But this is what led to me writing my story about the Ravenmocker and his sister.

Characters: Creation or Inspiration

Most writers will admit that their characters are, in some ways, mirrors of themselves. You’ll give your main character (MC) your likes and dislikes, like, say your preference for how they take their coffee, a distaste for foods you hate, their clothing choices reflect your own, etc. etc. Many author’s first books’ MCs are basically their ideal version of themselves.

Then, as your writing progresses, you’ll branch out and make your MC’s tastes the opposite of your own. Do you like cream and sugar in your coffee? Well, then your MC takes theirs as black as their bitter heart. So deep, so different.

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But really, it’s totally cool to let your characters like the things you like and hate the things you hate because you can really put some real feeling and depth into those descriptions. But have you ever found yourself being influenced by your characters rather than the other way around?

If you’re doing your job, you’re creating fully formed, fleshed out people when you develop characters. Which means giving them preferences, skills, and hobbies that maybe–probably–you don’t have. But to make it real, to make it good and believable you need to learn a lot about those skills and hobbies.

I have done this with a fair share of my books. I know a lot about how vaccines are made now that I had to research it for my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I know quite a bit more about different magic systems as I developed my own for the Matilda Kavanagh Novels. I learned a lot about ancient Judaic beliefs as I wrote The Brimstone War Novels for my pen name. When I write a witchy book in winter, they inevitably brew hot chocolate and bake goodies and you know, within hours of a writing session, I’ll be in my kitchen doing the same even though I don’t really like to bake. But somehow, these characters make me do these things.

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And now, with the New Book, research has turned to cards.

The women in my family have always read Tarot, but I never seemed to get the hang of it. I read a few spreads for friends in high school and didn’t do too bad, but the idea that I with BOTH dyslexia and dyscalculia could ever memorize the meanings of 78 cards–upright and inverted–and all the different types of spreads and what the card placement in any given spread means was just too impossible a task. But I knew, in my gut, that this MC was going to be a gifted Tarot reader. So it was time to pull my decks back out and try again.

It took a few weeks but I finally gave myself permission to not memorize 156 card meanings and just use my books and note pads to keep track so I could interpret the spreads without the added stress. And you know what? It works for me. And I don’t think I would have tried again had it not been for this character. Which is kinda cool. I’d always wanted to carry on this tradition and felt crappy that I hadn’t. But here I am, thanks to a character influencing me rather than the other way around.

Of course this witchy chick is also going to be pretty good at playing cards too, which, if I do say so myself, I happen to be. So, it’s definitely a two way street.

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How about you? Have you ever created a character so real that you find yourself taking on their hobbies beyond just research? Have your characters changed some aspect of you life you weren’t expecting?

Are You a Successful Writer?

There are a lot of ways to measure success. For some, just accomplishing a goal, like finishing a book, is a success. For others, it’s getting that book published. And for others still, it’s a measure of money that determines if they’re a success.

In the publishing world there are a lot of misconceptions. Some still hold that self-publishing isn’t as prestigious as traditional publishing. It certainly is a much harder road to travel if you aren’t already a well-established author and/or personality with a base of readers who are going to jump on the publication of your book and boost you through the sales rankings. But, even without that, self-publishing is just as viable an option.

I didn’t have a base when I started publishing. I still get a little defensive when someone asks me if they can find my book on a shelf at Barnes and Nobel. My first year I counted every single sale because they were so few and far between.

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But.

Since then? In the seven years I’ve been self-published? I’ve made more money from book sales than many, many traditionally published writers. I carried my household as my partner built his business.

But.

Like so many industries, book sales are cyclical. And the lows feel very, very low. So most writers have a second job if their partners can’t carry the financial load alone. Yes, I said “second” job, not “day” job because writing is a job. A lot of writers can’t let go of the idea that writing isn’t a job because we often think of writing as a vanity—a hobby. But it’s not. It’s a job. There are days when I’ve had a marathon of words or a particularly difficult scene to write, and I’ve walked away from my desk exhausted, struggling to remember words, and needing to veg out. Just like a “day” job.

There was a second misconception there: that a successful writer shouldn’t need another job outside of writing.

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This one is hard for me. Not that I think that of other writers, but that I think that of myself. Like I said, financially, I’ve been successful in writing, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the cycles of book sales. And I’ve had side hustles related to writing; I offer professional beta reading and content editing. But that’s not steady work for me. My partner works very hard and we’ve traded carrying the financial load throughout our relationship. But I knew it was time that I looked for a second job outside of writing again.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. I was doing so well, I shouldn’t need to do this! But. I just can’t, as prolific as I have been, I can’t pump out a book a month or every other month to keep up with the new generation of self-publishers who do this. I’m not formulaic and my stories take energy and power from me. I can only give so much.

But as soon as I made this decision, and as soon as I saw the first money in my bank account from this decision, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I almost passed out from relief it was so over-whelming.

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And now I don’t feel guilt from taking time to write. I’m actually excited to get back to writing. No, you shouldn’t ever feel guilty writing, but I’m just telling you where I was in my headspace. I want to enjoy writing and I can’t if I feel guilt, even if that guilt is totally self-imposed.

So if you’re in the place where you think you aren’t a “real” writer if you have a “day” job or if you’ve been a writer and can’t quit said day job to be a full-time writer or if you are a full-time writer and realize the bills are closing in and need to get a second job, none of it matters. None of it takes one tiny piece of your success away. I’ve met best-seller listers who are baristas at Starbucks.

You can’t write if you can’t pay your bills.

So go get that side hustle and be proud of it, just don’t forget to claim your writing time. That’s the job you really love, give it the attention it deserves.

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