How to Release (or Re-Release) Your First Self-Published Novel

Cover2When I originally published the first novel in The Conjurors Series in 2011, I had no concept of self publishing. It never occurred to me to promote my book. I simply used Amazon as an easy way for friends and relatives to download my book so I didn’t have to buy them a hard copy and mail it.

Two years later, self publishing had become a phenomenon, and my brother suggested that I market my novel and see what happened. But with a cover cobbled together using Microsoft clip art and no outside editing expertise, I wondered if my book was ready for public consumption. I’m very glad that I did some research and realized that for a self published author to be successful, she needs to have a polished product. A great story is at the core of any good book, but it’s hard to see through typos, horrific formatting, and a generic title that doesn’t provide any clues as to the content inside.

Below are some tips I would recommend any writer take before releasing a first novel or re-releasing an existing story.

  1. Invest in professional cover art. Unless you’re a graphic designer (or are close friends with one) this is a monetary investment that will pay off. It’s the first glimpse readers have of the quality of your work, and it needs to shine. I used Streetlight Graphics, and was thrilled with the quality of their work.
  2. Hire a professional editor to review your writing. I thought I had all of the expertise required to edit my own book – I was a double major in journalism and English in college, and part of my day job involves editing others’ writing. But I was astonished at how many nits my editor found in my writing. She also provided a much-needed sanity check to ensure that there weren’t any inconsistencies in the story. I worked with Shelley Holloway, and found her eye for detail was exactly what I needed.
  3. Evaluate the title of your book. I recommend searching Amazon books and using a search engine to see what pops up when you enter your title. I found that there were at least a dozen books with the title I had chosen, which would make it difficult for someone to search for.
  4. Write a blurb that’s as interesting as your novel. I was glad that I spent some time writing and having my editor review my book’s blurb as well. After your cover and title, it will make the biggest impact on whether or not readers choose to buy your book. For tips from successful authors who have done this well, check out this post.
  5. Create a web presence for yourself as an author. At the very least, have a Twitter and Facebook account that can keep fans, friends and family updated on everything you publish. This is also a valuable place to direct fans as your book attracts attention so they can hear about future works that you publish. I also recommend having a website with information about yourself and your books. A blog is great as well if you have the time. It’s an excellent way to network with other writers and communicate with your fan base.
  6. Consider releasing both an e-book and a physical copy of your book. Despite a slight learning curve when it comes to formatting for an e-book, there is no downside to making your book available in digital form. It’s free and is a great way for you to have giveaways without breaking the bank. At the same time, there is something powerful about a copy of your book that you can hold in your hands and bring to local libraries and stores to see if they are willing to display it.

So I’m proud to announce that I am re-releasing the first book in The Conjurors Series. It has a new title, The Society of Imaginary Friends (formerly Into the Dark), has been properly edited by an outside professional, and is rewritten with some of the knowledge I’ve gained in the years since I originally wrote it.

Below is a blurb about The Society of Imaginary Friends (available on Amazon):

The-Society-of-Imaginary-Friends-2500x1563-Amazon-Smashwords-Kobo-AppleBelief is a powerful magic.

Valerie Diaz has a power that she can’t contain, and it’s killing her.

Bounced between foster homes and the streets, she only has time to concentrate on staying alive. But a visit from the imaginary friend of her childhood opens a world of possibilities, including a new life half a universe away on a planet that is bursting with magic.

The Society of Imaginary Friends follows Valerie on a journey that straddles two worlds. In order to survive, she must travel many light years away to a realm where anything is possible.

On the Globe, imaginary friends come to life, the last of the unicorns rules the realm, and magic seeps from the pores of all the Conjurors who live there.

But choosing to embrace her potential will set Valerie on a treacherous course–one filled with true love, adventure and perilous danger.

The second novel in the series, Knights of Light, will be released in early March. I’d love to hear what you think about my story, and I welcome any reviews!

Tips on Writing Series Backstory

shutterstock_103729193I’ve begun writing the third book in The Conjurors Series, and in the opening chapters I’m running into an issue that I remember from writing the second book. How much backstory should I include from the prior books? I flipped through some of my favorite YA fantasy novels, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and found that the authors made subtle references to the prior books, but it was done in such a way as to not interrupt the flow of the story.

Since I don’t have J.K. Rowling’s phone number, I tried to work backwards to see what was working. I researched what other writers recommend on this topic and was surprised to find that there weren’t a lot of tips out there. Below is the list I’ve compiled on what has worked for me when writing series backstory.

Include brief reminders of who characters are and any defining characteristics when they are introduced for the first time.
Whether it’s a defining physical characteristic, personality trait, or supernatural power, a phrase or sentence about the basic essence of who characters are can help readers flash back to the earlier story. This is especially critical for minor characters.

Only recall plot points from prior books when absolutely necessary.
If readers will be confused about what’s happening, it’s okay to include a brief sentence or two referencing key events from past books. But don’t feel you have to rehash the entire plot – new readers may be intrigued enough to go back and read prior books in the series. I know when I read books by my favorite authors that I love little Easter eggs that reference earlier stories. It’s okay if continuing readers don’t catch all of your references during their first read, as long as they can follow the plot.

Let critical backstory emerge through dialogue and action where possible.
Rather than telling readers what they should know about your series backstory, let your characters ask the questions, or subtly weave in critical information into dialogue. Even better, let it emerge during the action. For example, if your character was seriously wounded in a prior book, reveal the persisting weakness or pain during a current battle. The old scar will make sense for new and continuing readers alike.

Even if you don’t mention information from past books outright, make sure prior events still inform how your character behaves.
One thing that I noticed worked incredibly well in successful YA fantasy series was that even when events from prior books in the series weren’t explicitly rehashed, the ways the characters had evolved stayed true to the story. Any way the character has matured, grown, or perhaps fallen apart, like Katniss in The Hunger Games, is carried through. I try to think about how my protagonist changes over the course of the novel, and how that ties into the larger change in her character arc for the entire series.

Ask your beta readers to flag places where they were confused about who characters were or past plot that was being referenced.
The most important source of advice for how much backstory from prior books to include was from my beta readers. Even my own father, one of my most trusted and valuable beta readers, struggled to remember the nuances of the plot and the details about minor characters from the first book when he beta read book two. Knowing where he was scratching his head let me know the places that needed me to invest some time referencing past plot points.

Do you have any additional suggestions for how much backstory to include when writing subsequent novels in a series?

Motivation vs. Inspiration

shutterstock_81172669For self-published writers, a lot of deadlines are self-imposed. This can be a blessing and a curse. It allows for flexibility, but it also enables us to procrastinate, since the only person we answer to is ourselves. Sometimes we’re waiting for inspiration to strike, but at least for me, I think that the real culprit is motivation. Do I have the energy, after a day of working my day job and a night with my adorable but rambunctious toddler, to sit down and write a couple thousand words? Or would I rather finish the Divergent trilogy? Perhaps if I had an editor breathing down my neck that would be the motivation I need to channel my inspiration and write.

However, motivation won’t be a problem for me in 2014. I have a unique deadline that is compelling me to finish writing the third book of The Conjurors Series. I’m having a baby in the middle of March. After my little bundle is here, I question whether, for at least a few months, coherent writing will be possible. So it’s up to me, right now, to admit that being pregnant is no excuse for slacking off. But having a newborn and a toddler might be a compelling reason to take a break in a few months.

Knowing that this deadline is coming has been both motivating and inspiring. It’s immovable, and every time my baby kicks inside me it’s a reminder that time is ticking by. But rather than feeling that the pressure of the deadline is leaving me blocked, I’m finding that my inspiration is there when I focus on it. I suspect it’s been there the whole time, and the only thing holding me back was finding the motivation to tap into it.

So once I land back on Earth and juggling two kids instead of one feels possible, I’m wondering how I can find the motivation to always chase after my goals this aggressively. I don’t think my husband would be on board with having babies every time I’m getting lazy with my writing.

What do you do to motivate yourself to adhere to your deadlines and keep writing when you’d rather be playing Candy Crush? Please tell me, because I’m going to need all the motivation I can find to write pretty soon!

Deconstructing Hunger Games Heroine Katniss Everdeen

Hunger GamesA few years ago I stumbled upon a series that I knew was special. Before the movies, before the screaming fans, when I first read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins I knew I’d found something special. It wasn’t the premise that drew me in – I almost didn’t read the book because it sounded too gory for me – it was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She was tough but vulnerable, self-sacrificing but a survivor. I had already finished the first book of my own series, The Conjurors, and it made me rethink how to create a memorable, compelling YA fantasy heroine.

Below are some of the lessons that I took away from my analysis of Katniss.

Serious flaws make for a more compelling protagonist.
I think most authors know that their protagonist can’t be perfect. But at least for me, I find myself not wanting to make my heroine, Valerie, too flawed. I am afraid she’ll be unlikable. But analyzing Katniss taught me that this is a mistake. It is because Katniss can be angry, weak, and even lose track of her moral compass that I felt like she was so powerful. When she indulged her flaws, like when she got drunk and wound up in the fetal position in a basement after finding out she would be thrown into the hunger games for a second time, she felt human. When she overcame a flaw, like when she found the courage to inspire the rebels with her words in Mockingjay, it felt like a greater triumph because it didn’t come easily to her.

Protagonists don’t always have to take the moral high ground.
From the time in The Hunger Games when Katniss uses trackerjackers to attack her enemies to the end of Mockingjay when she assassinates the new president, Katniss doesn’t sit around over-analyzing the moral implications of every decision. She is a creature of action, which is part of what makes her so fascinating to watch. She isn’t like Superman, who refuses to kill. She is willing to do what it takes to survive and protect the ones she loves, even if her conscience is tortured by her decisions later.

Romance should not be the protagonist’s primary motivator.
I am willing to admit that I love romance, no matter what book I’m reading. Would I have objected to a few additional tender moments in The Hunger Games series? No. But I love that for Katniss, romance is always secondary to greater concerns. She’s not a girl to wallow and make all of her decisions based on the whims of her heart. Contrary to what I would have expected before reading this series, this makes the romantic triangle in the story more compelling, because we care more as readers what Katniss’ decision will be than she does herself. She’s too busy trying to save her district and fend off insanity.

When pushed past what she can stand, it’s okay to let your heroine break.
So many heroines and heroes come close to being broken by their experiences, but it’s not every day that you see a protagonist who truly is destroyed. The series is as much about Katniss rebuilding herself after extreme trauma as it is about breaking down in the first place. And though many of my friends were not fully satisfied with how the series ended, I thought it was courageous. It was the happiest ending possible for her character. PTSD doesn’t vanish overnight, it is a lifelong struggle. But I felt that Katniss didn’t give in to her tragedy, she fought to make a life for herself that was full.

Who are heroines and heroes in literature who have inspired your writing?

How to Name Your Protagonist

shutterstock_136700621When my husband and I decided to name our now-toddler Jacob, it was in the middle of the Twilight craze. You have my word that I didn’t choose his name because I’m team Jacob, though I have a feeling that I may field that question for the rest of my life. Really, Jacob is a name my husband has always loved and dreamed of naming his son some day. How could I say no to that? It was an easy choice.

Naming the protagonist of The Conjurors Series, Valerie Diaz, on the other hand, was much more difficult. I trolled websites, favorite books, and even newspapers for the right name. I wasn’t choosing a name that I loved, I was choosing a name that encapsulated the person I wanted her to be. I hoped that my final choice reflected her ethnic heritage, courage, and uniqueness. But as I start to think about the next series that I’ll be writing, it got me wondering if there were other ways to find the perfect name for my protagonist. Below are some of the techniques that fellow writers have found helpful, and a couple that I use myself when naming key characters.

Consider the regional origin of your protagonist and her key character traits.
A great place to start your name search is on a baby-naming website like Baby Names. What I love about this site is that you can search by region, if you’re looking to name your character something that would suit a particular part of the world, by popularity, or by meaning. This can also be a great place to finish your search for a character name. If you’ve found the perfect name that completely suits your character, it’s worth checking that the meaning isn’t something like “harbinger of doom”.

Borrow a name from history or literature and give it your own spin.
Whether it’s heroes from Greek mythology or your American history textbook, famous people’s names immediately come with an innate depth. But rather than simply calling your protagonist “Beowulf”, consider tweaking the name so that it sounds similar, but has its own twist.

Choose a name that inspires you personally.
Another, sometimes overlooked option is to name your protagonist for a particular hero or heroine in your life. Sometimes a name resonates with you for personal reasons, like the name of a teacher who inspired you. Even though the name may mean nothing to readers, you will unconsciously imbue your heroine with the good and bad qualities of the person they are named after, and can result in a more rounded protagonist.

Don’t pick a name that’s super hard to pronounce or remember.
As much as I enjoy unusual names, it is possible to go overboard. I’m a huge fan of The Chronicles of Prydain (especially The Black Cauldron) by Lloyd Alexander, but to this day I have no idea how to pronounce some of the names, like Eilonwy or Fflewddur Fflam. If I decide to write a rave review about a book where the characters have difficult names, it’s a huge deterrent if I have to go back and remind myself of how to spell the their names and remember who’s who.

Make sure the name makes sense for the setting you’ve chosen for your novel.
If you’re writing a medieval fantasy, for example, choose names that were popular at that point of history. It lends authenticity to your story. Also, don’t give all of the sub-characters unusual names if your protagonist has a name outside the norm. It dilutes the impact that you’re going for.

How did you name your protagonist? Any advice on other sources of inspiration for naming characters?

The Curse of the Whiny Protagonist

shutterstock_148391531I’ll never forget reading book 5 of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suddenly, sunny, kind little Harry was a brooding teenager. I remember thinking that I didn’t like him as much anymore. I understood that he was evolving as a character, and part of being a teenager is embracing angst – especially if you’ve just witnessed first-hand the death of a classmate. But his likeability factor plummeted. Of course, in spite of this change, this book is still incredible. I cried at the end. But it always stayed with me as the one book in the series where Harry didn’t feel like Harry.

So you’d think I learned a lesson from reading that, but after sending the second book in The Conjurors Series to beta readers, everyone said the same thing. My protagonist, Valerie, was too angst-ridden. And as I re-read and made edits, I realized they were right. Low self-esteem is part of her character, but it was over-the-top. Maybe massive low self-doubt is a natural part of being a teenage girl, but it didn’t read well in a heroine.

That’s when I realized that we don’t want to read about people who are exactly like everyone we meet in daily life. We want heroines who are exceptional, who, in spite of their flaws, rise above petty concerns and are capable of a depth of compassion or bravery or intelligence that we hope we are capable of, but we know most people aren’t. Maybe this isn’t true for every genre, but I truly believe the best YA fantasy books I’ve read all adhere to this idea in their protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – I could go on and on – all tap into the best versions of themselves under difficult circumstances.

That being said, I know this opinion isn’t one that everyone shares. The Twilight Series or even The Catcher in the Rye prove that you can be successful with a whiny protagonist who is written well. But I confess that these books are not on my favorites list. However, if you do love super-angsty protagonists, check out this Goodreads list on popular whiny protagonists – it gave me a good chuckle. It’s a definite counterpoint to the heroes I mentioned above, and proof that in the hands of a skilled writer, any protagonist can be compelling.

Of course, the danger is going to the opposite extreme and making protagonists too perfect – something that can be equally annoying. Finding that tricky balance with my own heroine is something that evolves with every chapter I write. Hopefully, after hundreds of hours of writing and edits, Valerie will come across as a real, but exceptional, teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rises to the challenges she encounters.

I’m Cheating on my Protagonist

shutterstock_69810904I have a confession. I’m in a long-term, committed writing relationship with the current protagonist of The Conjurors Series, Valerie Diaz. She’s great – loyal, smart and filled with integrity. I’m not ready to end our affair – we’re only two books in to a four-book series. But I can’t stop thinking about someone else. While I should be plotting Valerie’s next move, I’m fantasizing about the heroine that I’m going to write about next.

I’m afraid that if I don’t get a grip, I’ll lose the momentum I need to finish my current series, which is planned to be completed at the end of 2014. By that estimate, I really shouldn’t be daydreaming about other heroines at least until book four is drafted. But it’s tempting. My favorite part of the writing process is creating characters and planning plots. All of the characters and plots in The Conjurors Series have been developed, at least at a high level. What’s left is the execution, which I also love, but doesn’t have the same thrilling joy that only giving characters life can bring.

Then, of course, come the comparisons. Valerie’s much nicer than my next heroine, but I think I actually like the new one more. In real life we could totally hang out, whereas with Valerie I’d have to be on my best behavior. Which naturally makes me feel more guilty. They’re both my creations – shouldn’t I love them equally? Of course, I’m aware that the new heroine and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship. I’ve yet to become bogged down in the day-to-day grind of hurtling her into strange and painful situations and then carefully extricating her.

How do you stay focused on your current project when the next is luring you with its siren call? Do you give in and cheat, or stay the course until your current writing project is completely finished?

On Writing 100,000 Words in 100 Days – Sorta

shutterstock_119136343

A little over a week ago I became the proud author of the complete first draft of the second book in my young adult fantasy series, The Conjurors. I’d made a pact with myself to write 100,000 words in 100 days, and I can’t say that I wrote 1,000 words every single day – but I came close. Life got in the way sometimes, like when my husband, toddler and myself all came down with a violent stomach virus. Or, to be fair, also when I became obsessed with Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices Trilogy and decided that my need to marathon the series overrode my need to finish my own story.

But at least having this goal encouraged me to complete the first draft of my novel in close to 100 days. It’s an exercise that I plan to repeat in the future. I know some writers ebb and flow in the amount of content they create as their muse inspires them. Sometimes I wish that I were that kind of writer, but in reality I think I’m the kind of person who does best when I force myself to be creative.

So given that this plan was a success, I think it’s time for a new goal as I begin the editing process – which I happen to love and am excited to begin. I owe my beta readers a draft of the story in September, so until then I plan to edit a chapter a day, minimum. This may be ambitious, but it’s a place to start.

Do any of you have advice on setting editing goals? If so I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice!

Let the plotting begin…

A course more promising / Than a wild dedication of yourselves / To unpathed waters, undreamed shores ~William Shakespeare Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 4

Life is never more interesting for me than when I’m plotting out a novel. Suddenly, everything I encounter feels like inspiration. Watching my husband beat a video game, a news article on an exciting archeological dig in Egypt, or a friend’s work horror story all fill my mind like puzzle pieces begging to be put together to show me a bigger picture.

The characters come first – a name, a face, a mannerism. Soon I’m wondering what advice they’d give me about a coworker who is trying to sabotage me, or thinking about how they would react if they woke up in a completely new world. Would they panic? Or would they relish the adventure?

Next, I sense connections between the characters, how their personalities fit together. Romance and rivalries start to emerge, and I find myself empathizing with one character above the others. I’m rooting for that person to win and be happy, logically aware I’m rooting for a figment of my own imagination, but emotionally invested anyway.

Last comes the action. This is my favorite part. On the outside, I’m living my life as usual, driving to work, sitting in meetings, cooking dinner. But as my body goes through the motions, I’m really watching a movie unfold in my mind. The movie stops and starts, rewinds and zips to the end, only to wind up back where I left off. I start to feel like I’m living two lives, one in the real world and one in my head, but I know one thing for sure. Life is thrilling and full of possibilities.

When you are writing a new story, how does your creative process begin?