Friday, January 1, 2016

Paying The Piper

Everyone's mind is on the New Year, on the new hopes and plans we love to make this time of year. I admit I love it, and I don't care if half the goals I make go unaccomplished. Having this time to review where I am, where I've been, and where I want to go it always exciting to me. A fresh start. A new thing to tackle.

But this New Year I have been in a state of deep reflection on 2015, even on the years before. The future is quite blank with plans for me for once. Maybe this is what happens as you age. Maybe it's just another way my life is forcing me to slow down.

You see, I spent much of 2015 sick. The first six months were not only plagued by one of my worst depression periods in a long time, but I also got shingles (super painful, don't recommend it). I spent the summer adjusting to new medications and worked very hard to be gentle with myself while I recovered. Just as my mental health was finally getting to a strong enough place that I could write again, I began getting strep throat. It doesn't sound so bad—we've all had it—but, let me tell you, having it every month for now four months is horrible. And it has completely killed any hope of productivity, and also my health in general. I'm so weak. So tired. So frustrated that I can't do anything without coming home spent and sick.

So this is my voice of warning here.

This year of sickness and struggle and almost no writing? It started long before 2015 was even a thought in my mind. Really it started in 2011, when I sold my first two novels to HarperTeen. That was so wonderful and exciting, but it also came with pressure. With stress. My goals shifted from just "selling a book." Now I wanted to succeed at being a writer, not just publish a book. I wanted my books to be well known, not just on a shelf. I hoped for lists and awards and tours like all debuts do.

None of that stuff really happened. But I kept trying to make it happen. I rolled up my sleeves and got out the elbow grease. More books. As many events as would take me. Paying for my own tour with a friend. Being on countless failed subs. Indie publishing in the meantime. Promoting. Tweeting. Whatever. I tried very hard to become important and to keep believing I was.

I failed on both accounts.

And this year has not just brought the acceptance of that (which I'm immensely grateful for), but the consequences for driving myself into the ground during my debut and the year after. I'm paying the piper, so to speak, for borrowing from my future health to survive the overloaded plate I gave myself for much of 2011-2014.

What do I have to show for my blitz of work? I have 8 novels, which I'm proud of. But that's about it. No mountain of money (or even a modest stack). No awards. No conferences asking me to come back. Effectively, I've been forgotten by the industry for the most part. This isn't all that bad—a lot less stressfull—but it's not where I expected to be or where all my lofty goals were supposed to take me.

It's funny, how you can accomplish all your goals…and yet not have any of the expected results.

Because I accomplished SO MUCH. Who publishes 8 novels within 2 years of their debut? Not many people. I'm proud of that, regardless of continued lack of "success" in a worldly measure. I've learned a lot and I love what I write, though at times I've been super depressed about how few people seem to share my affection for my writing.

But sometimes it's hard to feel proud when you're lying in bed with stress-induced shingles wishing the pain would go away. And it's hard to feel like you did the right thing when you're so depressed and anxious you can't even stand to read or write for months on end. And it's hard to feel like you'll ever do anything of note when you can't swallow or keep your head up long enough to write even when you want to. I've wondered a lot this last year why I've killed myself over publishing. Why I'm now paying for it with my own health. I don't have answers. I'm not sure I ever will.

Lots of writers have health problems. Often from stress. So I guess I'm just saying be careful out there. It's easy to be like "Oh, I can handle all this it'll be fine." And it's super easy to be all "I'll sleep later and I'll deal with that later and I'll put everything aside for this deadline and it'll be fine."

But you're gonna pay for it.

I'm sorry, but you will. In one way or another, that stress will compound and you will break. We aren't superhuman, despite writing about character who may defy all odds.

Maybe you don't even think you're running that hard. Maybe you think you're handling it all fine. But stress and publishing are sneaky like that. And all the writers around you are in the same boat. So it can feel like this is normal and everyone else is getting on just fine.

Then an author might disappear for awhile, and no one notices she or he is gone for a year or more. They don't know why, but you'd be shocked how often it is health or breakdown related. Then one day it'll be one of your own writer friends, or maybe even you. And it'll be jarring and scary and you might not even know what to do.

So this is what you do: You slow the hell down. You might even stop writing and it actually feels amazing not to write. You get your shit together, slowly but surely. And you vow never to kill yourself over this business again.

That's my goal for 2016, I suppose. Don't bend over backwards for publishing. It's just not worth snapping in two and putting yourself back together over and over again. I never would have thought so before I sold that first book—when I was happy to bend and contort myself to fit in any box they demanded I be in—but that's what I've learned this year.

No more sprinting life marathons for me. Peaceful strolls from here on out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

SIDEKICK Cover Reveal! Plus Some Epiphanies.

It's funny how you can go for months and months feeling like you are lost and have no idea what you want to be doing with your life—and then in one day it all turns around because of the perfect question asked at just the right time. And that was simply:

If money, success, people's opinions weren't a factor, what would you choose to do as a writer?

And the answer, quite to my surprise, came very quickly: I'd indie publish. When it comes down to it, I love the process. I love creating a book. Not just the writing part but all the way through design and publication. The second I realized this, I got excited about writing again. I immediately laid out plans for several books I could publish. I felt like everything snicked into place and all that confusion was gone.

So this is what I'm going to do. And I'm starting fast and furious by publishing a book next month. Yes, NEXT MONTH. It is one of the many books I prepared for publication long ago, but for one reason or another it never made it through the pipeline entirely.

It's called SIDEKICK. And here is the cover (designed by the ever-awesome Melissa Williams Deisgn):

I apologize for any cravings or hunger pain caused by this cover.
Actually no I'm not sorry that's totally what I intended.
I wrote SIDEKICK after I felt like I'd lost nearly everything in 2010. The story is about Russ, a high school football player who feels like he always comes in second to his best friend, Garret. Well, he's tired of it, and he gets the rather foolish idea that if he can win the heart of the new girl in town before Garret he can prove he's not just sloppy seconds.

Russ has only one edge against Garret—the fact that his anime-obsessed little sister has befriended said new girl—but he plans to use it. He'd never tell the team, but he's been going to Anime Night for years and might even enjoy it. That would ruin his reputation, just like his secret love for cooking and James Taylor.

But pretending to be something you aren't catches up to you eventually, and Russ can only get away with living two lives for so long. As more than one person reveals they have something to hide, Russ must figure out what and who he really wants in his life. And more than that, he needs the courage to make it happen.

I'm super excited to finally be able to share this story with you! It was my very first foray into contemporary, and it rekindled my love of writing after it felt like all was lost. It feels very appropriate to have this be my first published novel after another rough patch in my writing life.

(Also, if you notice, there is now a tab on the blog that directs you to my new online store, where you can purchase signed copies of my novels. Currently the store is US only. Sorry that is the constraint put on it by Square, not me.)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Post "Meh" Debut—Your Options

So you've debuted, and you're not, in fact, a bestseller. Maybe your book/series didn't even do so hot. Or maybe you did alright, but now your genre is out to pasture and your project on sub isn't selling. Or maybe your editor has changed houses or left the business and you're left up a creek. Or maybe your imprint/small press is closing.

I'm writing this post for you all—which I suspect is most of us—in hopes of sharing some knowledge now that I've experienced a lot of post-debut, well, crap. (AKA: All of these things I described above.) Many of us are left wondering what comes next. How do we keep going if we want to still be a writer? How do we let go and move on if we don't?

Well, the first step is to eat your weight in cupcakes. Because this all sucks and you're allowed to feel like it sucks and to be upset about it. The publishing industry is brutal, no matter what path you pick, and for this moment you don't have to pretend otherwise. I won't tell your agent/editor/readers/fellow aspiring authors. Promise.

I'm going to divide my advice into two parts for ease—if you want to keep writing and if you want to stop. So, here we go!

(Any and all options may be combined or used more than once or not at all. Whatever.)

Option 1: Keep doing what you're doing. You totally can stay on course if you want. Keep subbing new work, keep trying to sell what you love to write regardless of market swings, push forward knowing it'll be hard but it might happen again. This can be disheartening when the rejections and stories pile up, but many people have done this and sold more at some point in time. Just know that if you don't sell for awhile it's not you—it's publishing. Markets swing, editors' hands get tied, bottom lines are analyzed and you may be found wanting.

Option 2: Change genres. Many an author has switched up their genre and found great success in doing so. Either they change within, say, YA—from paranormal to sci-fi, or dystopian to fantasy, or steampunk to horror. Or they switch age group/subject entirely, moving from Middle Grade to YA or vice versa. Some leave YA and move into adult genre fiction. There and many ways to switch up your genre and still find success. If what you're doing doesn't feel like it's working or it's just too heartbreaking—try something new.

Option 3: Pen name. Look, it's not that publishing has "black-listed" you. It's just that the second you debut, you have numbers attached to your name. How much you sold. If you earned out. If you continued to sell or buyers dropped the title quickly. If you're being circulated in libraries. That stuff…yes, it impacts your chances to sell another book. Yes, all publishers will look at those numbers and factor them into their decision to buy a book from you. Sometimes? It's just better to change your name if you're writing in the same genre and pretend you're a debut again. Because debuts are shiny and new and have no numbers to be liable for.

Option 4: Try a different publishing path. Maybe your first book was small press and the press went under—trying Big 5 or indie publishing could be something you want to do. Maybe Big 5 burned you bad and you want control over your next project just to gain some peace of mind and enjoyment back, so you try indie (I did this). Maybe you're tired of  indie and want to try to get an agent and see what happens. All of these choices are yours to make! And it really can be refreshing to try and different path and experiment.

Option 5: Contract work. Sometimes while you're waiting for your original work to sell, you can fill in the financial gaps with something called "contract work." If you don't know what this is, it's basically when a publisher is looking for a certain type of book and they hire an author to write it. You don't own rights to the story and the pay/royalties are not as great, but it can keep you going. Many an author has done contract work and done it well and benefitted greatly from it because it gets their name out there and then their original work sells better.

Option 6: Explore other forms of writing careers. There are more than just novels in the world. Some authors I've known have put novels on the back burner and are writing for video games or table top role playing games. Some have moved into non-fiction for blogs and websites. Some of taken a "day job" where they're writing materials for companies. If finances are an issue for you, don't be afraid to try any writing gig you can find.

(Any and all options may be used or combined or you can ignore me entirely. My kids never listen to me and they've turned out alright.)

Option 1: Be bitter the rest of your life and complain about how publishing ruined you. That sounds ridiculous, but it is an option and who am I to tell you how to go about this? I spent a good 6 months feeling like this before I got over it some. But I wouldn't recommend it. Being miserable and letting publishing drag you down is no way to live.

Option 2: Accept that publishing is not something for you right now, for whatever reasons. There are no rules saying that once you publish you have to keep doing it. No one is going to make you feel ashamed of stopping but yourself, and you don't need to do that! Writing is not the only way to live a fulfilling life. It may not be something you can do under current circumstances. You might need a long break before you're ready to face it again. Whatever the reason, do you. Be proud of yourself. Move on. Come back later if you want.

Option 3: Find things that bring you joy. If it's not writing anymore, that's okay! But there might be other things to try out there that give you that same "high." Learn a language, start painting, take a dance class or try yoga. Spend more time with your family. Travel. Once you are in the author mindset it can be hard to think of life outside our little publishing world, but it's beautiful out there and worth exploring. Go do stuff. Have fun. Don't feel guilty about doing instead of writing.

Option 4: Maybe stop publishing, but keep writing. Much of the time it's really publishing that kills the joy of writing. Sometimes you might still feel the writing bug itching you, and you just want to write something but not publish it. You can totally do that! There is no shame in writing just for fun and for yourself. In fact, that might bring you a lot more happiness than throwing your work to the wolves. Maybe that is what suits you and brings you peace.

Option 5: Get help if you need it. If publishing has left you with scars, please don't ignore that. Creative pursuits have a huge impact on our minds and we are all more susceptible to mental illness than the average person. If you find yourself unable to pull out of the bitterness and sadness, talk to a doctor and find the help you need if you're depressed, anxious, or both or anything else. Sometimes it can take time to heal from what your mind might be considering a "loss." You are making a life transition, and those can be rocky. No shame in finding support while you figure it all out.

Ultimately, my friends, you have to find the path that's right for you. I wish I could tell you what that is, but you know I can't. Debuting and becoming a "professional" author is a hard thing, and you don't know what your future holds. And even if you think you do, it can all change at the drop of a hat. But hopefully this post will help you explore the options you have. It can be easy to get stuck in tunnel vision, but really there is still a whole horizon of possibilities out there for you. And really, none of those possibilities are wrong, they're just different. And that's okay.

Friday, August 21, 2015

On Depression, Gaming, and Not Writing

My hair is starting to grow back. That's how I know things are turning around for me. I'm always a fan of talking about depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses, but I admit that, at the same time, it's been difficult for me to talk about this time in my life while I've been going through it.

Why? Mostly because it's exhausting. When I'm depressed, I don't want to do anything and I don't have the patience to sit there and tell someone I'm depressed and then have them try and fix me or ask me what triggered it or have them treat me tenderly when I just don't give a crap. It's wasted energy for them and me. At least while I'm in the thick of it.

But of course there was a trigger. Of course I want to be fixed. Of course I want to be loved. The problem is that with depression I just can't feel any of those things. That's the most insidious part, the part that people who haven't gone through significant depressions can't quite grasp. You're just numb. You think, "Oh, I should be feeling happy right now, so I better pretend that though I feel nothing." Or, "Oh, I should be mad, try being mad." "I probably should feel sad about this, but I literally do. not. care."

That's been my life since last November. Having no feelings.

It really all began when I realized that there was almost a 100% chance that I'd never be able to use my own name on a book again. That, due to my lackluster sales, I was already "washed up" as an author. As author Natalie Whipple. It took less than two years, really, though I tried so, so hard to pretend it wasn't happening in 2014…the year after I debuted. How quick the shine of authorhood can wear off. How swift the industry can declare you a failure. (And please, for the love, do not tell me it's not true and I'm amazing and all that crap. It only attempts to negate the feelings that were/are very real to me.)

I was mad. I was devastated. I was confused. And, ultimately, I was helpless to change any of it. I had tried—all the events and more books and pretending I was amazing and trying to sellsellsell. Maybe I could change it. Maybe I just wasn't working hard enough. Maybe…but no.

By October-ish of last year, I was spent in about every way. I'd used what little money I had to travel and market and indie publish. I used all of my creative power and killed the rest in this blitz of overworking myself. I used up all my feelings and hope and willpower. I had nothing left to give, so I cracked and broke and I didn't even care to pick up the pieces.

I tried to keep writing. Did NaNo. Did some contract work. But it only made things worse. I only broke into more pieces.

So I stopped writing. I ate a lot. Gained almost ten pounds. Slept at least 12 hours a day. I played my part at conferences, pretending that writing was still something I cared about and not something that had shattered me once again. I tried to keep my house and children cared for, but failed a lot. I started forgetting almost every conversation people attempted to have with me. I got shingles. That was fun.

And, I started gaming more. I've always gamed, but in this time when writing has become torture and not an escape, gaming has saved me. It's given me a place to go and hide, a place where I don't have to think about my life, a place where I can be safe while I work through all this shit. It's hard to explain to people who don't game, who think games are a waste, who don't understand what they mean to some people. But sometimes I think Guild Wars 2 saved my life. It kept me from going to uglier places, more dangerous thoughts. I got to meet people who didn't expect me to talk about writing and who didn't just see me as a writer.

Because it's really hard to be a writer who's not writing. The best I can equate it to is "being the single person in a room of married couples." Everyone's talking about how great marriage is, and what they're doing together, and their plans for their amazing future as an amazing adorable pukey couple. And you're single and kinda cool with it and you want to roll your eyes a lot.

But not only that, it's the questions and reactions. "So, what are you working on?"

Sweet murder, I hate that question right now. Because when I say, "Absolutely nothing." the reaction is exhausting. There's usually a pause. And then a "Oh, well…must be nice to be on a break." And there's this awkwardness in the air because what do we even talk about if it's not writing and books and publishing?

If I feel like really freaking out a debut author, I mention that I've even considered quitting and that my writing career is already shot two years in. You can see the fear in their eyes, the realization that maybe the same thing could happen to them. And then they run, run away as fast as possible. Probably because I have bad luck and they worry it might rub off on them. And, hey, it might. I don't blame them. No one wants to hear the kinds of things publishing has handed me. No one wants it to be them.

But my hair is growing back. I'm losing weight. I'm not sleeping all day and I'm finding meaning in things that aren't writing. My house is cleaner. My mind is waking up. Slowly, slowly, I'm starting to feel things again. The chill of fear. The heat of anger. The ache of sadness and the brightness of joy. And feeling…I have hopes that feeling will lead me back to writing.

At some point, at least.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

How To Write A (Dreaded) Synopsis

Most writers wholly agree that writing a synopsis is the worst thing ever. While we all want to avoid this particular summary of our work, I hate to tell you that they come up a lot. 

I've published 7 novels now, and 2 of those were first submitted as a synopsis (Blindsided and My Little Brony). For my ninja sequel, my editor asked me to write synopses of ALL the ninja series so she had a reference to keep in mind as she worked through edits. Just this last week I wrote another one for a potential writing gig I want. Whether the synopsis is for a sequel or a work-for-hire or just reference, they are an important thing to know how to do. They can be the difference between selling your whole series or just one book. They can get you a job as a packaged book writer. 

So, how do you write these synopses things? Well, first you need to know what a synopsis must and must not do. Then the rest is up to interpretation.

1. Your synopsis needs to demonstrate that you know how to plot a novel. 
This is really the major thing an agent or editor is looking for when they request a synopsis. If you don't have a strong enough understanding of plotting—it will show in your synopsis. You will choose the wrong things to focus on or the plot points will be clearly weak. 

If you feel like you can't write a synopsis, my number one tip is to learn more about plotting. Read Save The Cat. Check out Dan Wells's 7-point Plot Structure. Brush up on the 3 Act Play set up. Dissect your own plot and the plots of other novels/movies/television. A synopsis will reveal all the holes in your story's plot, so use that as a tool to gauge your novel's strengths and weaknesses.

2. Your synopsis must not be boring.
This is more difficult than the average person realizes. You must reduce your novel to the bare bones, and then make those bones sound super interesting. How do you pull that off? 

Focus on the stakes, emotions, and complications for your main character that push them through the plot.

Don't strip your synopsis of voice.

Avoid clich├ęs.

Use active verbs to push action forward. 

3. Your synopsis must be focused.
Your novel will likely have way more characters and subplots and settings than you can put in the synopsis. This is okay. It is not a novel, it's a focused look at your plot structure. If you don't need to mention a character's name, don't. If you can skip a description, do. Look at your novel as a whole and pick out the most essential pieces. These will likely be your main character and their motivations, the plot twists and turns, and your villain and their motivations. 

4. Your synopsis cannot be too long.
While this is a longer version of a query in a way, your synopsis should not be 12 pages long. At least not one that you expect anyone to read with interest. around 1000-1500 words is about as much as you can get away with before it just starts to feel like too much. 


And that's the basics! I know this doesn't look like a lot, but these are the most important things when it comes to a synopsis. They certainly don't have to be perfect—they are mostly requested when an agent or editor wants to see if the book progresses like a well-plotted novel before taking a closer look. If you are struggling, please feel free to ask me more specific questions in comments.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Quiet Life

It's amazing how much can change in five or six years. When I was 25, I wanted to be famous, essentially. I wanted to be a bestselling author that everyone knew and complimented and thought was amazing in every way. This would make my life meaningful, somehow. Then I would feel like a valid human being. Or whatever.

Now I'm 31, and not only do I know that being famous (though I'm not exactly famous) sucks, but that none of that stuff fills that hole like I hoped it would. Having people talk about you and your book…it doesn't make you feel better or more important. Sometimes it even feels just plain weird that anyone would pay attention to what you're doing. But maybe that's just me.

This past 6 or 7 months has been a big struggle for me. I think it's been clear from my posts and my general lack of social media presence. I've just been, well, depressed. I've wanted to quit. I've questioned every choice I've made as an author ever. In a lot of ways, I've stepped back. And oddly enough I feel like I haven't even stepped back enough, what with all the conferences I committed to attend this winter and spring. But my conference blitz is finally over. And I'm back to just me and my own words.

You know what? I'm actually happy to be there. Just me and my stories.

All this publishing stuff—the marketing and cons and selling and interviews and on and on—I thought that was what I wanted for so long. What I'm finding now is that, as authors constantly say, it really always comes back to the writing. When I take away all the stresses of the business side, I still do love to write and edit my own stories. That part…that's something I can never get away from and it's something I personally need to focus on if I want to stay sane.

I suspect I may not be the only author this applies to. No matter you are on the journey—aspiring writer, debut, on your 3rd published novel or 20th or 50th—focusing on the writing seems to always be the answer. At least it's what I continually come back to: a quiet life filled with my own worlds where I can escape and have fun and explore my own views on life. That's the best part of all this. It's the part we can all have if we sit down at the writing desk with gratitude for the work we do and what it gives us.

As I move into a quieter time in writing for me, I find I'm actually looking forward to the "reset," so to speak. No deadlines. No contracts. No events or publicity or whatever. It's like I'm a brand new author again, and for once I really want to be that. I want writing to be magical again. I want editing to be satisfying and educational. I want to be proud of my work regardless of what other people think, much like I was when I was an aspiring author. And I hope by wanting it, I can make it happen.

Here's to the quiet author life. If you're there right now, savor it, because the busy times are exhausting and you'll find yourself wanting the slower pace in the future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

WIFYR Novel Intensive!

New author photos! I'm getting my
use out of them lately:)
I've mentioned this before, but this summer I'll be teaching a week long class about novel writing and Writing & Illustrating For Young Readers. It's a fantastic conference, and well worth the price if you are looking for a lot of personal one-on-one instruction from a professional writer.

Here is my class's description, should you be interested:

Great fiction is all about the lens you bring to a story and how you choose to crop and manipulate what’s on the page. Utilizing my art background, I will teach my students how to compose a novel on every level, from creating a solid world to painting vivid characters to choosing the details that will give your story nuance and flair. Each student will submit 30 pages of their finished novel for critique by the class, and through detailed critique of your work I plan to give you every tool you need to make your novel a masterpiece.

And after I’ve taught about crafting your book, I will give you all the knowledge I have about how to sell your art. It’s a difficult business, both emotionally and financially, and as a hybrid author I can give you an honest look at the many paths now in publishing. Never have artists had so many choices, and I’d love to help you decide what direction is right for you.

If you'd like more info about the conference, check out