Writing

Why I Never NaNo

I have held off writing this post until the end of the month because I didn’t want to “yuck anyone’s yum” as the kids say. I have no beef with other people participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but for me, NaNo is a no-go. And I wanted to write about it for the writers who feel discouraged that they struggle to do NaNo or don’t like to do it, especially when it seems like everyone is participating, except you.

I jokingly refer to NaNoWriMo as “No Words November” for me. Where other people see synergy and community, I find myself crushed beneath other people’s massive (for me) daily word counts. Comparison-itis hits, and it hits HARD. My soul dies incrementally at the beginning of November with each friend who participates and posts that they wrote 2,000+ words in a day. On a personal level, I am very happy for them that they’re making progress and don’t want to mute the word or my friends for a month, but my inner writer is screaming in panic as I am lucky if I get 500 words a day during November. The more I see the large numbers, the worse it gets to the point that I often get so far in my head that I stop writing in November. This has happened repeatedly.

This is a me problem. I know it is, and I know I need to work on my comparison-itis, but I think for people who tend to be slower writers or who don’t zero draft, NaNo feels like an insurmountable task. During the height of the semester, I’m lucky if I can get 10,000 words a month. Part of my personal grudge against NaNo is that it’s in November, which is when I am a) perpetually exhausted from the time change/weather b) under a mountain of grading because that’s when the long papers roll in. It’s just not a convenient time for me as a professor to be doing anything extra, let alone stretching way past my normal word count.

If we could shift NaNo to like June, that would be great. I vividly remember being in college and one of my friends having a meltdown because she was behind her NaNo goal and her schoolwork, which she sacrificed to write more. I wanted to shake her. NaNo is one month, grades are forever. The same rule applies as an adult with a job. I’m not sacrificing my mental health and totally stressing myself out for something that in the long run doesn’t matter. NaNo is just another month, just another arbitrary activity, and my life and worth doesn’t hinge on a word count.

My process also doesn’t work with NaNo. The typical wisdom is that you shouldn’t edit as you go, which I have to do. Editing is my warm-up before I start my next writing session, and it keeps me from having to do a massive amount of editing at the end of my draft. On top of that, I am a plantser/gardener. This means that I don’t usually have an outline before I start writing or, if I do, it’s on an act-by-act basis or only a few scenes ahead at a time. Not being a plotter means that either I have to zero draft (messy, scant rough draft), which I really don’t like to do, or I need to rapidly figure out where the hell I’m going. My lack of forethought does not lend itself to this process. I do not like cleaning up a mess. I am the kind of person who cleans the bowls and pans as they cook instead of dealing with a giant mess at the end. The same holds true for writing. Without being able to edit as I go or having the time to do so while writing so much, it really isn’t worth it for me as I will struggle to finish a book that requires that much editing.

Know yourself and your process should be the main takeaway from this blog post. If traditional NaNoWriMo works well with your writing process, then you should definitely go for it, but if it doesn’t work for you or the way you write, it might not make sense to go for 50k words in a month and wreck your mental health or manuscript. Every year the FOMO gets me during week 1 when everyone’s energy is high and they are so enthused, but once the stressed posts set in, I realize why I don’t torture myself. I know I would hitch my self-worth as a writer to those giant (for me) daily word counts, and things would not end well.

If you haven’t enjoyed NaNo this year but feel like it’s necessary or a hallmark of a “real” writer/author, it isn’t. I have never won NaNo. I have only tried twice and failed both times. Camp NaNo where I’ve stuck to a more reasonable word count goal is the only way I can do NaNo. I have eight books out with several more cooking, so don’t feel bad if NaNo just doesn’t jive for you. You certainly don’t need to do it in order to finish your manuscript or to find a supportive writing community. You can do that all on your own any month of the year.

Writing

Introducing Flowers and Flourishing

If you’re part of my newsletter (see the menu on the top bar if you want to join) or like to check out my works in progress page, you’ve probably seen me mention Flowers and Flourishing, which is going to be a newsletter freebie for all of my subscribers and will be going out in early 2023 (I’m hoping for January, but we’ll see). My plan is to launch this book as a freebie first, and eventually, I may add a few more short stories along the way (also free to subscribers). Once I have those, I will package them into a larger work that will be something like Flowers and Flourishing and Other Stories from the Paranormal Society, which will be available for purchase at online retailers. I do not have a timeline for that yet because I haven’t written or conceived of the other short stories, except for Flowers and Flourishing and one idea I have brewing about the origin of two side characters in The Reanimator’s Heart.

But I digress. So what you’re probably wondering is what is Flowers and Flourishing about. Below is a little aesthetic board I created for Louisa and Agatha and beneath that, the blurb.

The plan had been simple: arrange a marriage of convenience with her best friend, get him a position at the Paranormal Society, and get the hell out of California, but even the best laid plans go awry. What Louisa Galvan never accounted for was Felipe being transferred to Manhattan or finding a woman like Agatha Pfeiffer.

Agatha hadn’t asked to be a plantmancer. Her dream had always been to become a professional artist, but after hours sweltering in the Paranormal Society’s greenhouses, painting is impossible. In exchange for time off, Agatha is expected to convince Louisa to stay at the Manhattan Branch, but she quickly finds her reasons are wholly selfish.

As their feelings grow, Louisa realizes she has two choices: continue to hide or reach for a life she never knew was possible and convince Agatha to come with her. But Agatha and Louisa aren’t the only ones conspiring. Can Louisa convince Agatha that she deserves the life of her dreams or will their love wither on the vine?


As you have probably guessed, Flowers and Flourishing is a sapphic story set about twenty years before the events of The Reanimator’s Heart and Kinship and Kindness. It is the story of how Felipe’s lavender marriage wife, Louisa, came to meet and fall in love with her partner Agatha. Louisa is a cis lesbian who happens to be a jaguar shifter while Agatha is a bi trans woman who is a plantmancer. It’s a pretty low blood pressure novella with some steamy moments and nods to the queer artists of the past. I hope you’ll join my newsletter and stick around for this novella when it releases in January.

Writing

The Truth About Critique Groups

Before I get started, I want to make it clear that I believe writing critique groups can be a fantastic resource for bettering your craft if you’re in a group with the right people and dynamic. The key word is if. I should also specify what I mean by critique group. Other names for this might be a beta reading group or workshop group. I use these in my creative writing classes and participated in them in graduate school while getting my MFA in creative writing. Overall, I really enjoyed getting feedback on my work and I find my students get some valuable input regarding their pieces, but outside of a scholastic setting (and inside it if your professor isn’t actively working to keep it from going toxic), they can be very hit or miss. I have put rules in place in my classes to maintain order and keep the participants in my workshops happy, or at least, I try to keep them from leaving workshop dissatisfied. Here are some factors you may want to keep in mind if you are trying to create a workshop group of your own:

Find people close in skill or career level.

The problem with critique groups is that, ultimately, someone always get screwed over if the group dynamic isn’t perfect. To have a successful critique group, you need to have people who are of a very similar level in terms of skill. This means skill as a writer and skill as an editor. Sometimes you have someone who is a better editor than writer, which means they can be a very useful feedback partner, but if you have people of very different skill levels, the lower members of the group might feel like the feedback they get is harsh (especially compared to the feedback others are getting) and the higher members will get useless feedback that strokes the ego but doesn’t really improve their work. As much as I love a good ego pat in a workshop group, it’s demoralizing when week after week, you get told, “great job!” and nothing more. The highest people aren’t getting anything out of it. The lower people are made to feel bad if they aren’t accustomed to feedback or the other members are harsh/rude/not focusing on big picture issues. Often a lower writer will get a shit ton of knitpicky feedback, which is overwhelming but not useful if what they really need to focus on are big picture issues like character development or pacing. The people in the middle who are all close in terms of skill level or are in a place where they’re upwardly mobile with their skills gain the most from the group.

Be selective and expect change.

At some point, people will come and go from the group. That is just a fact of life, but as people outgrow the group or stop writing due to whatever reason, the group will change, and you will need to be careful about maintaining the dynamic within the group. It sucks because many of us in writing groups become friends or start to depend on people within those groups to give good feedback. At the same time, if you are in a group and find you aren’t getting anything out of it, don’t be guilt tripped into staying. The whole point of a group like this is that everyone should benefit. If you find you’re giving good feedback and getting nothing or if you find that your personalities aren’t meshing, leaving is probably for the best. For those creating a workshop group, I highly suggest being at least semi selective. You want people who are of similar skill levels, so you might want to ask to see their work and/or have them give feedback on a piece. I wouldn’t focus on grammar and such, as that is an easy fix, but check if their level of craft would meld well with the rest of the group. Some might think this is being elitist or exclusionary, but in order for a group like this to work, you can’t have a brand new writer stumbling into a group of seasoned writers where they are completely out of their depth and vice versa.

Rules, rules, rules.

The other issue is that you really need some sort of mediation or rules to keep the group structured. What I’ve seen happen online is that there’s one eager person who posts A LOT of material and asks for feedback while others post less often. Resentment grows for the frequent poster and the responses to their work dwindles, especially if they aren’t as eager to give feedback. Basically, the give-and-take balance needs to be maintained. With a workshop in a class, it’s fairly easy to maintain that balance because workshops happen at regular intervals, everyone [hypothetically] posts their work to their group, and those group members [hypothetically] respond to everyone within the group. There’s equal give-and-take and a fairly standardized amount of work that can be submitted. This keeps one person from completely overwhelming the group or being the only one giving feedback all the time. My suggestion would be to make subgroups if the group is decently large (keeping groups to 4 or less people) or create some sort of posting schedule with page limits to keep one person from monopolizing the group. Trust me when I say that in grad school, the person who handed in 10 pages when the limit was 5 got many a resentful eye roll during class. Don’t be that person. You also need admins to enforce the rules fairly and maintain some semblance of order. Toss out those who don’t pull their weight or repeatedly break the rules.

Use virtual meetings apps for workshops.

Something that I am very adamant about with my students is that they give feedback face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice. The problem with leaving feedback without explaining it aloud is tone. It is so easy to get bent out of shape because you think someone is being harsh when they don’t intend to. On top of that, people are less predisposed to casual nastiness if they know they have to say it to the person’s face. I have gotten myself in trouble as college student because I posted feedback to a classmate that they took issue with. I was too blunt and they took it more harshly than I intended. Face-to-face allows for tone or clarification along side written or in-text feedback. I have used Google Meets with my students, which has worked well, and I would imagine something like Discord would work as well. If you are able, I would suggest setting a time that works well for the group and holding it at the same time at regular intervals.

Don’t be an asshole.

I stress to my students that criticism really means constructive feedback, not strictly negative feedback. Constructive feedback instructs the person on what needs to be fixed, is specific, and possibly suggests how to fix it. If you just say, “it sucked,” or “I hate this character,” or “I liked it,” that isn’t helpful at all. Don’t be the person who is needlessly harsh to others. As someone on Twitter once said, “When you’re brutally honest, people remember the brutality, not the honesty.” Make sure your feedback is helpful and coming from a place of instruction and wanting the person to better themselves. How would you feel if someone gave your best friend that feedback? Would you be mad for them? I know we all think we can dish it and take it, but consider if you would be pissed hearing your bestie get the feedback you’re giving others. If you find someone in your group is giving feedback that is harsh (but not offensive), have a discussion to correct them. It might be difficult if they struggle with tone as some people do, but if they can give extra explanation/context with their feedback, it may smooth things over.

At the same time, expect to get criticized.

The inverse of the previous issue is that some people cannot handle getting non-positive feedback. If you’re one of those people who is easily wounded by criticism, don’t join a critique group unless you are purposely working to modulate those feelings. Otherwise, you’re going to resent the people in your group or tank your mental health if you take every bit of criticism as evidence your work sucks. The best writer still has room for growth, and if you join a writing group, you should expect that others might point out where you need to work on your craft. Positive feedback only isn’t going to help you grow. That’s just a fact of learning. I think it’s important to be told what you’re good at, but too much only grows the ego. I find people who reject all feedback as a personal attack particularly annoying in a workshop group, usually because they’re very willing to critique others (hypocritical) or all their feedback is praise (useless). They’re usually the hardest to correct. If you see yourself in this description or take personal offense, you may want to work on your ability to take feedback before you start asking for it. It only gets worse once strangers on the internet read your work.

Those are my tips for how to best deal with a workshop group. If you’re starting your own, please consider the logistics ahead of time, if you’re able to put in the time and effort required, and if the people you invite to join are as committed as you are.

Writing

Why I’m [Still] an Indie Author

For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and I have been. If you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and words flow out into story or poetry or screenplay form, you’re a writer. I never had dreams of being a traditionally published writer, at least not in the sense of doing book tours. I just wanted to be able to hold my book in my hands and know other people are reading it. Not long ago, I showed one of my friends my proof copy of The Reanimator’s Heart, and they said something along the lines of “It’s a shame no traditional publisher has snapped you up yet.”

It sort of took me aback because I haven’t had the desire to be traditionally published in a long time. I haven’t even tried because, frankly, I don’t want to. There’s a multitude of reasons as to why I haven’t tried to be traditionally published after self-publishing seven, almost eight books. I think a lot of people see self-publishing as a sort of last resort or desperation route, but for a lot of us, this is the way we have purposely chosen to go and will continue to go. If you’re curious as to why I have decided to forgo the traditional route, here are some reasons:

  1. Traditional publishing is imploding/turning into a monopoly. If you follow book Twitter or have read business news, you might have seen how the big 5 has become the big 4 and is inching toward the big 3. This is terrible for competition, editors, diversity, agents, and of course, authors. The whole trial regarding the merger has further soured my feelings toward publishing as the administrators are acting like they have no idea how the industry works, which could be them playing dumb or actual ignorance on their part. Neither of which fills me with hope. On top of this, smaller publishers or imprints get gobbled up or shut down in order to funnel money into the larger publishers.
  2. Advances are getting smaller and more spread out. Is the money in traditional publishing worth it? If I was able to not work between books, yeah. At this point, most writers are making less than money than they did ten years ago in terms of advances. They tend to be smaller and have gone from being in three parts to five parts, which means you get less money over a longer period of time. Unfortunately, bills do not wait for your five part advance. At this point, my monthly growing income from my books is more reliable, and in the future, the hope is that my monthly income will be enough to live off. The sad fact is that traditional publishing is also becoming less livable.
  3. Publishing with a small press can be a good way to screw yourself over. The biggest issue is they tend to implode. We saw this happen a lot during the mid 2010s with queer romance publishers. They started to fold, stopped paying authors, ghosted them, and then wouldn’t give them their rights back. I saw this happen to multiple people. The other issue is that some smaller presses don’t do a very good job. Someone I know published with a university press and the book cover was horrible. I am not a stellar graphic artist, and I could have done better. They looked like they were made in paint by someone who gave zero shits. I cannot imagine they did any marketing for these books, yet they still collected this author’s royalties and did them no favors by giving them an unmarketable product with a genre-ambivalent cover. Being set up for failure by someone else in order to be recognized as “traditionally published” by the establishment feels pointless.
  4. My book lives and dies by my choices if I self-publish. The big takeaway here is my choices. I pick the cover, I make the blurb, I market the book, etc. I don’t have to worry about someone else picking a hideously ugly cover or doing no marketing for my book. If the market changes, I can buy a new cover for my book, I can alter the blurb at a moment’s notice, and I can set up ads for my books whenever I want. I don’t have to have my marketing blessed by authorities, and best of all, I can rant about whatever I’m working on because I don’t have an NDA stopping me. Do traditional publishers have a longer reach in terms of marketing? Sometimes, but with new authors who aren’t being promoted as they next big thing, not really. Publishers are getting cheaper and cheaper with marketing and small presses don’t do a whole lot in that regard.
  5. The immediacy of self-publishing and lack of gatekeeping. I can literally finish proofing my book and slap it online as soon as I’m done. I don’t have to wait 1-2 years for it to trickle through the system and that’s after potentially waiting years for an agent to think I’m worthy of their time. Everything in self-publishing is on my schedule, and if I need to take longer due to unforeseen circumstances, I can. Part of why I initially started self-publishing was to avoid the gatekeeping in traditional publishing. Back in 2014, publishers were trying to straight-wash queer media, and while that’s less common in 2022, we definitely still see certain marginalized stories get pushed to the sidelines or not get marketing. If I want to write a trans character or an autistic characters, no one can tell me the character makes the book unmarketable.

I could go on about more minute reasons, but these are probably the top five reasons as to why I’ve decided to continue self-publishing and not really look at traditional publishing. It just isn’t worth the time and energy investment when I can do a lot of the same things myself and reap the benefits without having to pay a middle man. Plus, self-publishing is a viable option in terms of being able to live off your writing. Nothing is a guarantee, but it’s something to work toward, especially after seeing other self-published authors find success.

Writing

On Writing For Your Best Reader

So I saw this screenshot on Twitter from an interview with Melissa Febos and it made me think a lot about what a lot of writers grapple with, especially writers that haven’t been publishing for very long. You can read it below.

There is a fundamental difference between not wanting to accidentally include something that is racist or -phobic (aka being a conscientious writer) and constantly worrying about what someone might say about your work. The former is being responsible. The latter is setting yourself up for failure.

Someone will always interpret your work in the worst way possible. Someone who doesn’t like you or started off your work on a bad foot will read it wrong. They will purposefully skew things and misinterpret them, just as they would something you said online or in real life. It is an inevitability. I’ve had reviews of my books where the reader thought I was referencing something I had never heard of or media I’ve never actually interacted with/watched. It’s going to happen, but the best thing to do is say, “This book isn’t for you.”

My book isn’t for that reader. My writing, my characters, my genres, my inner voice isn’t meant for that reader.

There’s a push online for universality of work. That things should be sanitized for everyone’s palates. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t be “offensive.” Offensive doesn’t even mean racist or -phobic in this sense. It’s just don’t upset other people, which is, frankly, ridiculous. My mere existence as a nonbinary, queer, neurodivergent person upsets some people. Should I stop? Should I sanitize myself to placate others?

In the same vein, we can’t neutralize fiction to avoid things that could upset people simply because you don’t want to see a bad review or have someone be rude to you on Twitter. We put up trigger or content warnings as a heads-up to keep from ruining someone’s day. That’s enough. You’ve given people warning. They have time to opt out before they get too deep or brace themselves knowing it’s coming. If they continue on or don’t read the warning, that is on them.

I used to get upset when I would get homophobic reviews on my books. I still do when I see my second book get returned on Amazon. That means someone read book 1, totally missed the heavy pro-queer message and got upset when book 2 focused on a gay couple. Those people aren’t my readers. A part of me relishes that they were offended. Good. Be mad. I did my job.

After eight books, I know who I write for. I write for other queer people who want to see themselves in stories set in the past, to know that they could have had a happy ending. That the world can be messy and cruel but there will be people who love and support you. You just have to find them or carve a place for yourself regardless of what others think. I write for the people who want that, and I market my books while highlighting those things.

New/young writers, I am begging you to write for yourself first and write for the people who would love your books second. Do not be under the illusion that everyone will love your books or that you need to write for the largest swathe of people possible. Yes, that will help with marketability, but is it fulfilling? Are you happy writing stories for people who wouldn’t appreciate you as a person? People who would read your book and enjoy it but not support you as a person are not your audience, or at least, I don’t think they are. I will happily take money from cis straight people who enjoy my work, but I’m not writing for them.

Being an author or creative in general means making yourself vulnerable. You’re flaying yourself open in your art for people to see the bits of you beneath the surface: the dreamer, the darkness, the sadness, the hope, the traumas we’ve maybe not spoken of aloud but permeate our work. Locking those things away to avoid scrutiny will leave your work flat. You can’t present yourself as the perfect person or your work as the paragon of goodness and still make something worth reading. People are messy. Characters are messy and should be. As creatives, I think we often need to have a long hard look at purity culture and remember that it upholds white supremacy and its values. Would you rather have someone misinterpret your characters in bad faith or uphold white supremacist values by sanitizing yourself and your work?

The answer feels pretty clear cut to me. Any time someone tells you to take things that aren’t truly offensive (aka not ableist, racist, -phobic) out of your book/work, ask yourself why? What standard is this upholding? If it has anything to do with goodness or purity, I’d think long and hard before changing it.

Personal Life · The Reanimator's Heart · Writing

The Fear of Success

This isn’t actually the post I had planned to put up this week, so bear with me if this seems off the cuff because it is.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been trying to get my shit together, especially in regard to my writing life. I ended up taking both of Sarra Canon’s classes, HB90 (a planning/goal setting system) and Publish and Thrive (a course on indie publishing), because I felt like I was spaghetti flinging hoping what I was doing would work. I’ve been sort of methodically moving forward trying to set and hit goals in order to move toward what I want. That goal is having more time for creative pursuits, leaning more into my writing, and only teaching at the university that gives me better opportunities and is better for my mental health but pays less. I have a chunk of savings as a cushion and have been trying to strategize how I can go about doing this in a way that doesn’t totally kick my butt and doesn’t depend on my partner landing a much better job as we cannot control that.

The Reanimator’s Heart has sort of been step one in that goal. It’s the project I’ve been working on since I started trying to get my shit together, and things have been going well. I do well with structure and goals, so I have surprised myself by actually getting a lot done. After taking Publish and Thrive, I was also able to brush up on what is working in indie publishing right now, and from watching various indie authors on Youtube, I’ve been working on my publishing strategy for this book. In the past, I’ve sort of just haphazardly launched things. I would let them rip as soon as I finished or not send them to any bloggers/ARC readers. I’ve certainly done things to tank my own success because I was more excited about people reading my work than doing a good job with the launch. This time, I’ve purposely slowed myself down, made lists, made a half-formed plan for releasing this book.

The problem is that I’m scared because it’s working.

Yes, I raised my eyebrow at myself too at the realization, but as reviews have been rolling in and people are enjoying the book, I’m panicking more. The cover is beautiful (thank you, Crowglass Design), the characters are lovable messes, and the pacing and such is solid. Between this book and Kinship and Kindness, I think my skills leveled up in certain areas, and that sort of rise and recognition of that rise is scaring me.

What if this is the best book I ever put out? What if everything after this is a disappointment?

Thus far, I haven’t gotten too far into my own head, but the panicked thoughts are seeping through more and more. The pitiful thing is that this isn’t like super viral panic-worthy success. This is “I’m doing better than my previous launch” success.

After everything that’s happened these past two years and my own issues with confidence as a creative person, I am always waiting for the shoe to drop and things to go wrong. It is an absolutely shitty way to look at life, but part of me feels like I should be bracing for impact instead of celebrating that things are going well. It’s possible to do both; I wildly vacillate between “Omg, look at my preorder numbers” and nail-biting panic.

Part of this, I think, has to do with also reaching outside my comfort zone with this launch. I set up my book with a review service, and I’ve reached out to a few authors I love and respect for potential blurbs, which I’ve never been brave enough to do. Pointing eyes to my work is something that could pan out for me, but also could potentially magnify the imperfections. Logically, I know not everyone will like my book. Certain people will absolutely hate Oliver and Felipe, which is fine. It really isn’t bad reviews that are bothering me (trust me, I’ve seen enough homophobia on The Gentleman Devil‘s reviews to cure me worrying about them). It’s a fear of success.

What if this book does really well? What if more people start reading my books? What if they’re disappointed when they go through my backlist and the rest of my books aren’t as good? What if nothing I write after this is as good as The Reanimator’s Heart? Or what if someone outside my usual circle sees it and sends the 1 star mob after me due to homophobia or whatever other assholery they can come up with?

Living in the age of the internet means constantly worrying about the wrong kind of attention for your creative projects, especially if you’re a queer author writing queer characters or in this case, a neurodivergent author writing neurodivergent characters. Will someone flag Oliver as “the wrong kind” of autistic and rip me and him to shreds? I could come up with a myriad of what-ifs at this point, all of which get more illogical and self-destructive.

On the flip side, I’m constantly trying to remind myself that people preordering and/or enjoying The Reanimator’s Heart is a good thing. It means I’ve done a decent job planning this launch, and that its success might move me a step closer to my goal of having more of an income from writing. This success isn’t random is something I have to remind myself. It means that I took the things I learned and applied them in a way that worked. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a runaway, gone viral, wtf happened kind of success. This is a building upon past success with previous books to make this launch even better. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I put in the work, and by doing so, things feel less out of my control.

I’m sure I’ll still have several absolute oh-shit panic moments between now and October 25th, but I’ll just reread this post and stare at all my past to-do lists to remind myself that months of work went into this launch and I should be proud of what I’ve done instead of scared.

If you’d like to help out while simultaneously adding to my panic, you can preorder The Reanimator’s Heart here. Paperbacks will be available closer to release day.

Writing

Indie Book Covers on a Budget

A few weeks ago, I talked about the process of having a professional cover artist create my covers. For me, this is the biggest expense I have when publishing my books, but covers matter and I know I’m not particularly gifted when it comes to cover creation, hence why I’m willing to save up and pay. My first covers were done by my partner who has a degree in art, but eventually, I felt I needed to update them to stay competitive. A lot of authors starting out don’t have that sort of budget, so today, I wanted to talk about ways to do this on a budget.

$200 or less

If you have a small budget for your book cover, I might suggest checking someplace like Fiverr to see if there are any good budget cover artists out there, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s a scam and what’s legit or how much the added fees will be once you get your cover made. There are also plenty of new cover designers who have fairly low pricing since they’re just starting out. Once again, the problem is that you are taking a chance that it may not be what you hoped or expected.

Something that can be very useful to new authors is premade covers. A lot of cover artists make “for fun” covers or extra covers that they sell on their websites as is. You basically plug in your title and author name, and it’s ready to go. Most of these are $150 or less with the vast majority on premade cover websites under $100. These covers are typically ebook only, and it will cost extra should you want the cover to be altered into a paperback cover (which is why I made the budget in this section this high). If you write cozy mystery, YA, SFF, and romance, you typically have a lot to choose from. There are plenty of websites that sell these, but one I particularly like is The Cover Collection. They seem to have a nice mix, and the cozy mystery covers are graphic and gorgeous.

The downside to a premade is that it may not be exactly right for your book and you can’t change it. The other issue arises if your book is part of a series. You can’t brand the books perfectly if different people made the covers, which means you may end up with disparate styles between books in the same series. Some people try to buy covers together at the same time or buy a premade and reinvest their book 1 money on a cover for book 2 that is made to match. You might also consider rebranding in the future when you have more money and just using the premade as a temporary cover.

No Budget

This always has me sort of tense up because I have seen some BAD do-it-yourself covers. I would suggest that if you aren’t halfway decent at Photoshop/CSP/other art or editing software, don’t try this yourself. Your cover is something people are going to see first online, and if it looks like a hot mess, they aren’t going to buy your book because they will [wrongly] assume the inside looks like a hot mess. If you have no budget, I might suggest bartering with a friend who has better graphic design skills than you. Please do not read this as go pester your artist friend. Most of them don’t make a whole lot of money either, so unless you’re willing to do something decently large for them (clean their gutters, watch their kids for a week, edit their manuscript, etc.), do not be upset if they say no. A simple but clean cover is far better than something that looks like someone did a bad job in Paint. Know yourself.

If you are going to forge ahead doing it yourself, I do have a few suggestions.

1) Look at covers within your genre on Amazon and other distributors. See what is often represented on those covers, the colors used, the styles of fonts, etc. Even if your cover isn’t perfect, you can at least sort of blend in. You don’t want to stand out in a bad way. It might also give you direction on what stock photos to look for, which leads me to point 2.

2) Look for stock photos. You cannot grab any old picture off Google and use in a book cover. Someone owns the rights to it, but using Shutter Stock or Pexels will give you tons of photos and vector art that is royalty free, meaning anyone can use it. You may need to alter them with editing software, but the photos are there for you to work with.

3) If you decide to go the Penguin Classics route and use an old painting, make sure you can use that painting on a cover. There’s a small issue with copyright when it comes to works of art. Museums and galleries have the rights to the images for many of them, so you may not be able to slap that picture on a book cover. A lot of museums, galleries, etc. do have websites where you can browse their pictures and see which ones are for commercial use. It’s a pain in the butt, but I’d rather not deal with copyright issues.

4) Show your finished product to other people to get their opinions before putting it on your ebook. Think of this like getting a tattoo. You want someone else to look at their artist’s portfolio with you in case they notice the flaws while you are enamored with the art. Your book cover will be out for everyone to see, so it’s better to catch a weird line or unreadable font now before it’s all over the internet. Be willing to take feedback from people because they will be your customers. The Courtney Project on Youtube has a great playlist of book cover critiques, which may be helpful in showing you what you should look for when making a book cover.

Final Thoughts

Your book cover is an investment in your brand and in your book. If I was going to spend money on one thing, it would be the book cover, BUT I am pretty sound with grammar and editing. If you aren’t great with those things, then, your money is better spent on editing.

At the same time, premade covers can be a great way to get a cool looking cover without breaking the bank. If you have no budget and want to make your own cover, I would definitely be realistic regarding your art/editing skills and make sure to follow the genre conventions for books within your genre in order to make something that will appeal to readers of your genre. Once you finish it, make sure to get feedback from others as you may not readily see the flaws in your cover design.

Writing

The Indie Author Cover Design Process

With my recent cover reveal for The Reanimator’s Heart, I have had a few people reach out to ask me about the cover design process, and I thought this might be easier than trying to string together several Twitter posts.

So far, I have worked with two different cover designers, both of whom I love (Cover Affairs and Crowglass Design), but they each have different processes. Before I get into this, I want to be upfront that I don’t think either process is better or worse than the other. They are just what works best for the artist. Also, I will not be showing the mock-ups and such that I’m going to talk about here. It’s like showing someone your first draft, and without permission from my designers, it would be very rude.

The General Process

  1. Go online and find a cover designer– sounds simple, but you have to keep in mind that you should find someone who jives with your genre, does good work, is within your budget, and can work with you during the time period needed for your book. This can take time, so I suggest doing your research ahead of your book being ready for publication. I found Cover Affairs by looking at books within my genre whose covers I liked. I asked the author who designed their cover (and/or checked inside the book for the cover designer info) and reached out to the cover designer. Sometimes you run into the problem of your cover designer being very popular and having openings 6 months out. You may have to wait to put your book out, or you might opt to find someone else to do your cover. This is why I seriously suggest reaching out months before you’re ready.
  2. Book your cover designer and settle on a deadline– Contact the cover artist, find out their lead times, settle on when you want to schedule it, and then go back to working on your book.
  3. Your cover designer will send you a form to fill out- Both cover designers I’ve worked with have sent me a Google Form to fill out, and the questions were fairly standard between both, so I will summarize the gist of it. Name, email, book title/subtitle/series (#), genre and subgenres, time period of the book, settings or specific imagery or objects that are important in the story, other covers you like or other book covers in your series, stock photos you might use for characters or elements you might want to include in the cover, general vibe of the book, back of cover blurb for the book, anything you do not want at all on the cover. Basically, your cover designer is trying to feel out what you want and the overall feel of what they’re going to create. This is also where you should probably tell your cover designer if you want an ebook, paperback, audiobook, hardcover version, etc. Tell them upfront, so they can find what they need (and so you can get an accurate bill/idea of cost). You can always add a paperback or audiobook cover later, but you will probably pay more as most cover artists would prefer to do everything in one shot.
    1. For my one cover designer, she worked off the Google Form and that’s it. For my other cover designer, he wanted to read the book to get the feel for the work. *Cue panicking as I wasn’t done and wasn’t expecting him to ask for it* Now, I know. It worked out though as he was fine with me sending chunks of it as he was working on the cover along with my Pinterest board and music playlist for the book.
  4. First draft mock up– this will probably be rough, so don’t panic. Your cover artist can do this several ways. They might send sketches, stock photos for your approval (Lou at Cover Affairs and I usually send stock photos back and forth until we find someone who works), or even rough cover concepts that are a patchwork of styles or ideas. You should send your cover designer feedback. Don’t just say it looks great to be nice if you don’t like the idea or it doesn’t jive with your book. At the same time, do not be a pain in the ass and shoot things down without looking for stock or giving direction. Sometimes you cannot find exactly what you want, and you need to compromise and pivot to a new idea. It can also be your wording in your Google Form that is throwing off your cover designer, and you may need to explain further what you mean. If you absolutely feel like you and your cover designer are not figuring things out, this may be the point to call it quits and find someone else. You might lose your deposit, but it’s better than paying in full for a cover you don’t like or that doesn’t fit your book.
    1. Things to keep in mind with the first draft mock-up: does it fit your genre? Does it fit the vibe of your story? Does it make sense? I air on the side of your cover should be unique and pretty but still fit the general conventions of your genre. I do not like the naked people romance covers, but they do sell. If you’re trying to be very commercial, I’d say follow the trend to a T. If you’re in a looser, more niche genre, you generally have more wiggle room for what can/will be successful online. Look at your genre’s Amazon top 100 section to see what styles are popular. Your cover should make sense among those other books. Standing out like a sore thumb isn’t great because people might assume your book is a different/wrong genre and skip it.
  5. Second draft/real draft– you have locked in a design with your cover artist, so now it is time to sit back and see what they come up with. At this point, major changes should be done. You and your cover artist might have some back and forth conversations about minute details like font, flourishes, weapon/item options, dress color, etc. But the design should not undergo major changes at this point. Once your cover designer comes back with the second draft cover mock-up, you should be happy with it. You picked the first draft idea, you approved the smaller details, and generally when this is done, you should be looking at a nearly completed book cover. Don’t hesitate to ask for small changes, most cover designers are more than willing to tweak, but we are past big picture issues.
  6. Optional paperback cover– if you have a paperback cover, your cover designer will generally make the ebook, then extend out to make the paperback. Once the main design is locked in, they will then work on the back half. Please send them the most updated back blurb because if you are like me, you have messed with it substantially since they first started working on it and now what they have in their Google Form is outdated. Also, they will probably want a guestimate of the size your paperback will be in pages and inches (6×9 or 5×8), so they can format the spine and covers correctly. When you get closer to releasing your paperback, generally you reach out and tell them the exact page count, so they can tweak the cover perfectly to fit the size.
  7. Optional audiobook cover– your cover designer will make an abbreviated or truncated version of your front cover for the audiobook since it’s square instead of rectangular.
  8. Optional hard cover– I have not done this, but if you decide to you, you will need to tell them if it’s an Amazon hard cover (no flaps/wrap) or an Ingram hard cover (has flaps/wrap), and you will have to decide what goes inside the wrap part versus the back.
  9. Sizing problems– this happens without fail no matter how fantastic your cover designer is because the printing/ebook companies are a pain. Files are too large, the cover doesn’t fit right, something isn’t bright/is too bright. Reach out to your cover designer and tell them the specific error. Mine reply quickly, and the crisis is averted without issue.
  10. Set up your preorders, buy your author copy, profit (maybe)- remember that your book cover is what is going to help sell your book. It should be something you love and are proud of, and this is where the vast majority of my budget goes. Put your best foot forward, and lure in readers with your cover for preorders.
Writing

My Editing Process

Two weeks ago, I posted about my writing process. This was originally going to be one GIANT post, but at some point, readers lose interest. It also made sense to me to break this up into before the end and after the end for simplicity’s sake. If you haven’t read the first post, you can do so here.

The End? Nope. Editing Time.

So the writing process typically takes me anywhere from 4-6 months, depending on how long the story is and how long it took for me to get past the beginning stage to start fully drafting. This is why I try to get the gooey beginning part started while finishing up another book if I can.

From there is the major editing stage. Something I started doing a few books back (I think while writing Selkie Cove) is to stop at the 33% to 50% mark and do some major edits early. This way, I tidy up the beginning, I make sure the characterization makes sense, and reacquaint myself with the beginning of the story and early stakes before moving on. This helps me a lot in terms of consistency, especially because it takes me longer to write the first half than the second half. Also, remember that I edit as I go anyway, so my book isn’t terribly messy after I’ve done the minor tidies throughout and the more major tidy at the halfway point.

Big Picture Edits

When I finish the entire book, it is time to do big picture edits. Typically, I don’t have anything too monumental because I edit as I go and do that 50% edit, but I do often have a list of things I need to fix or change but didn’t feel like doing while writing. I’m not someone who usually has to rewrite their entire book from scratch or move too much or insert whole scenes. This is probably because I go so slowly and have a lot of built in thinking time. An example of what I might fix is making sure character descriptions make sense, deleting unnecessary dialogue or lines of description, reorganizing scene breaks in a chapter to make it more dynamic/flow better, breaking a chapter in a new place, beefing up description if it seems lacking, etc. If I spot typos along the way, those get fixed as well.

Beta Readers and Round 2

Next, I send the book off to a beta reader if I have someone who is willing to take a look. I don’t always anymore, so if I don’t, then I put it aside for a few days while I work on something else and then dive into round 2 of edits. If I have a beta reader, I will still dive into round 2, but I may need to do another round of edits with their feedback. If anyone hasn’t heard of a beta reader, it’s typically a trusted friend or critique partner who is willing to give you feedback on your work. At this point, my hope is that their feedback won’t include major changes. As with any feedback, you should listen to what your beta reader(s) have to say, especially if more than one person tells the same thing, but if their feedback goes against what you’re trying to accomplish or just feels wrong in your gut, don’t use it.

Round 2 edits are line-level edits. Making sure things sound good, they’re clear, everything makes sense, etc. Smoothing lines, breaking out the thesaurus or double checking that words aren’t anachronistic. Inevitably, I will miss something, but I try. At this point (or after beta feedback), the book should be in pretty good shape and there shouldn’t be any massive changes.

Round 3 Edits (where the most weeping occurs)

Round 3 edits are copy edits. I tend to do this twice because I miss typos no matter how hard I try and something always manages to make it into the book, usually more than one. I read chapters out of order at this point to keep my brain from numbing out and not reading the words. I also use Microsoft Word’s speak feature to have it read me back my work a paragraph at a time to catch typos. It will miss homophones, though, so if you know that’s a problem you have, be like me and make a list of words you might screw up and use ctrl F to find them and double check (that and the verb tenses for lie/lay). Once I have finished rereading my work for what feels like the 800th time, we’re ready to format.

I will not go into the formatting process here, but I do my own formatting for paperbacks and ebooks. The good thing is, putting the book in either form also makes it easier to catch typos, so if you feel like you’re eyes are crossing looking at your computer screen, print it off on paper or read it on your phone/tablet to catch errors better. The change is format seems to help a lot.

I will admit that copy editing is my least favorite part. By the end, my eyes feel like their bleeding and knowing that despite reading my work so many times I still will miss things hurts. If you have enough money to do so, I highly recommend sending your work to a copy editor to find all those typos and grammar errors for you.

A Final Word

But yes, dear reader, we have come to the end of the writing and editing process. I’m sure some of you are appalled that my process goes against the usual advice you see online for writing books. Write a lot, write fast, but if you are like me and thinking about writing 30k, let alone 50k, in a month makes you feel ill, this may be a better process for you.

I will also add that I am a monogamous writer, meaning that I typically write one book at a time until I hit the later editing phases. Then, I might have an edit going and the early drafting process started. In order to keep my characters consistent, I need to be able to keep my projects separate in order to mold the best story I can. Some people just aren’t built for writing 3 things at once or writing 2k a day, and that’s totally fine. The point is that you need to find what works for you.

My process has evolved over time to become a process versus me just doing my best, feeling it out. I’m still feeling it out with projects, and over time, I’m sure how I write will change too, but as of 2022, this is what works best for me.

See you all next week!

Writing

My Writing Process

This week’s post was inspired by Magen Cube’s newsletter, Notes on Monstrosity, where they discuss their writing process. Finding out how other writers writer is something I find incredibly interesting, to the point that I will watch Youtube videos of writers trying famous authors’ processes or daily schedules. It’s fascinating how what works for one author would probably trample my brain into exhausted dust. In my creative classes, it’s a topic my students ask about and how they can best streamline the process. I’d like to make it clear that you will need to figure that out on your own and try what different writers do or venture out on your own and see what your brain jives with.

Some of you are going to read my process and be mad. So be it. My process is not what is preached by many writers. I do not hurdle to the finish line as fast as I can because, frankly, I am not fond of cleaning up the mess after. That’s it. I’m lazy. I do not have the mental fortitude to clean up the same draft 6+ times because I decide to speed through it the first time and now have a 100+ things I need to remember to fix AND do copy edits and such after. That’s not how this is going to go, so if you’re looking for how to write a book in 30 days or write 5k a day or whatever else the hustle culture is pedaling these days, this is not the blog post you seek.

Consider, I have written and published 7 (going on 8) books this way, so it works for me *shrugs*

The Beginning

Typically, my ideas start off with two characters or a single character, and everything sort of grows out of that. I spend a lot of time at the beginning feeling out who they are, what’s wrong with them, what they want, what their core personality is. From there, I think about how these characters would meet and interact because that will be the majority of the story. Then, I get stuck for like 2 weeks trying to figure out the conflict/plot. How do I figure this out? Usually thinking how I can best traumatize these characters. At the same time, I tend to start making a Pinterest board because I’m a very visual person. Once I start throwing together what they look like and where they are, more concrete aesthetic and plot things start to gel for me.

During this part, I’ll often try to start the story to better feel out the characters and have a few false starts. This happens more often with brand new characters than when I’m adding on to a pre-existing series, which makes sense because with new characters, this is more exploratory writing, not word count writing. During this early stage, I need to remember to be kind to myself because my first month or so of working on a book is SLOW. There is a lot of feeling in the dark until things make sense. At some point during this process, I can mentally see the ending or something toward the end to work towards. With that in mind, we get into the drafting stage.

Drafting

I want to make it very clear that I am a “slow” writer. Slow in comparison to the people who can bang out a 60k book in 2 months and have it ready for publication 2 months later. My books are usually 90k+, and I only write 500 to 1500 words a day with the latter being a *really* good day or me playing catch up because I skipped a day or two due to not feeling good. My monthly word counts average around 15k with the first month or two of a new draft often having less. Early on, I tend to write in 20 minute sprints, something akin to the Pomodoro Method. It forces me to write and move forward when I’m feeling hesitant.

But here is my cardinal sin, according to other writers. I EDIT AS I GO.

Yes, dear reader, I go back and edit what I wrote during my previous session as a warm-up. I do this because

a) I am an underwriter, so I need to add more detail. Often, after I’ve written a scene, that detail becomes clearer, and it makes more sense for me to add it now while it’s still fresh in my mind than 2 months from now when I don’t remember what the hell the room is supposed to look like. My brain is like a sieve or a browser with 25 tabs open and you can’t figure out where the music is coming from. I try not to over-complicate it if I can.

b) It’s less work for me later. Future Kara doesn’t appreciate it when Past Kara leaves cryptic messages in a draft that make no sense. [ADD CHAIR] For what, Past Kara?? Why and for what purpose do they need a chair?? I know some people can do this, I cannot. It just frustrates me. Then again, I am not a perfectionist, and as someone is who at least somewhat full of themselves, as many artists are, I tend to read my work and think it’s pretty good and editing it is just tumbling that shiny rock further. Ego is key for this process to work. I am self-conscious about many things; my writing is not one of them.

Once I have reacquainted myself with where I left off, it is time to write. As I said, I tend to write 500-1500 words a day, and this is either done in the morning around 10 AM or late at night with little in between. It’s when my brain works best.

Outlining or the Lack of

You may have noticed I didn’t mention making an outline. That is because I don’t make a traditional outline before I start writing. I do make a retroactive outline covering what I’ve already written, so I can go back and reference it as I move forward, which has been VERY helpful to me. I have a blog post about it here. Something I have been doing with The Reanimator’s Heart is using Sarra Canon’s Three Act Structure outline, which is based off Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and a few other structure books. I have been filling in scenes I think fit into the general structure to help me figure out the order of things and where I’m going, but I do this one act at a time. Act 1, then Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, then Act 3 and not a moment ahead of time if I can help it. It is a very loose outline that is subject to change, but seeing everything laid out helps me keep the flow going.

Ironically, if I’m writing a short story, I tend to make a loose outline, but I think this is because, at most, I can hold about 30k words worth of direction in my head. Beyond that, my brain gets overwhelmed and sort of melts. My process is avoiding the brain melting stage at all costs.

To be continued…

Originally, this was going to be one MASSIVE blog post, but I have decided to break this up right here before the editing process. Truthfully, the drafting process and editing process feel very different to me, so it’s a good place to stop for now. In 2 weeks, the post on my editing process will come out, so I hope you will come back to read it.