The tales of an unapologetic nerd
Friends, what a rough year it has been. And hey, it's only ... *checks calendar* ... APRIL.
Most of you are probably stuck at home right about now, enjoying the panic and anxiety of Covid-induced quarantine. And for those of you that aren't, all those in essential lines of work, I would like to THANK YOU for all you do. Genuinely, from the bottom of my heart.
Now, whether you are safe in isolation or out in the field, I thought a little sneak peek of my next book would be just the thing to take your mind off all the world's troubles for awhile. If you're a member of my mailing list, CONGRATS! You got to see this chapter EARLY! And if not, hey! What a time to sign up!
Either way, I'm thrilled to have you here. I've been spending my time here at home working hard on finishing Kingmaker (The Mapweaver Chronicles: Scroll IV) in time for a Summer release! So please, take a load off. Sit for awhile, and enjoy this first chapter for free.
Chapter One: Portside Whispers
The songs in port were different these days. An unnatural, discomfiting quiet had fallen over every seaside town in the Known World, filling the corners of those places that played host to sailors and pirates alike. The familiar air of jubilant celebration and reckless abandon that usually accompanied shore leave was gone, replaced by a shadow of uncertainty and fear. There were no drunken songs ringing out from packed taverns, or inebriated laughter of eager men with pretty women on their arms filling the streets. No proud captains threw lavish parties on board their docked vessels, as was once a popular custom after a successful adventure. Now, every ship sat empty and abandoned in their slips each night. And the only sound out of doors was the whistling wind, flitting through the graveyard of still masts and creaking lumber.
Something had changed. Something in the very nature of the sea that had every ship spooked, no matter where they sailed, and no matter where they docked. From veteran sailors to stowaway cabin boys, everyone who called the sea “home” could feel the shift in the winds. And so, each night, where revelry had once filled city streets and portside nightmarkets, silence fell. Every pub and tavern was full, but eerily still. Captains sat with their back to the walls nightly, and yet still they glanced over their shoulders as if waiting for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. Drinks were ordered in whispered voices, food consumed quickly and quietly. Even nightly gambling games of dice and cards were suspended as every patron simply waited.
And then, the stories began. It was common for men of the sea to tell stories of their adventures. Even those on opposite sides of the law acknowledged a certain truce in most seaside taverns. The King’s Navy would often tip their hats to the pirates as they spun yarns of narrow escapes and stolen treasure. And the pirates, in their turn, would cheer on the reports of another ship being brought to justice, if only for the night. All knew the promise of enmity would return once they were out to sea again. But the companionship of those who made their lives at sea was, in a way, unbreakable. Each side would acknowledge a common enemy in the weather, and a common ally in the fairer tides, if only for the length of a drink or two.
But not these days, and not for quite some time. Tonight’s tales, like every other night for months now, were not about shipboard conquests or facing down storms. The sailors only spoke of the change.
“Another island went missing,” one pirate said, staring into his glass with a haunted look. “Up and disappeared, in the middle of the night.”
Behind him, the naval captain nursing his own drink leaned over in his chair to join the conversation. “Are you certain?” the captain asked, but his tone said he already knew the answer.
“Our heading was true,” the pirate confirmed. “It was an island we knew, and knew well.”
“A hidden treasure cache?”
Both men drank, and had not so much as lowered their tankards again when another man spoke up. This one a grizzled, older sailor from a crew seated across the room.
“There was another one turned up in the middle of nowhere last week,” he said, and his fellows nodded in agreement. “Nothing big, mind, but definitely there. Trees and all. Only, it weren’t there when we passed by the same scrap of ocean a fortnight before. And it weren’t on any of the maps!”
There were grunts of acknowledgment all throughout the room. Everyone had seen something like that in the past weeks or months. And none of it could be readily explained. Not that they hadn’t tried. Pirates and sailors both were, by nature, a superstitious people. Anything from a foul wind to a torn sail could be blamed on some harbinger of bad luck. Scapegoats were often chosen among the crew, or sacrifices made to the gods. For nearly a year, the men and women who lived and died by the sea had tried everything they knew: crewmen had been cast off or abandoned at port in hopes of appeasing some island deity. Cleansing rituals had been performed on almost every ship that sailed, and desperate prayers were made to Farran, the god of all pirates.
If only any of it had made a difference. The winds continued to blow sour and strange. Prayers went unanswered, and seemingly no amount of sacrifices could turn the tides back in their favor.
Where once the air in port had been filled with shanties, pipe music, and the playful shriek of fiddle strings, the only songs sung now were heavy and dark. They were funeral dirges, or laments and apologies to lovers far away. They were ocean hymns, pleading to Farran, begging that he might shatter whatever illusion had been cast over the seas. Even now, the low hum of A Dead Man’s Tune fell over the tavern like a fog as the barkeep sang quietly to himself.
I could have been a miner
And kept these bones at home
To wake up by my lady love
And never dream to roam
But I became a sailor
And took to open seas
Now comes the day death sails my way
To bend me to my knees
“Anyone else encounter the cold yet?” asked one pirate. The answering shudder that filled the room was instantaneous, and made the very candles shake in their holders.
“We had ice,” said another. “Thick, unmelting ice, clinging to our hull for days.”
“It happened to us when we lost our island,” the first pirate spoke up once more, finally finishing his drink. “A freezing mist filled the air, and the very seas beneath us froze solid. By the time we could sail again, it was gone. Disappeared into the chill.”
“Some demon of ice and snow is out there,” growled one of his companions. “Something throwing off the natural order of things. Something the gods themselves can’t save us from.”
“Let’s not be rash,” said the doctor, standing and holding out his hand placatingly. “None of us have been hurt, have we? Whatever it is, it doesn’t want us.”
“That island was filled with supplies, as well as gold!” said the first pirate, standing as well and staring down the doctor. “Without those waypoints, people could starve. And besides that, how long do you think until the cold gets too deep, and burns away our skin?” He took another step forward, glaring at the other man. “Have you ever been trapped at sea in the dead of winter? Nothing but grey and fog everywhere you turn? When you’re lucky if you only lose a finger to frostbite, and not something more important?”
“I’d imagine if you had a proper medic on board, that wouldn’t be as much of a concern,” sneered the doctor. “Pity you sail under your own flag, pirate. I suppose that’s the risk you pay, living on the wrong side of the King’s law.”
In an instant, a dozen pirates were on their feet. “Living under a tyrant’s thumb, you mean?” growled the first pirate, holding off his companions with a wave of his hand. “Unlike you, we don’t need the crown’s blood to keep our coffers full.”
“No, you just spill its blood instead,” said the doctor. “Couldn’t be content with making an honest wage under a generous king, you had to be free.” A smug smile spread across the doctor’s face as he whispered, “And where has that freedom gotten you, you scurvy-ridden waste of a sailor?”
There had been tension in the air for almost a year. A year of waiting for something else to go wrong, waiting for something bigger than an island to disappear. The threat of some unknown curse hung over every pirate and naval officer like a cloud, and put each one of them on edge. Now, like a persistent wave finally collapsing a poorly-made breakwater, the emotions crested and shattered.
Everyone reached for their blades. Shouted insults were hurled across the room like
harpoons, each side blaming the other for the cursed seas and the unexplained cold. Every ounce of fear bubbled to the surface, and within moments it was clear: these men meant to tear each other apart.
There was a loud bang, as the barkeep finished his work and slammed a now-clean tankard onto the counter top. All eyes turned to him, but he didn’t speak. He didn’t need to; the message was clear. Everyone slowly sat again in silence, still glaring daggers at each other but not raising their voices, or their swords, again. They returned to their drinks, honoring once more the unspoken truce between sailor and pirate.
After all, it was safer to remain here in the tavern than risk heading out to sea again. Not yet. Not while they could still milk every drop of relief from shore leave. And not until departure was absolutely, unquestionably necessary.
From her seat at a small table in the corner of the room, where she had watched the entire evening unfold, Captain Talathiel Vanduin smiled into her drink. It had been the same in every town she and her crew had visited of late. The same fears whispered among the patrons. The same stink of terror in the air. These pirates needed a miracle, a shimmer of something to hope for again. And Tala was here to offer it to them.
“It’s not only islands that are appearing and disappearing,” she said casually. Her voice was low and quiet, but heads turned her way almost at once.
“And what would you know about it, siren?” growled one of the men. “You waterborn don’t have the same relationship with the ocean we mortals do. What’s it to you if there’s strange happenings in the deep?”
Tala did not bother to stand. Every eye in the room was already trained on her. Those who might not have noticed before that one of the Daughters of Ralith sat amongst them were certainly aware of it now. She could feel people sweeping their eyes across her dark teal hair in its complicated twists and braids, its many jeweled accents catching the candlelight like stars. Tala could tell who was unnerved by the deep purple scales that ran along her nose and cheekbones, and who found themselves honored to be in the presence of one of the legendary huntresses.
She took an extra long time with the next sip of her drink, before she finally answered
lazily, “Ralith may have chosen us as her children, but you lot chose the sea as your home. The saltwater and brine runs just as much in your blood as it does in ours, we know that.” She let her words sink in, placating many of the sailors as she took another drink. Then, with a self-satisfied smirk, she purred, “I’ve come to offer you the plunder of a lifetime. To share in a hunt so grand, even the Daughters of Ralith couldn’t claim it on their own.”
“And I suppose it’s on some vanished island, is it?” asked one of the naval officers.
“Not an island,” Tala corrected him. “A fortress. About to appear, and be ours for the taking.”
For a moment, sailors and pirates turned and glanced at each other in confusion. A whisper spread through the common room as drinking companions and neighbors checked each other’s stories. Finally, one of them piped up, “But we’ve heard of no fortresses gone missing.”
“And yet that gentleman,” said Tala, nodding at one of the older sailors who had spoken up earlier that evening, “mentioned coming across an island that simply appeared out of the middle of nowhere. It was not on any map, it had not disappeared. It simply ... was.”
“So then,” said the naval officer, “what kind of fortress becomes real out of nothing?”
“The kind that hides from your world,” said Tala. “The kind that exists, only not where you would easily find it. But in this realm and those beyond, you know it as Cinderstone.”
In every port, the reaction was the same. Half the room burst into laughter at the mention of what they thought was just a myth. The other half defended her, claiming the prison fortress was real, even if none of them had ever found it themselves. And then, just as someone had done in every town, the question was finally asked. This time, by the barkeep.
“And if such a place as Cinderstone did exist, how would you happen to know where it was?”
Now, finally, Tala stood. “Because I’ve seen it for myself. Hunted within its walls.” She fished a small stack of parchment from one of her inner pockets as she spoke. “There’s a bounty to be found there that would make kings weep. Not only coin and jewels, but magic itself. Trinkets of such power and curiosity that they could make simple pirate captains and crews into legends by their own right.”
There was a stirring in the room now, not only from the privateers and scoundrels among them, but from many of the King’s navy. A few of them looked briefly eager and excited, but were quickly silenced by their commanding officers. After all, no proper sailor would chase something as trivial as buried treasure. And yet ...
Tala smiled wickedly at all of them as she dropped the parchment squares on her table. “Not everyone can travel across the worlds, like we sirens can. Lucky for you lot, I know where Cinderstone will appear. Anyone prepared to storm its walls with us is entitled to anything they find. Be it rations to resupply your ships, treasure to weigh down your pockets, or something a bit more ... interesting.”
She could feel it now ... that hum of eagerness. The only thing that could puncture the pirates’ fear: the promise of a conquest that was simply too big to pass up. As an excitable chattering began to ripple through the room, Tala finished the rest of her drink and started to make her way to the bar to order one more for the road. As she shouldered past a group of particularly keen young pirates, one of them grabbed her by the elbow.
“Say we wanted to come pillage this Cinderstone Fortress,” he said, eyes wide with the mere thought of such an adventure. “How would we know how to find it?”
“Simple,” said Tala, cocking her head back toward the parchment stack laying harmlessly at her abandoned seat. “All you’d need is a good map.”
There was a mad dash for those nearest to run and claim their maps first, and Tala let them fight over the scraps of parchment as she calmly paid for her last tankard, slipping a few extra coins to the barkeep in a preemptive apology for the broken furniture. Sure enough, no less than three chairs were shattered as a small brawl broke out between sailors trying to snatch up their own maps, and pirates saying the naval officers didn’t deserve them. It wasn’t until Tala was about to slip out into the night again that the tavern finally settled again, and one of the pirates called out to her.
“But my crew were just here, two weeks back!” he said, looking at his own map. “Weren’t nothing there but open sea and a handful of scattered isles.”
“There will be,” promised Tala.
“When? How do we know when to get there?”
The whole room was silent as they waited for Tala’s answer, and she smirked coyly once more. “Listen,” she said. “Just listen. You’ll know.” And with that, she left the pirates and sailors to scrutinize the strange maps in their hands, all with their glowing fox-headed compass rose in the bottom corner. In the coming days or weeks, she knew they would revel in the realization that the maps shifted as they did. They did not only paint where Cinderstone would be, but just how to get there from wherever their ship was at the moment. Even their ink-etched waters would shift to reflect the tides.
The pirates would also discover, she was certain, that these maps did more than simply mark a faraway location. Sometimes, when the wind was just right, whoever was nearest their scrap of parchment might be lucky enough to hear something in the distance. Or smell something unfamiliar. It might take some time, but Tala knew the clever ones among them would quickly learn: these maps could whisper stories of the world to you.
Tala quickly made her way back through the abandoned twists and turns of this latest portside town, with its empty streets and shuttered windows, and headed straight for the docks. There was only one ship that was not entirely dark and empty, and it crawled with her own pirate crew. Wordlessly, Tala gestured to the women to begin casting off as soon as she strode up the gangplank of the Hunt. They nodded and set to work at once, the whole deck springing to life as elegantly and seamlessly as the gears in a clock. As Tala slipped easily through them, stepping over ropes and dodging around moving cargo crates with practiced grace, she could feel the water beneath their hull beginning to churn in answer; the sea was as eager for them to return as The Daughters of Ralith were to be sailing again. After all, there were a dozen more villages just like this one. And Tala had many, many maps to deliver.
The songs had changed again. Slowly, new stories began filtering in through the gloom and fear: stories about the treasures that awaited them at Cinderstone. The portside taverns all across the Known World suddenly found themselves playing host to strange bards from out of town, all singing of adventure and gold. They sat by the fires in seaside pubs, strumming their lutes and crooning out promises of plunder ripe for the taking. Some of the troubadours didn’t even bother sitting inside. Instead, they waited at the docks, catching pirates and sailors right as they disembarked. Sometimes earning a coin for their tales, but just as often being entirely ignored.
But their songs stuck. And soon every deck of every pirate ship was filled with tales of maps that came to life, and the beautiful sirens who had gifted them. They sang new sea shanties about scores of marauders banding together to claim a legendary prize. The tavern stories about disappearing islands and frozen seas were now told alongside whispers of a king’s ransom, just waiting to be seized by any brave enough to try.
It was not only pirates who were drawn in by the songs. Many honest sailors found themselves hanging on every word, eager to learn more. Eager to be a part of a free ship, allowed to chase whatever adventure they liked, rather than sailing the same paths day in and day out, answering to royalty’s whims. And all those sailors with thoughts of piracy in their hearts found it harder every day to ignore its call. Within only a week of the first new songs being sung, half a dozen mutinies had taken place on the high seas as captains in the King’s Navy were deposed by those men and women who wanted nothing more than to sail to Cinderstone.
And then, though no one was quite certain when the change came, those tavern songs began to include fresh lyrics. Dates. Times down to the very day, the very moment Cinderstone would ostensibly appear in the middle of nowhere. Fleets of ships began to depart every port, sailing in earnest for the location on their maps. Soon, a small army found itself in tenuous alliance, moored in and around the series of scrappy islands that were the only land to be seen for days in any direction. Some of them camped out on the shores, building bonfires and continuing to swap tales and rumors with other crews as ships continued to arrive throughout the week. And some merely remained on their own boats, scared of leaving deck in case something should happen early.
Everyone simply waited. Not just pirate ships, but naval vessels who were newly claiming themselves as privateers. There were crews from all walks of life, with all shapes and styles of ship imaginable. There were massive galleons and small, slim clippers. There were garishly-painted figureheads depicting mermaids and gryphons, and others that were golden knights, or simply left their bows blank. Humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes ... they were all accounted for, along with some of those rarer creatures that boasted humanoid intelligence. Fur and scale and wing could be seen dotted amongst the crews here and there, and there was even one ship entirely made of those bards and players who had been spreading their songs for months now. Whether they had their own map, or they had merely followed one of the other ships, none of the pirates knew. But they let them into the community without question, and soon the players had made themselves comfortable amongst the scoundrels and freebooters and raiders.
From her position tonight in the crow’s nest aboard the Hunt, Tala could see it all. She could hear the low chatter vibrating through the hulls of neighboring ships, and the songs that echoed across the water. She could feel the sand grinding beneath the low tide on every nearby island, and knew the ocean was just as eager as its pirates. She quickly counted the ships, calculating in her head how many maps had been delivered. Finally, she pocketed her spyglass and dropped back down from the crow’s nest, swinging and sliding easily through the rigging until she reached solid planks once more.
Tala made her way belowdecks and found the mapweaver’s door. She knocked twice, then entered without waiting for a response. The familiar room – once a navigator’s workshop, and now converted into something much more complicated – greeted her with the scent of fresh ink and thick parchment. As usual, every free space on the walls was covered with drawings and scrawled notes. A massive table filled the center of the room, its entire surface an etched map of the Known World, its roads and nations and mountains burned directly into the wooden surface. Not by pen or flame, she knew, but by a curious and occasionally unfathomable magic. And leaning over it, adding some indiscernible detail to a series of islands in the south, was the seventeen-year-old Cartomancer himself.
“The Shavid have arrived,” she said. “Just in time, too. They’ll want to see tonight’s festivities for themselves.”
Fox looked up from his work and grinned with such a self-satisfied smile that, for a moment, he looked very much like the clever creature for whom he was named. “There will be so many new stories to tell that they won’t know what to do with themselves.” He straightened, stretching his back with a groan of exhaustion and pain. “How long have I been down here this time?”
“Only a few hours,” said Tala. “But you need to eat before we start. Can’t have you running dry before tonight is finished.”
Fox grunted in acknowledgment and let himself sink into a chair, obediently devouring the plate of salted meats and hard bread that had been left for him earlier that afternoon. He closed his eyes as he ate, leaning his head back and shoving food blindly into his mouth without a single care for what it was.
Over the last year, Tala had watched Forric Foxglove grow slightly taller, and let his hair run wild until he had to pull it back so it didn’t fall in his face while he worked. She had watched as he learned entirely new magics and strange facets of his Cartomancy Blessing. In fact, Tala wouldn’t have called it “learning” at all, so much as “inventing.” While some Blessed might have mentors and generations of books and knowledge to aid and educate, Fox’s magic had always been a bit of an anomaly.
The Cartomancers of old – or Mapweavers, as they were often known – had disappeared over three hundred years ago. Hardly any records survived that had anything useful to say, and nowhere had Fox ever managed to find so much as a note on how he should go about learning to hone his own magical gifts. The Mapweavers were things of legend and myth, and when Fox’s own Blessing had come to light, no one had been quite sure how to manage it. Of course, there were the Shavid, who claimed the Mapweaver powers as a branch of their own magical family tree. They had helped where they could, along with a handful of scholars, teachers, and curiously-Blessed friends. All of them had given Fox the tools to understand how to begin. How to learn, and stretch, and unravel the mysteries of his own magic.
But mostly, there had been The Historian – Darby Whistler. The one living man tasked with recalling all of history. The man who had sacrificed his freedom a year ago, so that Fox and his companions might escape the dreaded Cinderstone Fortress. For him, Fox had pushed himself to the brink. And Tala had been by his side as he tested the very limits of his power for a year, discovering what could be done, and pushing down walls between himself and the impossible. After all, legendary Blessings were not bound by mundane things like reason and precedent. And so, Fox had learned. He had taught himself over the past year, how to do everything from map the waterways between realms to hiding whole pieces of the world so nobody else could find them.
But in these moments, when he let himself run too long without eating because he was lost in his power, or when his skin grew pale from magical exhaustion and Tala had to wrap him in a blanket and sing him to sleep despite his protests, she had to remind herself that Fox was still just a boy. And her job – the job she had tasked herself with almost since meeting him – was to protect him. Not for the first time since Fox’s plan to rescue Darby had begun to take shape, Tala wondered briefly if there was another way. Bringing something as large and dangerous as Cinderstone would be taxing on him, there was no doubt. And Darby might just as soon kill Fox for being reckless as be grateful for the escape ... But, just as quickly, Tala reminded herself that tonight was not only for Fox and Darby Whistler. Tonight was for the pirates.
Tonight was for Lai.
Almost as if Fox had heard her thoughts, his eyes snapped open once more and he swallowed his last bite of hurried supper. “Now then,” he said, pulling himself to his feet with another grunt, “all we need to finish out the tale properly is one,” he held up a single finger, “pirate goddess.” Fox grinned at Tala. “Shall we put out the call?”
For a moment, Tala listened. She reached out with her own magic into the depths of the open seas all around them, searching for any approaching ship. Like Fox could hear things and see them through his connection to the wind, so too could Tala and the Daughters of Ralith often sense things unseen by mortal eyes, so long as those things were ocean-bound.
No one else was coming. At least, no one would make it in time. Every sailor, pirate, and bard who would be gathering here tonight was already waiting outside, bathed in a dwindling sunset. This was the cast for Lai’s story – the tale that would spread through every corner of the world and let each pirate know: a new god ruled their seas.
“Tell her it’s time,” said Tala.
With an obedient nod, Fox touched a single empty space on his map, and the wood beneath his finger began to glow.
A few months ago, I published a blog post over at Random Encounter Productions about the art of storytelling, and how it relates to roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons. I have always believed in the power of storytelling. It is so much more than simply words on a page or on a screen. The art of storytelling celebrates such a grand and ever-shifting piece of magic within all of us. Even as children, we want to tell our parents EVERYTHING that happened to us each day, as if it were some grand adventure. I have often said, if I could create my own major in school, I would absolutely try and earn a Masters in Storytelling. After all, I've spent my life checking all the boxes:
That last one is what I'm most eager to discuss, as my aforementioned post on the REP blog made me realize just how much of Dungeons and Dragons has seeped into the way I tell my own stories today.
BUILDING REAL CHARACTERS
Let's start with the most basic building block of any story, OR any good D&D campaign: the CHARACTERS. Without good, interesting characters, even the most epic stories would fall flat. Without characters we care about in our fiction, we have no real reason to continue caring about the world. Without Frodo's worry over The Shire, he has no reason to take the ring to Mordor. Evil may continue to roam the countryside in the form of the Nazgul, but why would we ever become involved? The same holds true with any good D&D game: without our heroes, the world would not matter. We choose to play as these rangers and rogues and barbarians, in order to see the world through their eyes.
But the glorious thing about D&D character creation (if you're doing it right ... power players need not apply) is that all of the classes are inherently flawed. By nature, a Warlock has made a pact for their soul. Backstory is written in, because what sort of person would sell themselves for power? Clerics and Paladins are often torn between doing what is right and doing what is best. Rogues cannot be sneaky AND heavily-armored. Now, there are ways around every rule, and there will always be players who stat their characters in such a way that they have NO WEAKNESSES. That is perfectly fine, and I do not fault those players. Sometimes, you just want to be a demigod in your escapist tabletop fantasy. More power to you! However, I would argue that there's power in a "dump stat." There is built-in creativity and roleplay in embracing something your character is NOT good at!
Too often in our own stories, we forget to give our main characters flaws. And, whether at the table or on the page, those flaws are usually the thing that has the chance to make them the most interesting. The most relate-able. The most real. The moment I started thinking of my book characters as playable D&D classes, they became much easier to write, and so much better to read. They were no longer epic warriors who could just do anything, they were Human Fighters, with a low Charisma stat: getting the job done, but maybe a little harsh with people. Because when you play D&D for long enough, you stop being afraid of the flaws. So stop being afraid to give your book characters real flaws and weaknesses! They don't always need to have flawless skin, perfect teeth, or thick and flowing hair. The princes don't always need to be charming, and not every damsel in distress is a golden-haired, corset-waisted goddess. Your hunters can be bad at simple household tasks. Your roguish charmers can be terrible at actual fighting, just really sweet talkers. Give us reasons to care, and reasons to relate.
OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
In a D&D campaign, it's easy to feel like your actions don't have consequences. This often leads to the "murder hobo" mentality of "HEY I can do anything I want! LET'S KILL PEOPLE AND TAKE THEIR STUFF!" I don't know about the other players out there, but for me? That's the LAZIEST approach to a campaign ever. And a lot of Dungeon Masters agree. So, a GOOD one will take those instincts and fold in real consequences in-game. Very quickly, players learn that yes, they CAN burn down the village and rob everybody, but they'll spend several game sessions after that running from the law, breaking out of prison, or being executed and having to roll up a new character.
It's an idea we need to remember for our writing as well: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT ALONE! Nobody exists entirely in a vacuum, or if they do it's VERY difficult to make an interesting story about them. For those of you planning on bringing up classics such as I Am Legend or famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, sit down and be quiet. There are exceptions to EVERY rule, and it is your choice if you wish to pursue them in your own art. Clearly, I'm discussing other things, so let's just let those go for now :)
Layering the world around your characters is vital for keeping any long-running tabletop campaign going. Who is in charge? Who do you shop from? Do they turn you away or raise the prices on you if you're a troublemaker? If your adventuring party become criminals instead of heroes, how much does it change how townsfolk react to your presence? Are they excited to see you, or terrified? All of these things can be applied to our fiction in much the same way. Take time to think about every action your characters take. Every choice, every possible consequence. Maybe while they're saving the world, they are fairly destructive. Yes, they are doing a good thing, but how will the people react?
This example is perfectly executed in Disney's The Incredibles: superheroes being pushed into hiding because their exploits are, while good, very dangerous. In fact, many of the best superhero stories center around the main character having to hide because of society. Whether they think it will make them a target, endanger the people they love, or they simply aren't allowed to reveal themselves because of some social or political reason, that external influence from the rest of the world is crucial to the survival of their story.
Remember the people as you write your own. Stop and think how your main character's actions are going to ripple out and change the lives of citizens they may never even meet. This mentality allows the world to grow into something much larger, more complicated, and more engaging to read about.
For those of you who aren't familiar, there is a moment in any D&D game that can make or break your character: rolling a Natural 1. Natural 1, at most tables, is a critical failure. You have made a mistake. Your blade misses. You fall. You lose a body part. All of these things can help shape your character's story from then on, in a way you couldn't have possibly imagined because these things aren't planned. The great thing about rolling the dice and letting them decide your fate is reacting to it. Will my character learn how to go on without a leg? Will they still adventure? Or is it time to retire them into a life of barkeeping somewhere, and roll up somebody new?
While our books are generally not as chaotic and unplanned as a D&D campaign (I say "generally" because many of us out here are writers of pure improvisation) there's still something lovely to be gleaned from this: my character doesn't always have to succeed. In fact, it is often so much more interesting if they don't. It may feel catastrophic to lose the person you were trying to save. To be scarred. To fail. But here's the beautiful thing about in-game failures: we get to build new quests around them. Lost a leg? Let's find a wizard who can make me a new one of wood. Castle burned down in the midst of war? The King is now a refugee, and we have to find a new home for an entire ruling family. Not to mention, there's that whole war thing going on ...
Our books are allowed to follow failures. Sure, we usually want the hero to win in the end, at least in my genre. But how they get there can be twisted and unclear. They may lose the love of their life to somebody else, and that love story may not untangle itself for several books. They might fail to save one of their companions, and deal with the loss. Heroes are not only heroes because they win. Their heroism is bigger than that, or it should be. They are heroes because they keep trying. They get back up. They learn to walk again. They fight when the odds are against them. So, set something against them! Even if they are eventually meant to come out on top, reminding the readers that there's a chance they could fail is never a bad thing. The failures make the successes that much richer.
EXHAUSTION, ILLNESS, AND THE RULES OF MAGIC
Fantasy authors have heard for YEARS about finding a "price" or "rules" of magic. It is a topic I could attempt to tackle in an entire SERIES of posts, and I'm sure I will someday, but today is not THAT day. There are plenty of other people who have explained it better, and discussing the exact nuances of the prices of magic is a complicated topic. However, the great news is that D&D has already BUILT IN rules of magic! Not only that, but the rules shift and change depending on what type of magic you studied. Which, if you think about it, is so much better than just one set rule for all magic everywhere.
In Dungeons & Dragons, if I play a Wizard, I have studied from books. I am a normal person, who simply went to school to learn. As a Sorcerer, however, something inside me simply has that spark of magical power and potential. There are different flavors of magic, just like there are different flavors of art, music, woodworking, and writing in the real world. Why should magic be confined to one set of rules, if people are using it differently? Not only that, but each class has a built-in chart explaining how much magic they can use in a day, and how strong of a spell they would be capable of.
This tabletop way of looking at not just magic, but all talents, opened my eyes as a writer. For instance: my hunter, learning to shoot his weapon in the woods to feed his family, is going to learn to handle a bow and arrow differently than a soldier learning to shoot target practice in combat training. Same ultimate end, but very different ways of getting there.
The rules in D&D don't only address magic and skills, but sleep. Eating. Sickness. The day-to-day routine things we often don't stop to think about when we write. We want our characters to run off into the sunset with their bags packed and adventure in their hearts.
But has your character ever had to run off with such a bag hanging off their shoulders? Camping equipment is very heavy. Swords are heavy. Food, bedding, clothes ... if your main character isn't a seasoned adventurer, all of these things may be more exhausting than you think about. And that's where D&D comes back into the picture: they also have rules for ALL OF IT. Any condition that might befall someone on a quest, and the repercussions associated with it.
There is something almost Homeric about sitting down with your friends and telling an epic, improvised story. I like to imagine Homer sat his friends around a fire while he spun tales of Odysseus and his quest. But you can circle yourselves around a tabletop, some paper, and a set of dice with much the same end in mind. And, if you don't have a group of fellow storytellers right now? Don't fret. The art of storytelling is bigger than all of us, and the rules of roleplay are adaptable even by yourself. It's time to start looking at your book like a game. So pick up a die, and roll.
This past week, I celebrated my FIRST WHOLE YEAR as a published author! And, as you can see from the numbers, I ACTUALLY MADE MONEY OFF OF THIS?! Yes, internet, I did. And I continue to do so. With just two published works so far, I'm feeling remarkably confident about my future as a writer and creator, and I'd love to share with you now some of the tips and tricks that have worked for ME in my journey. They may just be little things, and simple ways to make it in this world, but they've kept me going for a year now, and helped me find relative success. Indie authors out there, take note! Everything may not work for you, but I give you these tools in your own journey, that you may be better armed to face your own path and fight your own dragons.
1) Invest in good cover art
Someone once told me that your cover is your greatest asset as an indie author, and oftentimes your only billboard. Having been around the convention block a few times now, and seen what other indie authors are putting out there, I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: PAY FOR A COVER ARTIST. In all honesty, the MS Paint "I want to write but can't afford an artist" look does not usually pay off. It will not matter that your writing is great, and it will not matter that your story is spectacular. If your cover does not grab people right as they walk away, 9 times out of 10 they won't be buying a copy of your book.
In fact, my cover art is what got me and my book into my local Barnes and Noble branch. The visuals are so professional, that the saleswoman who initially started carrying my work didn't even realize I was indie. And neither do the readers. At the end of the day, people will always judge a book by its cover. So turn that to your advantage! Make your work pop off the shelves and stand out in a crowded convention center! Make sure when people are scrolling through Amazon, they have a reason to stop on your book. I wouldn't be doing half as well as I am without my cover artist, Fiona Jayde. I owe so much of my success to her artistry.
2) Find your market
I myself have had a remarkable amount of success at conventions. In fact, there's several hundred more dollars unaccounted for in the Book Report graphic above, simply because they were all cash sales at cons and events. Just a week after my first book was published, I hit the road and set up a booth at Ancient City Con. There, not only did I make back my booth cost (plus a little extra) but I learned some valuable lessons about myself as a salesperson. My theatre background and naturally-bubbly personality both grant me the skills necessary to thrive in a person-to-person marketing setting. While the internet is a great place to network and sell your product, I have done the best in the past year face-to-face with the readers. People get excited to talk to me about my work, and they enjoy spending time at my booth and getting to know me as a person.
That isn't to say the convention approach will work for everyone. There's a fine line between being an engaging vendor and harassing people, and I've seen it go very very badly. On the other hand, just sitting silently and waiting for people to notice your work can be just as off-putting. A little tip from a professional performer: talk to people about other things. Compliment their shirt. Ask them how their day at the con has been. Gush over their hair color. If they want to know more about your books or your merch, they will take the next step. You just have to make yourself a safe, friendly person to talk to. It comes naturally to me, but I hope that little bit of direction can help you have a more successful time at your next event.
In addition to finding what market works best for you, don't try and torture yourself to learn a marketing tactic or technique that just isn't your speed. Yes, there are tried-and-true methods of marketing on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But, just like with writing styles or habits, not every approach will work for every author. Try them all, and learn what you can, but at the end of the day you'll have more success if you feel comfortable with what you're doing.
3) Find Your Tribe
Whether in-person or online, there is always a support group to be found for aspiring artists. We creators need a specific type of love and care to make the magic happen, and finding those people who know how to take care of your unique brand of creativity-induced crazy is remarkably important. Without mine, I could never have made it through this first year, or published to begin with. Sometimes, it's something simple, like finding friends who will come to your signings and buy your books, just to support you as a person. Other times, it's people lending their own talent to your project, like my dad did when he painted my map, or my sister still does when she proofreads my pages for free. And then, there's another kind of support. A daily, never-ending journey. Here, we find the partners. The best friends. The boyfriends or girlfriends. The Twitter families. The coworkers. Those who know what you're going through, and pick up the slack while you push through your next chapter or a particularly bad writer's block. For me, I had an entire team willing to make sure I was fed and watered. To manage my business while I was deep in writing mode at night. To reach out whenever they found an event they thought my books would do well at. To be there, when I needed to scream into the void about the bad days.
Find your tribe. You'd be amazed how helpful people who are already in your life can be when you just reach out. And if not? Make a new group. Find an online family, or an ally at a local bookstore or coffee shop. Build a community around yourself. After all, it's dangerous to go alone.
4) Don't be afraid to ask
Waltzing into my local Barnes and Noble and casually asking for a book signing was absolutely terrifying. But guess what? It paid off big time. Not only did they say YES, but they are still carrying both of my books to this day! And displayed front-facing, people. IF YOU ARE IN THE BOOK BUSINESS YOU KNOW WHAT A BIG DEAL THAT IS! *ahem* Again, please refer to Tip #1: cover art.
What started out as a dream has turned into a recurring signing event every few months (in fact, I have one tonight), a monthly gig hosting their YA Book Club, and an incredible relationship with the men and women who work there. For a little indie gal like me, this is the greatest achievement of my career so far. I glow with pride and joy every time I see that my books are still in stock, or being re-stocked because the original batch sold out. And it never would have happened if I hadn't just asked. Will everyone always say yes? Absolutely not. But if you don't even try, you might miss out on something amazing.
5) Never stop learning
It's painful to hear, and painful to say to another creator, but sometimes the reason your project isn't as successful as you'd like is because it's simply not up to the caliber it should be. And that's okay! The good news is, you took the first step! You finished your book, and put it out into the world! That's further than a lot of people ever get in their lives, and you should be proud of yourself. Celebrate that achievement, first and foremost, before you read any further!
Celebration done? Okay, now for the hard part.
Your work may not be as good as you think it is. And while it is important to have a supportive tribe, you also need critics who are comfortable telling you what is wrong with your book. If you're not willing to take constructive criticism, or you refuse to continue honing your craft, you're selling yourself short. You're doing your self a disservice by not continuing to grow and learn as a writer, and artist, and a storyteller. You deserve to have your story told, and to have people want to read it. Sometimes, that means going back to the basics, and re-learning some things you may have forgotten. Take a writing class. Pick up a novel in a genre you may nave never considered reading before. Find someone willing to tell you the truth. In those moments, when we are faced with our own weaknesses as creators, something magical happens: we learn what we are truly made of.
I have been told, time and time again, things I need to fix. And, with a lot of them, the critic was right. But by the time I published, I knew what was good about my work, and what wasn't. Not only did I put forward the strongest piece I could at the time, but my heart has not been broken by the handful of bad, potentially hurtful reviews I have received. Being sure of myself and my style has given me great confidence to face the internet trolls. When someone says "this character didn't behave like a strong woman should," I know that their definition of strength is different than mine. And that's okay. I know my character is who she is meant to be.
I never would have gotten there if I hadn't been ironing out the problems in my own writing over the past twenty years. In fact, I am still ironing to this day. Finding the weakest points of my own craft and stamping them out, so when I am confronted with an enemy I know I can hold my chin high and say, "that is your opinion." Think of it like learning to cook: it doesn't always come easily, and you could spend a lifetime discovering new tricks and new recipes.
This is just the beginning of my personal Indie Author Survival Kit. And, as I mentioned, the advice may not be for everyone. But please, don't hesitate to reach out if you need a friend in the business. I'm going through all of this one day at a time, just like many of you. I learn something new every day, and I'm grateful for it. Now, it's your turn. What are some things YOU have learned on your Indie Journey? How can you help better the writing world with your knowledge? Feel free to share! And, in the meantime, keep writing! Someone out there needs your book. I'm just giving you the tools to try and help make sure they find it.
For me, the milestone was my 30th. I had set two major goals for myself: weight and career. All I wanted was to feel healthy and fulfilled, and these were measurable, simple ways to achieve that. With all the health problems my family has experienced over the years (and that definitely run in my genes) and my own myriad chronic conditions, I wanted to push myself to get into better shape and head off the issues before they become truly debilitating. Now, before you get touchy about it, I know weight is not the only indication of health. For me, however, it's the most consistently tangible guidepost. So let's move past that.
Since my knee injury two years ago, I've gained more than 20 pounds. The goal, I decided, was to hit 130 by my 30th. Catchy, right? 130 by 30? Well, I thought so ... anyway, I started myself on a diet plan and started working out more, but progress was incredibly slow. And painful. My body does not enjoy working out, and it was mad at me for about three months ...
The second goal was to finish my third book, Wayfinder. For my own progress as an indie author, it is important to me to try and release a book a quarter. That's four books in a year, and I already missed the first two. As much as I love my performing jobs, the aforementioned health issues have made continuing in them for much longer an impossibility, and I'd love to finally commit full-time to writing. So, I set out to push through this next installment of my series, and dedicated every free moment to finishing on time. I took time away from my D&D company and streaming with them, which broke my heart. I spent hours in front of the computer, making great strides and churning out more chapters in a short amount of time than I would originally have thought possible.
But it wasn't enough. Not on either count. I hit my birthday 10 pounds shy of my weight goal, and only sixteen chapters into my book. And, I was depressed about it. What more could I have done? Could I have worked harder? Should I have worked harder? Sleep isn't a thing people need, right? For days I beat myself up over my failures. I felt terrible for not making my goals, and all I wanted was to feel like I'd made something of myself by the time I was 30. I wanted to feel comfortable in my skin again.
And then, slowly but surely, I started realizing the truth behind my birthday goals: I may not have hit them, but what I did do was set myself up for long-lasting, future success. I didn't just try and push through to make an arbitrary date, I actively spent three months developing new habits. I didn't starve myself in an attempt to lose weight, I made conscious decisions to eat better and work out more, both of which have stuck around past the goal date. I also developed a new writing regiment, one that makes me think I'll actually be able to make my publishing goals next year, without compromising the quality of my work.
But the self-imposed deadline made me address some things about myself as a writer that I'd never dealt with on my own, and I think I'm stronger now for it. I still hope and pray and believe that he'll recover enough to start reading again (not just selfishly for me, but because he genuinely enjoys my stories and my world ... and, ya know, so he can BE HEALTHY) however, my career as a writer has to be strong enough to survive these setbacks. My desperation and desire to push through, even without my cheerleader, has been one of the hardest times in my writing journey so far. Now, however, I'm equipped to deal with the times when he can't be there to read alongside me. As painful as that is, it was an important lesson to learn. I found a new support group in my sister and my friends, and a new faith in my own work that has carried me further in the past few months than in years before. Diving into self-publishing a year ago was terrifying enough ... finding out who I am in this new phase of life, without that safety net? Even more so.
Believe in yourself. Whatever version of you that may be, right at this moment. Because, I promise, you are amazing. And you are worth believing in.
It's December 2nd, 2018. The dust has settled from this week's finale of NaNoWriMo, and I've avoided writing any thoughts on the experience until now. For starters, I didn't want to jinx myself. And, due to the nature of the whole event, I didn't want to WASTE PRECIOUS WORD COUNT MOMENTS ON THIS!
For those of you who don't know, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month." It is an international phenomenon that takes place the whole month of November, where writers all over the world gather together online, and challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in only 30 days. There is no prize for finishing, or "winning," simply the satisfaction of knowing that you have accomplished something incredible. And, for most of us, that is enough.
I have attempted NaNoWriMo a dozen times in the past, and never actually finished. Once back in college I did enjoy a small victory by hitting my personal goals for the month, but I didn't actually hit that 50k marker. I have made no secret of the fact that I'm an incredibly slow writer, and over the years while constantly struggling to finish my own work, the daunting task of putting THAT much content out into the world became more and more terrifying. After all, I do not "draft" traditionally. I'll do an entire series at some point on how my personal writing style isn't conducive to "first drafts" and "rough drafts," but that's for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the whole concept of actually surviving NaNoWriMo and being proud of what I'd come out with at the end seemed impossible.
This year, finally, everything changed. With literally two minutes to go until the midnight deadline, on November 30th, I had officially added 50,000 words to my total word count for Inkspice, the second book in the Mapweaver Chronicles. And, more importantly (to me, in any case) it is READABLE. So, what changed between this year and all the many trials and failures of years before? I think I've figured out a small list of changes that helped me survive.
1) People were enjoying my work, and asking for more
A lifetime of being on stage has taught me one important thing about myself: I shamelessly thrive and flourish with praise. Yes, I am spurred on by people telling me I can't do things, but I'm also completely a real-life Tinkerbell -- I need applause to survive. Every time someone told me I was a good dancer as a kid, something inside me insisted that I keep getting better so I wouldn't let anyone down. Once, a director casually remarked that they were impressed by how quickly I memorized. And now, I'll be damned if I ever go on stage during a rehearsal with my book unless I absolutely have to.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that this has not always been the most emotionally healthy way to function. It's been a life-long battle trying to find my own self-worth without other people patting me on the head, but that's my struggle. And at least I'm finding ways to turn that compulsion for love and attention into something good, rather than wallowing in self pity whenever I feel like I'm not everyone's favorite (a constant state of being up until middle school). The upshot of it all is that positive reviews of Windswept made me want to give the people more. I want so badly to please every reader out there that I am more willing to push myself for them than I have ever been for myself.
2) My body is broken
If you're my friend on Facebook, you'll have seen that recently I was given some pretty devastating news by a doctor. He told me that it was time I start leaving puppetry behind, and look for another career. Puppets have been my life for so long now as a performer that I am genuinely heartbroken about this. It's the latest in a long list of health problems and injuries that are keeping me away from the stage and doing what I love. I have been extremely lucky in the past few years to not need a survival job. EVERY job I do, I do because I love it. And the idea of having to step down and sit in an office all day devastates me.
The terror of knowing that I may not be doing one thing I love for much longer suddenly made me realize how scared I am to lose THIS career as well. My life as a professional writer is just beginning, and if I disappear into the day-to-day of a cashier job or something that takes all of my time and saps all of my creativity, I will stall out. The next book might take more than ten years to produce, and that is unacceptable. My fear pushed me through every sleepless night in November, and I've never been more grateful that I am an anxious person. Sometimes, my anxiety monsters can be my very best allies.
3) I had a team
There's a wonderful phenomenon that has been born from social media's constant presence in our lives: if you don't have a support system, it is so easy now to find people on the internet who share your interests, and are willing to cheer on a total stranger. Fitness groups, fandoms, accountability partners ... all of these things remind us that we are not alone in our hopes, dreams, and goals. I did have an amazing support group in real life as well, with my team at Random Encounter Productions, my boyfriend, and all of my amazing friends who I do NOT deserve. But more than that, I was part of a group on Facebook filled with people I had never met, and all they did was check in on each other. It is ASTONISHING how far a simple "You can do it!" gif can go in helping you get through your day. Each time I looked at the page, I was encouraged. I watched other people going through everything I was, and felt at home. I wasn't writing alone. Other people were going along on this ridiculous adventure with me, and at the end, finished or not, we could look at each other and say, "We survived!"
4) I had already set an incredibly public deadline
This one VERY easily could have blown up in my face. As I've mentioned many times before (and will continue to mention again) I AM NOT FAST! I knew when I released Windswept that if I didn't pick a date for my next release and absolutely stick to it, I would lose all momentum. For an indie author, timelines are very important. So, every time someone bought my book and asked about the sequel, I would tell them with all confidence, "It'll be out by the end of the year!"
Dear Past Kaitlin,
WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO YOURSELF IT'S SO NOT COOL!! Now I'm stuck with this ridiculous and impossible deadline and I'm bullying myself into finishing word counts and making snap decisions and WHY?! We are in a fight, Past Me.
Sincerely, Current Kaitlin
Dear Current Kaitlin,
Sincerely, Past Kaitlin
The funny thing is, those deadlines did more for the creative part of my brain than I'd ever imagined they would have. There were nights when I was just speed-writing outlines and stream-of-consciousness notes to myself, just to get something on paper, and I would suddenly stumble over something I hadn't intended. Now, many of those moments have become integral plot points of my series. The breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo often demands can be really liberating. Sometimes, your creative brain knows what it needs. And sometimes, it just needs to take the wheel while you hang on for dear life. Apparently, Past Kaitlin knew that even when I didn't. I guess she's not so bad.
5) I started taking my own art seriously
This is the big one. Because NONE of the above list would have mattered if this one crucial thing hadn't changed. Praise, timelines, job changes ... nothing else compares to the joy of suddenly believing in your OWN art. There are moments in every creator's life when they experience exactly this. And it's happened to me before, which is why I recognized it now.
A few years ago, I had to make a choice between a role I really wanted that didn't pay, and continuing to support myself as a working performer. I had always thought that actors who refused to perform for free were just being divas, but that was the year I realized: I was talented enough to make those decisions for myself. It wasn't that we aren't WILLING to. It's that we get to decide what roles are worth "donating" our marketable and hard-won skills for. That role wasn't it for me, and I left the show. I have never regretted it, because that decision took me from feeling like "a girl who happens to get paid to act" and made me feel like an "actor." My career has vastly improved since that mindset shift, and my writing is going through the same changes now. I don't HAVE to write for free. I don't HAVE to donate my talent if I don't truly believe that I should. I deserve to feel like a professional, and I do. Finally.
I may never be a bestselling author, but the moment I decided that this was a career and not a hobby, I started acting like I could be. And for me, that meant cranking out the words, putting aside the time, and doing the hard work.
I've learned a lot about myself this month. I've learned that this is a job I actually take seriously, and I'm willing to sacrifice a lot for it. I've learned that I'm REALLY good at bullying and bribing myself into getting things done. And I've learned that I can make this writing pace WORK. 2019 is, I hope, going to be a year filled with magic, and writing, and fresh ideas, and brand new books. Because even if I hadn't won? I believed in myself enough to try. And that's the hardest step to take. After this month, nothing can slow me down.
No wait, that sounds like a challenge to the universe, and I REALLY can't afford to taunt it right now ... ok, let's try that again. *ahem*
After this month, I KNOW that I'll always pick myself back up again, no matter how busy I get. My dreams, and yours, are worth fighting for. So pick up your pen. Pick up your forgotten ideas and dust them off. Pick up whatever that hobby in the back of your mind is, the one you've always known you could do for a living, and remind yourself why it matters. Find your team, and set your challenge. You've got one month left in 2018 to figure out your passion. And then next year? We're all in. Let's do this.
Recently, a question floated my way: What is the hardest part of being a self-published author? The manuscript or the marketing? For a moment, I was all set to say "MARKETING! Hands down!" Until I realized ... the answer, for me, is neither of them. The HARDEST part of being a brand new self-published author is treating it like a job.
My life has always been extremely hectic. I have had multiple jobs at once since I entered the work force at 16. If you read my first post, you'll remember that my work schedule is INSANE, and mostly self-inflicted. In the last little while, however, I have managed to being paring down my jobs to only the most necessary gigs. Things that get me health insurance, and help pay my rent. I wouldn't call them "survival jobs," as I enjoy doing them. The plan was always to be an actor and a writer, and the acting/performing side of my life is solid and fulfilling.
That being said, I'd always imagined I would get a contract with an established publisher, and be able to live off an advance while working on my next book. I could take only the acting jobs I really wanted, just to stay busy and keep one foot in the business, and the rest of my time could be spent writing. With the choice to self-publish instead, my lifestyle and day-to-day schedule has been thrown into chaos. Let's break it all down, shall we?
I work Full Time for Universal Studios Orlando. That's 32 hours a week spent performing in their theme parks. 40 if I pick up an extra day, but for the sake of argument let's call it 32.
I also run an entertainment company, which takes up at least six hours a day. On the nights we don't stream, it's slightly less, but on the nights we DO stream it is slightly more, so we're going to average that out to 42 hours a week. That still puts my current time spent "working" at 74 hours per week. Okay, still manageable. Not GREAT, but still a functional, if busy, schedule.
But wait ... I still have to write. If I ONLY spend 1 hour a day (which is less than ideal) writing, that gets me to 81 hours a week with the extra 7 hours of writing time. And that would put my next book release at ... I don't want to THINK about how far away. Suffice it to say, it's not the best writing schedule.
Then there's brand management. Even if I combine marketing and social media for the company AND my book, that is a giant time commitment in and of itself. Say I only dedicate one hour a day to the marketing side of things -- 88 hours total of my week are WORK. And I haven't even calculated in miscellaneous issues, like setting aside time to record my audio books, commuting, or the time spent auditioning (which is PART of my job as a performer.) So let's call that 2 hours per week, on average, bringing us up to a nice spicy 90 HOUR WORK WEEK.
And I am only GUARANTEED a paycheck from 32 OF THOSE HOURS.
In the midst of all of this, I've also got regular human functionality to contend with. I either have to schedule in time to meal prep, or get used to ordering in. My health problems make finding time to work out a medical necessity, oh, and did I mention the ever-present anxiety and depression? There are days when it is genuinely impossible for me to find the energy to give a damn about ANY of it. We've got writer's block in the mix, and physical/mental issues that cause me to oversleep. I'd LIKE to spend any time ever with my boyfriend, or support my friends in their shows and events and baby showers. Oh, and I very much enjoy dedicating time to personal hygiene.
For those of you with mental health and physical concerns of your own, you're probably sitting there wholeheartedly understanding this dilemma. For those of you that don't, trust me when I say: I WISH I DID NOT HAVE THEM. I wish my body and brain would just let me charge through life without stopping. But even then, this work schedule would be INSANE. And finding the motivation to power through it all, and believe in myself enough to justify the schedule, is a job of its own.
I am THRILLED that I have enough passion in my life to fill it with things that keep me going. But I would be lying if I said it was easy. I am constantly working to find better ways to structure my time, and better ways to market myself so that, one day, writing WILL be my full time job. But I know it never will be if I don't treat it like it already is. So, to answer your question, THAT is the hardest part of self-publishing. Hard work, with no promise of payout for your efforts. It is every entrepreneur's struggle, and I raise a well-earned glass to every one of you out there, fighting alongside me to bring your passions to life. Here's to the 90-Hour Work Week. May we all conquer and tame it.
The whole weekend was an absolute blast, and I am already gearing up for my next con (when and where still to be determined) however, there was something that was brought up time and time again while I was at ACC. People were constantly shocked that I was "just an indie author." So, let's CHAT, shall we?
About three years ago, I typed the final period on the final page of my first novel. The feeling was MAGNIFICENT ... followed by months of endless agony. Nobody wanted it. Here it was, this beautiful thing that I had poured my whole LIFE into for almost a decade and nobody wanted to buy it from me. I submitted to publishers who were accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I submitted to agencies. I submitted to contests, magazines, the works. I trudged through the next two years with a giant black cloud hanging over my creativity. I had been all fired up and ready to get right to work on Book II from the moment I finished Windswept. Literally, THE MOMENT! I celebrated the completion of my final chapter by typing "Chapter One" in a brand new document, not five minutes later! But when nobody wanted to take a chance on me, I started to lose hope in my own vision for the series. I knew I was a good writer -- I just wasn't good enough.
And that was the first lie I told myself. See, in the months that would precede my decision to self-publish, I re-read many of the rejection letters I was sent over the years. And nowhere, in any of them, was there even the merest suggestion that my writing was the problem. I, as an artist with self-esteem issues (and a human with basic instincts of self-preservation) had BUILT THAT INTO THE CONVERSATION! My brain said "Oh no, they've rejected us! They don't like our work! WHAT DID I DO WRONG?!" In my case? The answer was, more or less, nothing. Their concern was not with content, it was with length.
Wait ... so, you mean to tell me, that without EVER reading more than five pages and the final word count, these people decided that the story was too long for a debut novel, and rejected it?
Why yes, yes I am. I was told over and over again that my book was just too long for a starter novel. Or, just as often, too long for Young Adult. And that's when I realized -- these were not the publishers for me. Anyone who thinks it's okay to limit the length of a novel JUST based on arbitrary word count is NOT somebody who I would like to do business with. Now, if you'd read my book and said "yeah, that scene in the tavern could have been a bit shorter, it got kinda boring," I could understand! But there were no content notes. No suggestions of actual STORY-BASED CONCERNS! Just the idea that my book, for some reason, was "too long."
If you were a reading child, or if you are now a reading adult, who enjoys epic fantasy, then I think it's safe to say that length doesn't scare you. Most of us want something more. We get swept up in these tales, and we ache when they are over. We constantly long to disappear into the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia and Hogwarts, and our hearts break when the final words are finished. That is my audience, and that is who I write for every day. Could I have edited my manuscript, made the adjustments they suggested, and gotten an official book deal? Most likely. Am I glad I didn't? Absolutely.
The story of "that month I decided to just go for it already" is going to be its own whole THING in a later post, so please allow me to skip all the mess in the middle for now, and jump to THE CON! Three days of sitting in a booth, chatting with strangers about my book, and having a very similar conversation each and every time. It usually went something like this:
Them: Hi wow what's this book about?
Me: It's about a boy named Fox, born in a land without magic, who discovers that he alone has an ancient and mysterious magical gift.
Them: Oh cool! This cover is great, it looks like a real book!
Ahem. While I am FLATTERED (because I poured a lot of money into a decent cover designer, and I worked my ass off to GET this book out on time) I also have to say something on behalf of all of us who choose to self-publish, for one reason or another: THEY ARE ALL REAL BOOKS. It doesn't matter if we published because we didn't want to edit, or because we disagreed with a publisher, or even because we suck. And yes, some self-published authors genuinely went that way because they couldn't write, and they couldn't take the critique and work their project into something marketable. BUT EVEN SO, more power to them. They made something unique, and they followed their own vision, just like I did. Now, I put the work into it. For most of my life, I have been training to be a writer. I got lucky enough to train with a bestselling author as my mentor, and I know many people are not given that opportunity, but I took it and WORKED. HARD. And, at the end of the day, that will show in my reviews. And my sales.
But they are all real books. And we are all REAL writers. We just took a different path, because for one reason or another, traditional publishing didn't pan out for us. And I'm here to tell you, it's not always because you're a bad writer. Or because you're stubborn and can't take notes. Sometimes, it's because you're not willing to compromise your dream. And that's OKAY. I'm going to be fighting to market myself, probably for the rest of my career, because I didn't make changes to pander for a book deal. But that's MY journey to take. And it doesn't make me a less-qualified creator.
To all the readers out there who think indie authors aren't "real" authors, you're right. We are so much MORE than that. We are writers, designers, formatting experts, one-man marketing departments, entrepreneurs, proofreaders ... and that's not including most of our full-time survival jobs. They have yet to create a proper term for all of the things that we are.
And to all of the writers out there, deciding if you should self-publish or hold out for a contract, ask yourself what I did: Why am I doing this? Always remember if you're in it for the money, or if you're in it to have your story told. Yes, listen to the publishers, listen to the agencies. But hear what they are ACTUALLY telling you, and think about what it means for your story. Are they asking you to improve your writing, or fit their mold? I support either choice, but no matter what you do, believe in yourself. No matter how it happens, you've made a real book.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.