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The End of the Dream(slippers): Year in Review

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When I set out to write the Dreamslippers series back in 2012, the self-publishing business was still bright, shiny, and promising.

Still, I wasn't sure if I'd go that route. I had to be convinced, and I was, in the end--by research that showed you had a better chance of making a living as a fiction writer if you went indie. Around a very demanding day job, it took me two years to write the first book. During that time, I shopped it around to agents and editors in traditional publishing, and I had an incredible amount of interest--just no follow-through. I worked on the book, getting a ton of feedback from alpha and beta readers--as well as some of those agents--and revising over and over. It wasn't my first book; I'd had an agent back in 2005 who shopped a short-story collection around. I'd honed my skill since then and felt confident about the manuscript. I talked to a lot of people, authors and agents and marketers and others. It seemed to make the most sense to take a leap into self-publishing.

Cat in the Flock performed well, enough to warrant further attention. A celebrity Hollywood director reached out to me about rights, I was interviewed by the Seattle Weekly, and I won my first indieBRAG medallion. This despite a homemade book cover and struggles with Amazon's category algorithms, which plunked the book in "pet noir" because of the title. 'Cat' referred to the protagonist's nickname, a shortening of her full name, Cathedral. There are no felines in the book.

FINAL COVER ART CATINTHEFLOCK

The original cover for Cat in the Flock.

Perhaps most important to me, the book was reviewed well by people whose opinions I trusted. The writers Jon Talton, Mary Daheim, and Corrina Wycoff all contributed praiseful blurbs. None other than the venerable Kirkus Reviews called it "a mystery with an unusual twist and quirky settings; an enjoyable surprise for fans of the genre."

According to some successful indie authors I've talked to, what I should have done right then was release two more books that year and keep going as fast as I could.

But I didn't. Writing and releasing Cat around the day job (and my own wedding, by the way) had been exhausting. So instead, I took a poetry manuscript out of a drawer and published that, too. Half the poems in Broom of Anger had already appeared in literary journals, and for some of them, I'd won awards. I was curious to see how it would do.

Broom of anger

It probably won't surprise you to learn that sales were pretty much non-existent. Poetry is a tough enough sell for traditionals, and self-published poetry, no matter the quality of the work nor the stature of the authors contributing blurbs, is a non-starter.

But I persevered. My husband and I had a change in our living situation when he was offered an opportunity to steer a grant at a small college in a small town... And the semi-rural life held appeal for us both. I stepped down from my management position at the day job and dropped to four days per week, which I would work remotely, from the small town. I hoped this would provide more time for the novel series.

I'd published Cat in late July of 2014 and followed it with Framed and Burning in the fall of 2015. From first draft to release, it took me nine months.

There's a lot that goes into self-publishing that takes up time. You could think of an iceberg, how you see only 1/3rd of it, the part above the water. The other 2/3rds of being an indie is everything ranging from reviewing voice actor demos for your audiobook to formatting the actual manuscript to writing a marketing plan. Most of it has nothing to do with the actual writing.

Framed and Burning garnered a good deal of critical success, most notably as a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge fan of the celebrity librarian, I was awash with honor over that nomination. But the top prize went to a traditional author who already had a long list of such awards. I won a second indieBRAG and was nominated for a RONE Award, but sales were just okay.

FRAMED AND BURNING IndieBRAG 2

I'd worked diligently to professionalize my novel-writing business, forming an LLC and hiring professional editors, a book cover artist, marketing consultants, and so on. I researched social media, tried to get good at it, and bootstrapped as much as I could, making lovely connections in my small town, where people still treat writers as if we're at least minor celebrities.

Meanwhile, I'd made the decision to exit from the day job. It had been a heady, exhilarating, and at times, challenging, five years. I'd created a narrative design team, basically a group of game storytelling experts, and together we raised the bar on storytelling in the company's collector's edition games. Passionate about game storytelling, I wanted to continue to write and design games, but a no-compete clause in my contract kept me from any work that could be construed as "materially similar" for a blackout period of one year. So I tried my hand at some new genres, such as Smash Squad for WG Cells, and I wrote about games for several publications and my own blog.

And I continued to write novels. I released the third book in the series the week of the presidential election in 2016. 

The country was in upheaval with Trump's victory, and no one paid any attention to Bound to the Truth. I won a third indieBRAG for it, though. The medallion represents the top 10 percent in independent publishing, so it's a strong achievement, especially considering the volume of self-published works. I still think it's the best book in the series, but it launched to dismal sales and never recovered.

Brokenhearted, I had long conversations with two successful authors--one indie and the other a hybrid of traditional and indie--who both proclaimed the self-publishing bubble had burst. The hybrid author has gone back to 100 percent traditional. The indie is aggressively pursuing a career in scriptwriting, which she believes is the next big opportunity.

I pulled back on investment in the Dreamslippers series and made due with one final pro cover, for the boxed set. After a year, it's still sitting on Amazon without a single review, and sales have been poor. It's tough, because I know some indies who are still making an all right living. But they tend to serve niches (such as a Christian apocalyptic writer) that are ignored by New York publishing. They also usually have military pensions or are kept financially afloat by their spouses' incomes. 

Boxed set

But frankly, it would have surprised me if I'd been able to make a living on indie books alone. I'd already survived the collapse of the journalism industry, and I understand that we are in the throes of a digital revolution that places primacy on the visual. I approached the entire enterprise with the idea that it was a huge experiment, and a gamble. While there are many things I might have done differently, on the whole, I learned a lot, acquired new skills and further honed old ones, and grew as a writer. The result is an award-winning novel series to my credit and scores of articles written by and about me and my work.

On balance, I'm glad I tried to become a full-time novelist, though commercial success proved to be an elusive beast. 

What continues to do extremely well for me is my work in games.

The one-year blockout from my no-compete clause ended in February 2017, and it was as if the floodgates opened. Without having to actually look for any work, it has consistently found me. By spring, I was already at full-time capacity, writing and designing games for Daily Magic, an old partner of mine from the day job, as well as a few studios new to me that were trying innovative game formats. 

I wrote and co-designed what could be considered a "game novel" or "interactive novel" called Sender Unknown: The Woods. It released in the "New Games We Love" section of the App Store and has been a top 10 in several categories. Gamezebo calls it "the next leap forward in mobile." Another writing/co-designing title for me, Matchington Mansion, has pretty much blown the doors off mobile with its popularity. I'm just now finishing up a "visual novel" for Pixelberry Studios, and it will release in March of this year. Additionally, I'm at work on a project for GSN Games, releasing in early 2018, and in talks with Jam City, a studio I've admired for some time. I'm also designing and writing levels for G5's hit game, Survivors: The Quest.

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It was into this exciting vortex that Webster University entered last summer, and with it, an opportunity to return to my roots--in two ways. One, as a professor of games and game design, as visiting faculty for the 2017-18 school year. Two, in St. Louis, where I'm, as we say, "from."

Some of you know I used to teach English at Pierce College, back in the early 2000s. I had tenure but left to pursue a writing career on my agent's recommendation and because I struggled to pay off my student loans on that faculty income. But I feel the classroom never really left me; I was destined to return and had already as a guest-lecturer at University of Florida and Seattle University.

My family is here in the area, on both sides of the river. I earned my bachelor's degree at Saint Louis University, and I cut teeth early in my career as a writer for the St. Louis Science Center and various city publications. I wasn't born here, having grown up a child of the Air Force with its mandate of frequent moves, but I attended part of junior high and all of high school in Illinois and still think of the Lou as "home." 

Honestly, I wasn't sure I could take on full-time faculty duties with the game work ramping up so quickly. But I hit it off with the faculty there, and it became an opportunity not to pass up. I knew of Webster University's strong reputation, and since the program is new and in need of leadership, there's a chance to put my stamp on something that could be key to the success of not just the school but the whole St. Louis region. What impresses me most is the seed of entrepreneurship being sown here by a small but quickly growing local game industry.

I've had to say no to some work, which is regrettable, but I feel reborn in the classroom. Teaching game design is in many ways a dream-come-true, and a fitting transition from all that dreamslipping.

Game-design

Image courtesy of Webster Today.

So here I am at year end, a novelist, game designer, and teacher. All the best to you in the New Year, and I'd love to hear from you by email or in the comments below.


All It Takes Is a Red Door

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On Saturday I went down to Salem, OR, for a book event with the Red Door Community. This informal network was founded in part by my husband's mother, A. Grace, who died several years ago. The members of the Red Door engage in spiritual retreats and activities together, volunteer in their community, and support each other in times of need. They were there to help Grace through the difficult process of dying, a constant, comforting presence and a source for the divine rituals she wanted at that time.

The gathering on Saturday was gracious and giving. I read from all three books, a particularly emotional activity in this case since my character Granny Grace was inspired by the woman they knew and loved. My books aren't autobiography, and the real A. Grace and Granny Grace aren't one and the same--but I think they would have been great friends. Granny Grace would surely have been an honorary member of the Red Door.

I'd asked those in attendance to bring stories about the outstanding women in their lives. I read to them this profile of Cheryl Sesnon, the latest winner of the Amazing Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40, who is the executive director of an organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. A few shared stories of great women, included their own Grace. But one woman brought up an excellent point: That sometimes the most outstanding thing a person can do is simply endure.

Her words struck a chord in me, as just that morning, I'd been thinking the same thing in relation to my own mother. She has not spearheaded organizations or won awards or been interviewed by the press. It's unfair to compare any two women anywhere, but I can see the greater challenges in my mother's life and honor the strength and perseverance she's had to endure so much. While our society is built to pour accolades on those who accomplish things in the measurable world, it's those who survive tough circumstances who often deserve the most recognition.

So this goes out to my mother, who pulls herself out of darkness time and again through her own faith and mettle. That deserves its own award.

 


Undercover Christians, Part I

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my debut novel, Cat in the Flock, the protagonist goes undercover in a fundamentalist Christian church, where she finds redemption and goodwill amidst hypocrisy and lies. To write this world convincingly, I drew upon some powerful real-life experiences.

First were my familial relationships with fundamentalists, most importantly the in-laws from my first marriage. My ex-husband's family was conservative Lutheran, the type who listened to Rush Limbaugh and agreed with him. We prayed before every meal, even in restaurants. Children in the family were given--sans the permission of their parents--picture books for Christmas that refuted evolution. Once I was invited to join in a photo of all the women in the family, a grouping of  "moms and future moms," as if that was the natural and sole identity of any woman. And no one thought to ask me or my husband about our family plans; it was just assumed.

I remember my then brother-in-law, who is a math teacher, once set up his telescope outside, providing us with a stupendous view of the craters on the surface of the moon. "Whenever I see something like this," he said, "it confirms my belief in the Lord." I envied his conviction, even if I didn't understand it. 

But as certain as the majority in the family were about their beliefs, they were loving and respectful to those of us who didn't share them. They really were Christians in every sense of the word, kind and warm and incredibly giving. They worked hard, played fair, trusted in their God, and comforted each other in times of grief. I felt welcomed by them, one of the family. 

And I knew where they were coming from, despite my liberal/progressive/political college days and young adulthood. I'd grown up in very conservative environments, and while my military father was at best agnostic, my mother was a loyal Catholic who dragged all four of her kids' butts to mass on Sundays whenever she could, without my father's help.

Now there's a huge difference between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, as my former in-laws would be the first to tell you. I remember getting a bit of anti-papist sentiment at family gatherings. One member of the family scoffed at a Catholic friend's offer to light a candle for him, and when I shared stories of my brother playing with the kneelers in our church pews, a family member snottily remarked, "Well, we certainly don't kneel." I had been raised haphazardly Catholic, was never confirmed, and hadn't set foot inside a church in years, but that remark made me want to show up at the next family gathering swinging incense and dowsing everyone in holy water.

But like my in-laws' Christian beliefs, my mother's Catholicism trended toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Furthermore, and she will probably berate me for sharing this, but she became even more conservative in the 1980s thanks to the PTL Club. Yeah, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's shows broadcast like mad in Sacramento, and my mother, left alone to raise us while my father was off on TDY to South Korea, climbed into that clown car and thought for a while she was among friends. But we don't have to judge her for this. Who among ye hasn't been momentarily led astray, especially during hard times?

Unfortunately for me, this coincided with a burgeoning junior high-aged discovery of music, and thanks to the Bakkers, and a silly stunt pulled by Ozzy Osbourne, I came of age only to find that all the most enticing music was now off limits. So the PTL Club made its mark on me.

Still, I credit the Catholic faith with saving my mother during a traumatic time in her life. Her journey back to God is one I deeply honor and respect. And my own political activism was founded within the Jesuit tradition. Like Cat McCormick, I graduated from St. Louis University, and I still hold a great deal of respect for Jesuit education (my own was rigorous and query-based) and the Jesuit tradition of service. 

All of this was in the background as I wrote Cat in the Flock. While my own beliefs, such that I have any concrete ones, sway far from the fundamentalist fold, I admire those who find redemption and liberation through a closer walk with God, however that manifests.

In Undercover Christians, Part II, I'll describe another inspiration for Cat's fundamentalist church undercover work: My husband really did go undercover in the Ted Haggard church. Yes, that Ted Haggard.

 


Guest Blogger: Location, location, location

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by Dr. Chris Michaels

LB: Today on the blog I have Dr. Chris Michaels, an inspiring author, speaker, and executive coach. I asked him to write about relocation in order to achieve one's life purpose. Some people might say you're just running away from your problems when you move to another place, but on the other hand, doing so can be an enormous step toward positive change. The question is an important one for me, as the main character in my novel Cat in the Flock relocates to Seattle from St. Louis in order to apprentice with her grandmother as a dreamslipper and private investigator, but then her first case, ironically, takes her back to St. Louis.

Here's what Chris has to say.

Who doesn’t want an adventure? 

Today a lot of millennials are turning their backs on traditional jobs and traveling the world instead of settling for a more conventional life. Shows like HGTV run non-stop marathons featuring families looking to purchase homes in far-off, magical lands. Last week I attended the World Domination Summit with author Chris Guillebeau. He wrote the book The Art of Non-Conformity, which chronicles his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world.  Chris’ book has motivated millions to pursue their dreams of adventure.

This need for mobility, freedom, and adventure isn’t really new. Historically, Americans have always been a bit restless. And we have always felt like the grass is greener on the other side… 

But sometimes, the grass really is greener somewhere else. 

I grew up in a small, rural town where conformity was the norm. There wasn’t a lot of room or acceptance for boys like me. I knew from a very young age that if I didn’t get out of that town my life might be in danger.

Time has changed some things. (Although in many parts of America we still have a long way to go.) But the truth is if I stayed in that small town I would have never met my partner Aubrey. We’ve been together for 19 years. And he has supported me and helped make me the man I am today. If I stayed in that small town, I would have never started the Center of Spiritual Living in Kansas City. I would have never met the people within that community that have given me endless inspiration to carry on and do meaningful work in the world.

Some people think who they marry or what career they choose is the most important decision in their life, but I think where you choose to live is of equal importance. If you love to surf, you’re probably not going to be very happy living in Iowa. If you want to be a famous actor, living in Montana is not going to help you achieve your dreams.

Over the years, I have done many personal and professional development programs. Location is often a topic that comes up for people as they consider how to live a life of purpose and meaning.  As people start to pursue their dreams, they sometimes realize they aren’t in an environment that supports them. 

Location is important to me, too. I live in Kansas. But during the winter months I run screaming to Florida. The bleak, grey winter does not inspire me. In fact, being trapped in a house without sun and vitamin D makes me sluggish. So I plan my escape each year.

Changing locations isn’t easy. Family, money, and career obligations often keep us in one place, even though we may long to be in another. But that doesn’t mean we can’t travel to other places.  Airbnb opens up wild new opportunities to go places that are affordable. 

Think about what feeds your soul. Where do you dream of living or traveling? What goals do you have for your life, and where are they most likely to be achieved? Create a plan and start taking actionable steps. 

How do you know when the grass really is greener? 

There is only one way to know. You can only know this if you really know yourself.

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Chris Michaels is a husband, executive coach, national speaker, entrepreneur and author. Chris’ recent book, The Power of You, published by Penguin Press in 2014 received a Silver medal in the Nautilus Awards, an organization that recognizes world-changing books.

When not building programs, writing, and speaking, Chris is traveling to Bali, Thailand, or Europe. During the winter he can be found in Florida soaking up the sun and dreaming of his next big assignment.

To learn more about Chris or to stay connected, sign up for his weekly newsletter here.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Why Anger? Why Now?

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My debut poetry collection will be released on August 1. You can pre-order it right now! And please do pre-order it. That will give the book a huge boost on August 1, and if there's one thing poetry needs, it's a boost.

Perhaps you're wondering "Why anger?" Here it is straight from the horse's mouth (the horse being me, talking about myself in third person). This is the official book description:

Taking a cue from Zora Neale Hurston’s advice to “grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear,” Brunette explores the galvanizing quality of anger in this powerful debut collection. Anger can spark revolutions—both political and personal. It is the kernel of healing for anyone who’s been marginalized or silenced. But the poet wrestles with anger’s consuming nature, yearning for both spiritual and romantic release.

Anger has been a huge project for me as an adult. Knowing when to tap it and how, and when to let it go is one of my life's ongoing lessons.

The collection itself is the culmination of about twenty-five years' work. Some of the poems I wrote in my early twenties as a political activist, and others I penned as late as 2009, when going through a divorce. You can read some of them here on the blog, as they've formed my #FridayPoetry series.

A large chunk of these poems--11 of them--were previously published in literary journals. For the poem "For Father," I won a William Stafford Award. I also received a major grant from the Tacoma Artists Guild for the work when it was in progress in 2003.

So it's been a long haul, but the poems are ready now to be whisked out into the world. Some of my readers have already been swept away. (See what I did there?) Here's one endorsement:

“Every time I read Lisa Brunette’s poems (which is as often as I can), I find myself racing to read more, faster. It’s all so great, I want to binge on every word. But I force myself to slow down, savor the experience of each individual poem. Wait for my spine to stop shivering, my breathing to even out. For each poem is its own being, packed with enough emotional resonance to be a tiny, spare novel or essay on its own, full of insight—lyrical, gorgeous, political, haunting—and when combined together in this book it is the poetry of my hopes and dreams.”

Lisa Hickey, Publisher and CEO, The Good Men Project / Good Men Media Inc.

And here's another:

“Lisa Brunette’s new collection of poems are short stories-cum-lyrics—Bukowski arias about baseball, rhododendrons, and blue herons. In each, she is trying to see the world and herself with clarity and music. In one central poem, ‘Noticing,’ she writes that she is ‘trying to make peace with a nature poet / who doesn’t write about what spoils the view.’ This is, it’s not hard to see, because she finds herself attracted to things, views, people, experiences, that do. She concludes her thought in the poem this way: ‘Morning brings a blue heron / legs and beak a perfect arrow shot through the sky / If I’d been staring at the ground, I would have missed it.’ Reading these poems so full of eros and sky we can see that she likes to look elsewhere.”

—Lyall Bush, former executive director of both the Northwest Film Forum and Richard Hugo House 

I look forward to hearing what you think of them.

Oh, and it's 99 cents on ebook, which, like I said, you can pre-order now, and the print version will retail for $6.99, but there's no pre-order for that because AMAZON.

 


Three Free Ebooks. Free! Free! Free!

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I'm offering three short stories on ebook for absolutely FREE. (You can get them wherever ebooks are sold: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple (iBookstore through your device), Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) You can also read them on Wattpad.

These are part of a larger work-in-progress inspired by my childhood growing up as an Air Force "brat." Each story is about a child struggling to find his or her place in a military community at the end of the Cold War. 

Coming from an autobiographical place as this subject does, the extended, novel version has been tougher for me to write. I managed to complete a manuscript draft this past winter, but after putting it aside for a few months and reading it again, I really wasn't happy with it.

It's less emotionally challenging to make stuff up, which is partly why I'm having so much fun with the Dreamslippers series.

Still, I'm proud of these three short stories, which came out of my MFA thesis in creative writing. I won the Associated Writing Programs Intro Journals Project award back in 2002 for "Birdy," which was also published in print in Bellingham Review.

"Spy Boy" first appeared in print in a journal called Accent Miami. "Her Mother's Shoes" was also accepted for publication, by North Pacific American Journal, but then they ran into some leadership issues, so it never appeared in print. But it's the story that everyone remembers most from the grouping.

About the cover images: They were chosen by my friend Anne Harrington. I met Anne at Amazing Grace Spiritual Center; she designed the Center's "spiritual hero" cards, and as a former "brat" herself, she really connected with the stories. Anne keeps bugging me to finish the whole thing.

Someday, I'll do that. But for now, I hope you enjoy these as the self-contained pieces they were originally written to be.

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...