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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.


Upcoming Appearance: Author Reading at Ferris State University

Ferris U flyer

Personal appearances are one part of the author life I enjoy immensely, as I get to leave the writing cave and talk in person with readers and potential readers. I especially like university talks, as it's always refreshing to speak to students. I'm inspired by their energy and am always impressed by their thoughtful questions. Last year I spent a week at the University of Florida as a guest lecturer in game design classes and speaker at a summit sponsored by the school's Digital Worlds Institute. Last fall for the launch of book three in the Dreamslippers Series, I spoke at Seattle University for the third time in three years. This February I presented on a panel at the Associated Writing Programs conference, attended by many students and writing faculty. And next month, I'll be at Ferris State University in Michigan as part of the Literature in Person series.

Ferris is distinguished by a small faculty-student ratio of 1:16, which means the courses are taught by professors, not graduate students. The university prides itself on its offering of in-demand majors, more than any other school in the state of Michigan. 

My host for the event is Dr. Deirdre Fagan, assistant professor in the Department of English, Literature, and World Languages. We met back in 2001 when I was in graduate school at the University of Miami, where she was a lecturer in the composition program. We lost touch for a time, but have reconnected through the magic of social media. She's a talented teacher and poet, and it's an honor to be her guest.

If you're near Big Rapids, MI, where the college is, please come by for the event, which is open to the public. Details in the image above. Besides the public reading on April 5th at 7 pm, I'll also be a guest in Deirdre's Creative Writing class that week, which is a private event.

A huge shout-out to Great Lakes Book & Supply, an independent local bookstore in Big Rapids. They will promote the event and stock my books as well.

Wish me luck at the reading and classroom visit, and I hope to see some of you in Big Rapids!


What's the Motive? Martha Crites

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Debut author Martha Crites is a fellow finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. She handles the tricky topic of mental illness with great care and intelligence in her mystery novel Grave Disturbance. Here she discusses how motive can shift and change over the course of the writing project.

Martha Crites:

Lisa asks, “What’s the Motive?”

I can only answer, “Motives change.” 

Did I intend to take on the stigma of mental illness when I wrote my first mystery, Grave Disturbance? Not at all. I just wanted to see if I could write a novel. So, in the time-honored tradition of write what you know, I gave my sleuth a job in the mental health field, like me. Not my exact job, but one a little more exciting. Grace Vaccaro is a mental health evaluator who sees people in the field to determine if they need to be hospitalized as a danger to self or others. I now know that writing a novel is a big project, and my motives have changed over time. 

Here’s what happened: When Grave Disturbance was first published, I found myself, like all new authors, needing a little elevator speech to tell about my book. Something like: After a filmmaker working on a documentary about native land rights is murdered, mental health professional Grace Vaccaro realizes that a woman she evaluated may have been a witness. Grace and Liz must sift truth from delusion to unmask the murderer before he kills again.

I had no idea that I would observe the stigma of mental illness first hand when I began to mention my protagonist’s career as a mental health evaluator. People became quiet and uncomfortable at the topic. So, I gave a lot of thought to how to talk about it and decided to mention the issue of stigma up front, at the beginning. Somehow, it helped my listeners find a new lens through which to view the story. 

Since Grave Disturbance came out, I often give presentations at libraries. We talk about how I wanted to portray Liz, the character with mental illness, as fully human, a person with talents and hopes, dreams and disappointments. But more than that, I tell them about my current novel-in-progress, which is now taking the stigma head on. I tell stories about the inspiration for a character in my work-in-progress: Marsha Linehan, the University of Washington therapist who bravely faced stigma by telling the story of her own illness to the New York Times after years of silence.

The result? Now instead of silence, audience members ask questions about psychosis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more. They tell me about their experiences with family members. We have a conversation I never anticipated, a conversation that is helping me form my second Grace Vaccaro novel with a much clearer idea of my motive.

What I love about the mystery genre is that it can combine entertainment with important issues like mental health, homelessness, and the history of treatment of Native Americans in our region–all in a fast-paced novel that keeps the reader turning pages. And afterward we can talk about it.

Review Grave Disturbance on Amazon or Goodreads

Follow Martha Crites on Facebook or Twitter

  Marthacrites

Martha Crites has worked in community and inpatient mental health field for twenty years and taught at the Quileute Tribal School on the Washington coast. Grave Disturbance was a finalist for the 2016 Nancy Pearl Award.