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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.

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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. 

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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.


The Woman Behind My Book Covers: Monika Younger

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This week on the blog I've interviewed Monika Younger. Monika designed the book covers for all three of the Dreamslippers Series novels and the poetry collection Broom of Anger. She's a joy to work with, and I've loved every single one of her designs. A professional book-cover designer with more than ten years of experience designing for the major North American publisher Harlequin, she also designs covers for indie authors. 

Lisa: You've designed covers for Harlequin, including their mystery line. How did you get started with that, and what's it like to design for that publisher in particular? Also, please share one of your favorite cover designs for Harlequin.

Monika: The mystery line I design for is called Worldwide Mystery. Worldwide Mystery is an imprint owned by Harlequin (now Harlequin/Harper Collins). I started with the publisher in 2003 when I was hired as a full-time designer in their art department. I worked for Harlequin in-house for two years designing covers for their series books (Harlequin Romance, Harlequin Presents, Intrigue, etc.) and single-title books (MIRA, HQN). In 2005 I started freelancing and retained Harlequin as my client. I work with several art directors there, and they are all amazing people to work with. Freelancing work with Harlequin is now mainly focused on Carina Press (their digital line, which covers several genres) and Worldwide Mystery. 

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One of my favorite recent mysteries (which I designed) is Brooklyn Bones. For this title, I was given more flexibility to experiment with a new look for the author. It was a fun project to work on, which took me away from the usual photographic style.
 
Lisa: Tell me how you approach working with authors. You send us a questionnaire before you begin designing our covers. Why is that an important step?
 
Monika: To represent a story meaningfully and accurately on the cover, I need to be very familiar with it. And since I cannot read all the books I design covers for (I would be reading more than designing), I have to get as much information from the author as possible--a summary of the novel, character descriptions, setting descriptions, important visual elements, themes and meanings, etc. All this helps me to figure out what is the best approach for the cover design. Once I get as much information as I feel I need, I come up with two or three cover layout options to present to the author. Usually one of the selections is approved with or without further revisions. After the front cover is approved, I design the back cover and spine to complete the book jacket. 
 
Lisa: I get compliments on the covers you designed for the Dreamslippers Series all the time. What was your goal in designing these covers? Do you have a favorite of the three? Or is Broom of Anger your favorite? How was that project different for you?
 
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Monika: Thank you. I think Bound to the Truth is my favorite. The symbolism on that cover is very powerful to me. I absolutely love it.  
 
Broom of Anger was one of my all-time favorite projects. It was my first non-fiction (poetry) cover, and I had a lot of fun with it. As you know, there were many versions considered before the final was selected, and they were all fun to do. I don’t know how else to describe it but “fun.” I enjoy designing covers--playing around with graphic elements, photography, typography--and having it all come together on the screen is sometimes still magic to me.
 
Broom of Anger
 
Lisa: What other work do you do? What's your background?
 
Monika: In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on book-cover design, as it is my favorite area of design, but my training/education is in graphic design, so I can design anything from business cards to billboards and logos. I studied Graphic Design at Conestoga College. Previous to Harlequin, I worked full-time for a greeting card company and a full-service marketing firm in Mississauga.
 
Lisa: What do you enjoy about book cover design? What makes it special?
 
Monika: Books/novels/stories are interesting, compelling, and inspiring--and the cover has to reflect those elements. I love coming up with ideas and answering the question, "How can this story be represented visually so it will compel the audience to select it/engage with it?" It's a fun puzzle to solve. I love combing through stock photography web sites, font web sites, dissecting and altering images in Photoshop--I enjoy everything about it.
 
Learn more about Monika Younger's work at www.youngerbookdesign.com.
 

Dreamslippers Trilogy

 

What's the Motive? Lily Iona Mackenzie

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Readers of my Dreamslippers Series will undoubtedly recognize kindred spirits of Amazing Grace in Fling! Author Lily Iona Mackenzie talks about the real-life inspiration for her eccentric characters in today's What's the Motive post.

Lily Iona Mackenzie:

I began writing Fling! because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th century, my grandfather, a former schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out. A passenger ship was torpedoed, preventing his wife and five kids from joining him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband’s behavior. 

After being in Calgary for a year, my grandmother moved out, refusing to put up with my grandfather’s verbal and physical abuse. She found work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. Soon, she and her boss became lovers, and he took her to Mexico City with him. When he returned, she didn’t. Some time later, my grandfather received a letter from a Mexican priest that she had died there.

Though I never met my grandmother, she was a strong, ghostly presence throughout my childhood. Who was this woman whose genes I shared? How had she found the courage in the early ‘20s to flee a difficult situation? And what did she do during those years in Mexico City? What motivated her to leave her kids and travel to Mexico, a country very different from what she had experienced in largely protestant Canada and Scotland? And what effect did her behavior have on those left behind, in particular her daughter and granddaughter?

These were the questions that sent me off on my quest to uncover this mysterious woman. I wanted to recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada. That impulse brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel. So while 90-year-old Bubbles and 57-year-old Feather are the main focus initially, very loosely based on my mother and myself, it’s Heather, my imagined grandmother, who is at the novel’s heart. 

When I started out, I planned to write a lyrical family saga. But Feather, an aging hippie, and her fun-loving mother Bubbles soon took over the narrative and brought their own distinctive humor with them, with plenty of hilarious moments as members of this family reunite in Mexico. 

Feather and Bubbles’ journey begins when Bubbles receives mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

But they also make unexpected discoveries in Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist. Feather gains a sense of who her mother really was. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known, ancient rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. She doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in her. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams, one of the things I discovered from writing this novel.

For me, Fling! turned out to be a meditation on mothers, daughters, and art. It suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what all the characters discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does. And I’m hoping that my actual grandmother partook of it, too.

Review Fling! on Amazon and Goodreads.

Follow Lily Iona Mackenzie on Facebook or through her blog.

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Lily Iona MacKenzie has published poetry, short fiction, and essays in over 150 Canadian and American publications. Her poetry collection All This was published in October 2011. Her novel Fling! was published in July 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy, will be released in 2018.


Call for Reviews!

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 In honor of the new year, I'm offering a free book to anyone who posts an online review of one of mine on the web sites where the books are sold or discussed (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the App Store, Goodreads, etc.). So if you're new to me, this is a great time to pick up a copy of Cat in the Flock. It's the first book in the Dreamslippers Series, which has been praised by Kirkus Reviews and a whole lot of other trustworthy critics. First post your review online, send me a link to it, and then I'll send you a copy of the second book in the series for free.

 This is the standard industry courtesy granted to professional book reviewers, by the way. But today's marketplace equalizes the critics, so that a review you post online can have just as much impact as any pro's, whether you're a blogger in your spare time or just someone who loves books. A free review copy is hence not in violation of any retailer's review policy.

 Once you've posted the review, send me an email linking to it, and I'll send you a coupon code for any book of your choice from my catalog. Be sure to let me know in the email which book you want.  If you've already read book #1, or even the whole Dreamslippers Series, look over this list of my other published work, and pick whatever title suits your fancy.  

 Super-special Lewis County deal: If you're in my geographic area and we can meet in person, I'll give you a free print copy of either book #1 or #2 in the Dreamslippers Series or the poetry collection, Broom of Anger. Otherwise, due to print and shipping costs, it'll be an ebook. As an indie, I don't receive any free copies from a publisher to use for promotion. All of my books come with a cost.

 Some readers feel intimidated about writing reviews, but it's really very easy. First, if you don't like the book, feel free to send me your thoughts instead of posting them. I personally don't post reviews for any book I can't give at least 3 stars. Second, all you need to do is pick a star rating and write just one or two sentences to give your impression. Be yourself. Say what you'd say to a friend. Here's a recent review I posted of Martha Crites' novel Grave Disturbance, by way of example.

 A word of warning: Amazon recently deleted a review I posted for another author, James Desborough (read the details here). There's no way for me to know whether or not any of the reviews readers have posted about my own books have been deleted, but based on what I've heard from other writers, it's very likely. Reviews are deleted in a seemingly arbitrary, haphazard fashion.

 So there is a possibility that if we're connected online in any way, maybe even simply including your subscription to my email newsletter, Amazon's bots will remove your review. This is egregiously wrong, and it unfairly penalizes indie writers who rely more heavily on social media to get the word out about their books. Traditionally published authors have the advantage of expensive resources such as Net Galley and the like that are cost prohibitive for those of us who foot the bill ourselves. This all makes your support--as a reviewer, word-of-mouth advertiser, and social media sharer--all the more crucial.

 But hopefully, you'll be able to post your review with no problems. ;) I hope you enjoy my quirky characters and unique settings. As always, I'd love to hear from you.

 Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!


The Big, Fat Book Tour!

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 It's rare that authors are treated to headlining book tours these days, if there ever was a day when that happened. Especially as an indie, my marketing budget comes out of my own (very small) pocket. So there was no book tour for the first installment in the Dreamslippers Series, and for the second book, the tour was almost entirely virtual, meaning online-only.

 While this is all well and good economically speaking, I craved the opportunity to connect with readers in-person. We writers live a solitary existence, going through our days mainly alone, talking only to the cat. So when it's time to turn our book babies out into the world, it's only natural we'd want to interact with others.  

By the time I was ready to release the third book in the series, I'd built up enough momentum that in-person opportunities just showed up. Here's a run-down of what became my big, fat book tour for the release of Bound to the Truth.

Nia Jam to Benefit Standing Rock

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 I dance at a local studio, Embody, which has not only given me a beautiful new practice in Nia but a supportive community as well. Nia features prominently in Bound to the Truth, so when I found out there would be a Nia Jam and fundraiser, I donated five copies of the book, which were awarded at the event by raffle. Separate from the studio itself and hosted entirely by Nia teachers who gave generously of their time and talent, the jam raised more than $1300 for Standing Rock. We danced for two hours straight that night. I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate the book's release date. It's exactly what Granny Grace would do.

Book 'n' Brush Author Event

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 Honestly, I can't say enough about how terrifically supportive the community here in Lewis County is. As an indie, I completely struck out trying to get my books into Seattle bookstores, even ones in my own neighborhood I'd frequented for a decade. But the owner and manager at Book 'n' Brush here in Chehalis have been enthusiastic supporters. They carry the whole Dreamslippers Series as well as the poetry collection, and in turn, I drive customers to the store whenever possible. It's a win-win. I felt honored to be included in their recent author event, along with others I've come to know, some of whom also have new books out.

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 Authors Julie McDonald Zander, Texie Gregory, Kyle Pratt (who wasn't part of the event but stopped in to buy books), and me.

 Book 'n' Brush is a gem of a store, anchoring downtown Chehalis. As the name suggests, they sell both art supplies and books, for a perfect mashup of creative pursuits. We had a great write-up in the local paper about the event, and The Chronicle also covered my book's release.

Human Response Network Masquerade Ball

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 My husband and I, incognito for a cause.

 A good amount of what you might call spiritual, humanitarian intention went into the Dreamslippers Series. I've written female-centered narratives peopled with a diverse spectrum of characters. I've tackled homophobia and tried to explore organized religion with humanity and compassion. I shed light on corruption in the art world and illuminated a corner of darkness that is the illegal child pornography industry. And finally, I celebrated sexual liberation and told the stories of those harmed by sexual abuse and repression. All while honoring the importance of plot and pacing, and I hope, without ever coming across as preachy. Everything I write is in service to the story.

 I always want to do more than this. I tied sales of Cat in the Flock to a donation to Jubilee Women's Center, a highly effective organization in Seattle that helps women transition out of homelessness and into independence. Here in Chehalis, I support the Human Response Network, which provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Masquerade Ball was the organization's first major fundraiser, done in an attempt to ramp up service in response to an overwhelming increase in requests for help.

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Copies of the books on auction.

Seattle University Talk 

 I've presented at Seattle University twice before, and it's always a pleasure to meet creative writing students there. This time, I discussed what it takes to get credits and bylines in three different arenas: books, games, and journalism. I related tales from the trenches in all three and managed not to bore them. While it feels odd to call myself a master of anything, the below slide did garner a few smiles.

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 The students asked great questions and seemed encouraged by my career transitions from one arena to another, AKA the survivor mentality that has kept me consistently employed. Props to the university bookstore for carrying the Dreamslippers Series in connection with the event, and to the creative writing program for their incredible hospitality.

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 Seattle U souvenirs: Reflections picked up for free in the campus chapel, and the student lit mag, Fragments.

 An Evening with the Authors at the Lewis County Historical Museum

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 The last in-person event on my schedule for this book launch was the only repeat for me, as I'd attended the same last year. Located in a former train depot, the museum features local history displays and a gift shop. The authors event is a great party and opportunity to meet other writers as well as new readers. Poetry seems to resonate best with this crowd.

 So there you have it: This is how we do things in indie land. My family and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in the midst of this, so I'm hoping December is a bit less eventful? Or not. I really did enjoy myself. Welcome to all the new readers who stopped by my tables, came to the talk, or danced by my side. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.