My Indie Publishing Story

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When I first started writing, I assumed my career would follow the path that was common at that time (the 90s-now I’ve dated myself!). I would try to find an agent or hope my work made it through a slush pile, and be picked up for one of the big publishing company’s midlists. I write genre fiction, so unless I broke out as a major bestseller, my books would be mass market paperbacks and shelved separately from the more expensive trade paperbacks and hardcovers. But that was OK, because I would be there, in the store.

I’d still like to see my books on the shelf in a bookstore. I adore digital books—both eBooks and audio—but there’s something about holding a physical copy in your hands, knowing that you don’t have to worry about your battery running out or reading in the sunlight. I’m doing print copies of my book, but they’ll need to be ordered online. I won’t even have a single spine-out copy on a bookstore shelf. And while I also know that bookstore sales continue to decline, there’s a certain cachet involved in being traditionally published. The gatekeepers have approved your presence in the rarified air of the Big Five and the brick-and-mortar store.

So I’ll be honest. I’ve got a project that I’m still shopping to agents. I’d like to be a hybrid author, with books through traditional channels and books that are under my own control. But, wow, did I not realize until now exactly how much there is to control!

Here’s a brief run-down of some things I’ve now learned about independent publishing, most of them discovered by making a mistake and having to fix it at the last minute.

  • Doing your own covers saves money if you understand how to use graphics software, but if you’ve never actually done anything meant for print, find some tutorials and watch them before you attempt to design your cover. I’m an old hand at Photoshop, but I’ve only ever made graphics that were meant for the internet or small printing, like business cards. There is WAY more to know, and because I made the digital version first, I kinda shot myself in the foot for the print version. I’ll be doing things differently for book two!
  • You can never do enough marketing, but you can do too much self-promotion. Marketing here means advertisement, reaching out to new readers through as many established channels as possible. Self-promotion to your friends and family is also OK, but when you’re singing your song to the same people over and over, they’re going to get tired of hearing it.
  • Start planning the companion/publicity stuff WAY ahead of time. Write your blogs, social media posts, etc. much earlier than you think you need to. When you get close to release, you’re going to have other things to worry about.
  • Leverage your network as much as they’ll let you. I have an amazing one after going through the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction MFA program, and everyone has been incredibly supportive.
  • If you’re going to self-publish, hire an editor. I don’t care who you are. Hire an editor. Mine is lovely and wonderful, and this story was pretty much a mess before she started working on it. (If you want to hire her, visit her Facebook page Literally Yours Editing for more info).
  • Independent Publishing is expensive if you want to do it right. ISBNs cost hundreds of dollars (I only bought ten, for $300. That will get me through five books, two for each). Copyright requests cost a little less than $100. Then there’s editing services (including copyediting/proofreading), web hosting, cover art (I did it myself, but I still had to pay for the rights to images, fonts, and textures), research books, software (I subscribe to Adobe Creative), formatting services (I used Vellum for my eBook versions), and advertisements. Expensive. I will have to sell several hundred copies of my book to start earning back what I paid out.

That certainly isn’t an exhaustive list. And in the end, it’s all worth it. I am so excited to share my book with the world! Go visit the Fay of Skye series page to see how you can get your copy!

Altering the Victorian Era with Magic

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One of the most interesting parts of the process of creating an alternate history is the research. I’ve already written a post with a list of my research materials for the Fay of Skye series (and I’ve pinned some of my visual research on my boards over at Pinterest), but this entry will be about how I’m using the information I found.

Essential Magic begins in 1895. I considered many different eras and historical events around which to shape this series, including the Regency because that’s such a popular period for historical romance. But the mix of innovation and repressed social mores during the Late Victorian period fascinated me, and the more I read about the turn of the century and the years leading up to the First World War, the more I knew this was the right time for my story.

Most of the Victoriana you will find in fiction at the moment is steampunk-oriented. I enjoy reading steampunk, but I’m a fantasy girl, so instead of extrapolating about inventions and technology, I’m adding magic.

ETA: While browsing Goodreads today, I found an anthology called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy. I have read many of the authors in this anthology, and never knew that this subgenre I am writing in has a name! So I can officially say that I am writing Gaslamp Fantasy Romance.

I chose 1895 in particular for a few reasons. First, because I needed a certain number of generations to have passed between the Napoleonic Wars (in which the Fay Clan matriarch, Lilias, played a large role) and my current hero and heroine.  Second, because it is in a relative lull in British history. There were many things happening behind the scenes and in the far reaches of the Empire, but the United Kingdom was not officially at war with anyone until 1899 (Boer War). Because this is the first book of the series, a time of peace is an ideal period to illustrate the existing status quo at the end of the 19th century. As the series progresses, I will show some of the events that led to the Great War, and the final books will take place during the war. Essential Magic represents the antebellum Empire, before things fall apart.

So what, exactly, have I changed from real history?

Not much. I want this world to feel familiar and for the broad strokes of history to remain in place. The only difference is that some things now have magical causes (or were facilitated by magic) rather than mundane ones.

For example, the power position filled in our world by the Catholic Church is filled by the Magisterium – headed by the magister, who is the equivalent of the pope. They function as a kind of magic council for Europe. Instead of churches and cathedrals, they built magic schools and beautiful buildings on leylines so they would always have a source of power. There was a schism, led by my world’s Martin Luther, about the uses of magical energy and the treatment of magical creatures. Luther’s schools are called academies, and their council is the Academe. This world’s Henry VIII broke with the Magisterium for the same reasons as the real Henry from the Catholic Church – he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. But in my world, Anne was a wild talent not affiliated with the Magisterium. They wanted Henry to stay married to Catherine, who was a good Magisterium student and a moderately powerful sorceress.

Because of Henry, my world also has the fallout between the Magisterium and the Academe in England, which led to the Stuarts being removed from the succession and the various Risings against the House of Hanover. Victoria is the last monarch of the House of Hanover, and her son will be the first of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which his son will later rename the House of Windsor.

In the world of the Fay Clan, magical abilities are typically concentrated among the noble class. I am not making a statement that a noble is somehow intrinsically better than others, merely recognizing that magical abilities would give a family more power than its neighbors. Historically, that family would be able to hold its land and enforce its will over others, and would end up with privileges and titles. Also, magical talent runs in families (passed most strongly through matrilineal descent), so they would be able to maintain that power over time.

In our world, that kind of power came from various places (military expertise, land ownership, nepotism, etc.), and that exists in this alternate world, too. Magic does have limits, and those without power seek ways to obtain it. So the Renaissance and expansions in science and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution happened very similarly to our world.

But most of these changes will never show up in the story, or will only be referenced obliquely. I’m sharing this blog because it’s fun to know more about worldbuilding than what fits into the strictly defined structure of a novel. I don’t want to overwhelm my readers with history lessons – I only want to give what is needed to understand the story I’m telling.

That’s one of the reasons why I decided to tell Etta’s story first. She’s an American witch from the south, who isn’t allowed to do magic because of severe laws of attrition following the Civil War. The choice of an outsider heroine allows me to explore how magic works in this world in an organic way. Etta learns about it along with the reader, and her process of discovery builds her character.

There is one big change to history that forms an undercurrent of conflict in Essential Magic, and will become the overriding series goal for the Fay Clan. But I won’t tell you what it is – you’ll have to read the book to find out!

Essential Magic releases in just three weeks, on June 23, 2016.

Pre-order it now on Amazon!

Essential Magic

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Essential Magic – The Fay of Skye, Book One

A woman driven to excel. A man ashamed of his past. A desire that could lead them to bliss…or peril.

Etta Mae Cook, a mountain witch from Appalachia, arrives in London in 1895. Her goal: to study magic. But she steps off the train and into a dangerous world of politics, decadence, and power. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and the Fay Clan are waging a silent war. In the balance: the future of spellcraft in the kingdom. Etta’s lineage and magical power make her an asset – or a threat – to all three formidable forces.

Her choices skew when she meets Malcolm Seward, a mage of the Fay Clan. He once held a prominent role in society, but a tragic mistake forced him to flee into obscurity. His attraction to Etta draws him back into the fray, but though she’s drawn to him in return, she didn’t come to England for desire.

Despite her intentions, their passion flares, and Malcolm falls for her. Now, Etta must choose: love, or ambition? Either path could mean the renewal — or the destruction — of British sorcery. If she follows her heart, will she doom their magic?

Essential Magic released on June 23, 2016.

I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!

 

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Making Time

Lost Time

Over the last few weeks, several of my author friends have posted or shared blogs and articles about writing and productivity (I posted one on Facebook). There are myriad lists of to-dos and not-to-dos, but almost always, the advice boils down to one thing: you must make time for your art.

I’m an author, so I’ll specifically be talking about writing, but you can substitute any creative pursuit for the word “write” from here on out. Whether you draw, paint, sew, crochet, compose, sing, play an instrument, or sculpt tiny cat figures wearing superhero costumes, this advice applies to you. Whatever your art is, you need to carve out time for it in your life.

The most prolific and dedicated authors write every day. It doesn’t have to be a long period, either – there are writers who only write a half hour a day on their lunch breaks. But they do the thing, every day. Another way to think of it is the “butt in the chair” mentality. You’ve got to put your butt in your writing chair every day and type until something worthwhile comes out.

There are very good reasons to write every day. I think of it like exercise. If I take a day off from cardio, the next time I go to run or bike, I feel terrible. Writing is a skill that needs to be practiced, and when you don’t practice, you not only don’t get better, you lose some of the things you once had.

Writing every day also forces you to engage with the excuses we try to give ourselves not to write. So you can’t find a two-hour block every day? Make yourself write in fifteen-minute chunks, and revise on the days when you can manage more time. Most of the things you tell yourself you “need” for writing are not really necessary – including inspiration. Some days, the only muse I have is my own willpower to sit down and write.

Other things you don’t really need in order to write:

  • a perfect writing nook/clean desk
  • a window/cafe/bar/some other thing to look at
  • your preferred soundscape (if background noise distracts you, put on headphones with white noise or your book soundtrack; if you like background noise, there are apps for that!)
  • a clean house/all the chores done (Really. I have lots of writer friends who procrastinate by housecleaning).

There are also many things that suck up time you could spend writing. I used to keep up with more than a half-dozen TV shows per season. Now, I only watch two (Agents of SHIELD and Outlander), and I watch those during times when I can’t be writing- usually when I’m on the exercise bike or treadmill, or even in the shower.

I do miss TV. But I’m not willing to compromise my writing time, or my reading (because I think that reading is as important as writing), and I can’t give up being a mom and having to do basic chores like feed my kids. So something had to go.

I manage to stick to “write every day” about 95% of the time. I do take days off, particularly if I’ve just written several thousand words running up to a deadline, as I did yesterday. But I don’t go completely “dark” on my days off. Today is a day off, and I’m here, writing this blog. I also read a book today, which, as I mentioned, is the flip-side of writing. (At some point, I’ll write a blog post about how important reading is to being a good writer). I will also have days where my writing output consists of a five or ten page outline rather than manuscript pages, and I still consider those writing days.

Write Every Day works for me.

BUT

There are also authors who can’t keep up an every day schedule, and that’s OK, too. Sometimes personal commitments prevent it, or a writer is legitimately burned-out.

So I’m here to tell you – as long as you’re writing regularly, you are still doing fine. When writing is a habit, it doesn’t matter if you do it Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or you fit your writing into the weekends.

If you are actively creating time for your art, and not making excuses why you can’t do the thing you love, then you’re succeeding. And you’ll know you’re succeeding because it’s going to feel great. It’s also going to be a heck of a lot of work, but when you see what you can accomplish, you’ll know that the things you gave up, and the effort you expended, was entirely worth the result.

I’ll see you in the trenches!

Research

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A writer’s relationship to research is very personal. Some people try to avoid it at all costs. Some spend too much time falling down interesting rabbit holes.

I’m on the rabbit-hole end of the spectrum, but I do have some restraint! My biggest problem is using a deft hand when incorporating said research into my books. Sometimes I like to wax poetic about the really cool things I learned.

But, rather than shove everything into my books, I’m going to start blogging about some of those Really Cool Things instead. This blog post will be frequently updated as I add book titles and web resources that I encounter in my research process for writing the Fay of Skye series. If you’re interested in learning more about the real history behind my made-up world, here’s where you can go.

I’m including links to Amazon when applicable. If any of these links end up breaking, send me an email and let me know!

BOOKS

WEBSITES

I’ll keep updating and adding to this post as I have time. I’ll also link to some good articles about writing alternate history:

And here’s an excellent book on story beats for romance writers:

Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

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The first draft of the first novella in my new series is done! It has a new title, too: Essential Magic.

As with many projects, I flew through the first several chapters, slogged through the middle, and then dove headfirst into the end. Now I’m going to close the file for a few days, work on something else, and then start revisions once I’ve given the story some time to breathe.

First drafts are funny things. They are usually messy, with lots of information you don’t need and just as much missing that you need to fill in. The plot often rambles around, characters are sometimes merely sketches, and, if you’re me, description is pretty much absent.

So I remind myself at the end of every first draft of the mantra that I used to drill into my writing students’ heads: WRITING IS A PROCESS, NOT A PRODUCT.

What that means is that writing doesn’t spring from nothing. Even if you’re the type who can bang out clean copy on the first try, your entire experience shapes you writing. How well-read you are, how much practice you have as a writer, how much research you did, and what experience with your subject matter you had before you started all plays a part.

My writing process tends to start with an outline, what I think of as the skeleton of the story. I don’t stick to it fanatically. Sometimes the characters’ choices pull in in another direction. But it’s there when I’m not sure what to do next. During the outlining stage, I pinpoint things I need to research. I try to do most of my research up-front, but I run into things during the drafting stage, too.

If the outline is the skeleton, the first draft is the underlying body systems, like major organs (chapters), tendons (scenes), and nerves and blood vessels (scene beats).

The second draft is the beginning of the revision stage, when I start adding muscles (conflict/tension, description, emotion) and moving the other pieces around. This helps me sculpt the finished shape of the story. Sometimes this stage goes into many, many drafts, depending on how bare or misshapen the first draft was. Somewhere in here, I send my work to my critique partners and beta readers.

The final draft is for polish, where I add the surface layer, like skin and hair. This is where I play with language, creating a rhythm from sentence length and structure, word choice, and pauses. I’ll proof-read for any grammar or spelling mistakes, too (though hiring an editor is highly recommended; no one is perfect).

I’m feeling pretty confident about this story, so I don’t think revision will be an endless mire. I’m also in the outlining and research stage on the second novella. My plan is to start releasing the stories in June, with once-a-quarter releases thereafter (September, December, March, June). As soon as I finish the cover art and get the cover copy written, I’ll put a pre-order up on Amazon.

If you’re a writer, what’s your process like? Are you a plotter, with lots of pre-writing work, or a pantser, who discovers the story as you go? Do you do a lot of revision? Let me know in the comments!

 

Book Soundtracks

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I’ve always written to music, but it wasn’t until I started listening to the Story Wonk podcasts that I began developing more structured writing playlists. Now, when I’m starting a project, I will typically begin by using one of my old playlists that is close in theme to the new story. I copy it as a new playlist and then start culling songs that don’t quite fit. After that, I start adding music.

The adding music part has gotten much, much easier since the advent of Apple Music. I’ve had Amazon’s prime music for a while, but the selection was never the best. Apple Music is one of the most comprehensive services I’ve ever seen, and it works with my iTunes and all of my Apple devices so, yeah. I am not getting paid to plug this service, but it works for me.

My book soundtracks are built around three different types of songs.

Type One – Story Songs

These songs speak directly to the story I’m telling. These songs end up being imbued with meaning from the book, and I rarely use them again for a different project. There’s a song called “Wild Horses” by Natasha Bedingfield that is forever tied to one particular character for me. Likewise, “Secrets” by One Republic is the cello-driven heart beneath one of my completed novels. I even wrote a short story that mirrors the narrative in “Breathe Again” by Sara Bareilles because the tale grabbed me every time I heard the song.

Story Songs always have words, because the words drive something about the story for me, whether it’s character, plot, or conflict.

Type Two – Worldbuilding Songs

Worldbuilding Songs help create the soundscape of the world in which I’m writing. When I was working on a contemporary fantasy/mystery/romance, my book soundtrack was primarily contemporary pop music. With my current project, I’m listening to a lot of traditional celtic folk music. The words of the songs don’t need to match the story, but they do need to exist within the same emotional landscape. For example, I have an epic fantasy project where 95% of the music is either folksongs or instrumental pieces. But there’s one character whose PoV soundtrack is made up entirely of songs by the band Stabbing Westward. That’s his worldview, and so I listen to their albums while I’m writing in his head.

Type Three – Emotion Drivers

The third type of song is the kind that stays in all of my writing soundtracks. These are usually instrumental pieces from film/television/video game scores. I will also write to classical music, but it has to have a strong emotional component. Most classical music is interesting from an intellectual perspective; the pleasure of listening to it is in discovering how the themes and motifs work together, and in untangling the various instrumentation, rhythm, and volume choices. That doesn’t work when I’m trying to write.

The pieces I choose evoke an array of emotional responses, from sorrow, to anger, to fear, to joy. I recently discovered the group Two Steps from Hell and have really enjoyed adding their music to my writing soundtracks. I also have many of the famous score composers represented, from Morricone to Williams to my recent favorites, Murray Gold and Bear McCreary. Basically, if you google “film score composers,” at least 60% of them are represented in my go-to writing playlist.

Here’s a brief sample of songs from the playlist I built for my alternate-history Victorian Fantasy Romance series:

  • Thomas Bergersen – Sun – “New Life”
  • Bear McCreary – Outlander – “The Losing Side of History”
  • Howard Shore/Annie Lennox – LotR: The Return of the King – “Into the West”
  • LEAH – Otherworld – “Shores of Your Lies”
  • Gotye – Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby – “Heart’s a Mess”
  • Mediaeval Baebes – Undrentide – “Isabella”
  • Gaelic Storm – Tree – “Black is the Color”
  • Cara Dillon – Hill of Thieves – “False, False”
  • Eilidh Grant – Masks and Smiles – “The Lea Rig”
  • The Corrs – Home – “Dimming of the Day”
  • Karine Polwart – Fairest Floo’er – “Can’t Weld a Body”
  • Jack Wall – Myst IV: Revelations – “Dream”
  • Yoko Kanno – Escaflowne the Movie – “Sora”
  • Daft Punk – TRON: Legacy – “Flynn Lives”
  • John Williams – The Empire Strikes Back – “Han Solo and the Princess”
  • Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy IX – “A Face Unforgotten”

There are many, many more songs on there, but that’s a smattering of them. Do you write to a soundtrack? I know some people who prefer silence, or the background noise of a coffee shop. No way is better than any other- the only thing that’s important is that it works for you as a writer!

 

Adventures in Fiction

Cara McKinnon

I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer, but when I was six years old, it never occurred to me that writing would be hard work. I’ve been plugging away for years now, and have several novel-length manuscripts under my belt, plus an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Although some parts of the process are easier, it’s still a long-distance marathon through mud, canyons, oceans, and deserts.

But I can’t seem to stop doing it.

My latest effort is a series of alternate-history fantasy romances, set in a late Victorian era with magic. The series begins in 1895, with an aging monarch who is only a few years away from her Diamond Jubilee. Magic has been out-of-fashion for the last fifty years or more. The last great magical triumph was Waterloo, where General Lilias Fay led her troop of witches and magicians to hold back the French advance until reinforcements could arrive.

In the absence of a nation-catalyzing despot like Napoleon, the eyes of the empire’s upper classes have turned to more capricious pursuits. The only acceptable use for magic among the ton now is illusion: pretty flights of fancy to amuse and delight. Men may still go into the military and use their magic there, of course. The Second Boer War is in its early stages, and there are always colonial disputes to manage in an Empire where the sun never sets. But for women, there is only decadent deception.

Into this glittering world comes Etta Mae Cook, a backwoods witch from Appalachia, whose ancestress was the Heroine of Waterloo, Lilias Fay. She seeks a teacher for the magical skills she’s inherited, but instead she is embroiled in Victoria’s schemes to reinvigorate British magic before science and technology completely overwhelms it.

Fortunately for Etta, she also finds Lord Malcolm Seward, second son of the Marquess of Hazelby.

Mal has struggled against the restrictions on his magic all of his life. He wants to do something real, something with purpose, beyond the senseless violence that has become military magic. When he meets Etta, he knows that together they can forge that new purpose, and maybe create a new destiny for magic in England.

The first book’s title is Essential Magic. Other books in the series will follow the romances of Mal’s siblings, and then branch out from there. I’ve been having a grand time researching the late Victorian Era, and I’ll be making some research posts in the future, as well as sharing my writing playlists and any other information that seems fun.

 

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