Sober January (YA-Style)

sober januarySo here we all are, another New Year before us. My youngest daughter is five months old now, I’m another year older and I’ve actually charged my laptop and made it out of the house for a few hours.

Due to the exorbitant cost of childcare in NYC, it doesn’t make much financial sense for me to return to work right now just to spend my entire paycheck so someone else can raise our children 8 AM-6 PM. So my husband and I have an agreement: I get these four years, until both of our daughters are in school full-time, to try to achieve a reasonable level of profitability with my writing. If, by then, I’m not making a reasonable income from it I will go back to a day job to help to financially support our family.

Which is totally, completely fair. And also terrifying.

Let me just break down the numbers very roughly so you too can know my terror:

Let’s say I sell my first book on Kindle for $3.99. The current Amazon self-publishing platform lets you keep 70% of all proceeds, which equals $2.79 per book. So in order to even make $20,000 a year self-publishing, I will have to sell about 7200 books a year by year-end 2023.

SEVEN THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED BOOKS!

And that doesn’t even factor in the overhead. Which between forming an LLC, hiring a professional editor and cover artist, I’m thinking will cost around $4000. So add that in…

EIGHT THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED BOOKS!

And it’s already almost the end of January of Year One and I am still likely an entire year away (at minimum) from having a first book to even offer at market.

I decided to write YA, in large part, because I realized that was what I was already writing. My two finished plays are both about 17-year-old girls. But the other part of my decision was that, unlike playwriting, YA was a genre that can actually make money.

Although that’s still true, according to a Slate piece on the YA decade in review, young adult fiction sales reached an 11-year low in 2019. This is not entirely terrible news–the market became ridiculously popular, then oversaturated, then the attempts to enter the market became more and more ridiculous to get the attention of new readers to the point that those readers started to leave and so the money followed them. So now all the get-rich-quick writers seem to be moving to middle-grade fiction. Fine.

But add to that, social media, which is the primary marketing tool for self-published authors, seems to be on the decline. The me that believes in goodness and decency and the joy of being alive could not be happier about that! I mean, my Facebook birthday greetings this year barely topped 20, after peaking years ago somewhere around…100?

I was thrilled!

Until I remembered that the only way to become a successful writer is by having people who love your book tell their friends who love to read about your book and on and on. And with a less powerful social media, and no publishing house to boost my signal even a little bit, the first-wave readers are now going to be even harder to find, which amplifies out exponentially and becomes incredibly important when decisions will have to be made on whether or not this is profitable enough for me to continue doing by a certain month. So:

Step 1: Extend my sphere of influence beyond my mother, mother-in-law, and aunt. (Haha I kid, I kid…just not by as much as I would like.)

How am I going to accomplish Step 1? I’ve rejoined Twitter to start with. Even if it is on the decline (is it?) it’s still the go-to place for self-published authors to network so I have no reason not to try to achieve my natural saturation point there.

I’m also going to start blogging again. I experimented with frequency when I started my blog back when and I’m now convinced no one “follows blogs” anymore (did they ever?). Writing frequent blog posts burned me out, the content was middling at best, and readership was low. Last year when I had less-frequent, higher-quality posts, I got substantially more hits per post. So I’m going to aim for one blog post per month. I love the idea that people have an expectation that when they click on my blog they’re going to get some interesting, well-written content.

Which brings me to Step 2 for 2020:

Build my brand.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, we haven’t even gotten to the Most Important Step 3:

Finish my first novel!

Then, there are so many more things to do this year. I have a ton of research on the self-publishing business left to do to try to maximize my first effort to enter the market (hard deadline: year-end 2021, hoping for sooner). I’m going to start an LLC. Once I finish the second (or third?) draft, I’ll need to find beta readers and hire an editor and a cover artist. There’s also a never-ending myriad of smaller tangential tasks, like selling some stuff on eBay to create some money for this so I don’t put my family of six in the hole for something that has no actual guarantee of making back the initial investment. All while raising two tiny, adorable children (and more immediately, getting the tiniest one to sleep past 5:30 AM).

As sobering as all this is, there is a silver lining. The greater the strides I can make this year, the more each subsequent year will build on/benefit from them and there will be better news around each corner. For instance, I’m not just writing a stand-alone novel. I’m building an entire world that can hopefully sustain a series of novels. So goals like selling 8600+ books a year would seem a bit less daunting if by that time I have multiple books out…not to get ahead of myself.

Seriously.

Also, unlike 2019 (which I spent the entirety of pregnant and newly postpartum), at least now I can drink again.ūüć∑

 

 

 

 

 

A pregnant pause

There I was in early December, clipping along like lightning with my second draft. I had a detailed outline and 1000 words per session came easily. Sure, we had started to try to have another baby, but my OB herself had just told me that “at my age”, it would take six to twelve months to conceive naturally.

So there was ABSOLUTELY NO WAY to crunch the numbers in which I wasn’t going be finished with the next draft in a matter of mere months!

Hahahahahahahaha, laughed the universe. Hahahahahahahahaha.

I was pregnant literally three days after she told me that. According to the way they calculate pregnancy, mine actually began the very same day I went off birth control. (So let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief for me that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of fiction).

Then I was really sick for three months straight–the first two due to first trimester symptoms, and the third with two back-to-back colds that hit me like death because when you’re pregnant, your body basically turns off your immune system so you don’t accidentally reject your fetus as an infection (oh and you also can’t take any cold medicine!).

I was finally feeling better and writing again just when my babysitter gave her two weeks notice. Then it took all of those two weeks to find a new babysitter, who despite committing through the end of the summer, quit three weeks after she started (one of which she spent in Spain–a trip she didn’t tell me about until after I hired her–but I digress.)

Add to that, my soon-to-be-oldest daughter needs to be potty-trained for pre-school this Fall. And since at least for insurance/billing purposes, I’m an “old mother”, I have shlepped to a doctor’s appointment all the way uptown at least twice a month since December, and as the due date approaches, that’s just going to ramp up.

Each time I’ve been taken out of my draft for more than a few days, it has taken as long just to get back into it. I haven’t given up on it by a long shot–I’ve still managed to write about 20ish new pages, here and there, over these months. I am still making progress even when it is frustratingly slow. But realistically, this draft is not going to get done until after this baby is born and we are out of the newborn phase.

But in the meantime, we’re going to have another baby girl. ‚̧

(And then I’ll have the rest of my life in which to become an “old writer”, which seems to be the preferable order of operations, anyway.)

Surveying the damage

It took me about six weeks to fully read through my first draft, which included 2 1/2 weeks without a babysitter, extensive note-taking and some light editing.

After coming off of the high of finishing the 400-page draft, returning to the earliest days of Part One, Scene One was, well…absolutely depressing. According to my husband, I was depressed for the entire first week.

Like so many things in life, it felt like the Magic Mirror Gate from The Neverending Story:

Engywook:
Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu will have to look his true self in the face.

Falcor:
So? That shouldn’t be so hard.

Engywook:
Oh, that’s what everyone thinks! But kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men find out that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away, screaming!

And good writers find out that they are bad! In small doses, over and over again, for six entire weeks. There’s even a small chance I’m a better person now for having done it.

But Part Five really held up, and is actually pretty exciting and amazing. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that for all that I didn’t do yet in the previous sections, I did manage to successfully lay out the necessary groundwork for Part Five. And now that I’ve gone back and re-re-read some of the worst chapters, it’s easier to give myself a break.

It’s really just a first draft, simultaneously¬†overwritten and underwritten. This is also the first time I’ve written anything in the first person, and I’ve realized that that, alone, is probably going to require an extra draft over what I was planning just to drill down one more layer into Mika’s inner monologue.

So I spent one or two writing sessions last week reading through all of my notes, and then most of today’s developing the next outline for the first serial in this universe–covering a quarter or so of the material from the full draft, while adding more.

So, without further ado, here is my first book (please don’t plagiarize me!):

IMG_0274

 

 

 

Surviving the Fire

I began this blog nearly two years ago (!), and at the time it was not much more than an intention–that eventually, I would emerge victorious from my postpartum brain fog, I would write a novel and I would blog about it.

It was nearly twenty months ago that I abandoned my first effort, and with that the blog went fallow as well. After all, even though all the best advice seemed to say a self-published author needs to have a blog, it eventually dawned on me that what a self-published author most needs to have is a¬†book. And to break it down even further, what a self-published author who is also a stay-at-home mom really, really, needs is a babysitter, which due to some combination of fatigue and insanity I didn’t manage to hire a single time until my daughter was fully a year old.

So a year and three months ago, now, (!) I hired a babysitter three mornings a week and started writing the first draft of my novel, which now stands at about 400 pages. In those early, early days, when nearly all of the work was still ahead of me, in order not to lose heart I indulged in some fantasies in which I was already a successful author.

Tell us,” The award-winning journalist of my mind, thoroughly fascinated by my process, would ask me as I fired up Scrivener to another blank page and took a sip of my cappuccino, sloughing off my daughter’s wails of separation anxiety as I tried to remember how to think. “What is it like to write a first draft?

Over the weeks and months that followed, as I was doing it, I decided that writing a first draft is like running through a city on fire. And all I had to do to make it out alive was get from one side of the city to the other. I told myself that if I stopped to edit anything along the way I risked certain death.

So here I am, a year and three months later, having made it out of the burning city alive. I haven’t actually looked at or read any of it since the day I wrote it, which is why it’s hard for me to feel a huge sense of accomplishment at writing 400 pages. After all, I was there. I watched the city burn for over a year. I have a faint sense of the wreckage that awaits me when I return, and how much work I have left to do.

As soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m going to begin rereading the entire beast, start to finish. Then I’ll re-outline it into three or four serial novellas, which I imagine will be about 80-100 pages each (I figure I have about 50 pages more of backstory/world building to add, and probably 100 pages or so to edit out). Then I’m going to finish one, figure out how to publish it, and then go back and do the rest one by one.

So, I have already written the source material that I expect will get me through the next several years of writing and motherhood, until gloriously, when the children are all in school, I can speed up the process I’ve begun to establish into a chop shop of write-and-release YA fiction.

And now that this significant, though incomplete, chunk of work is behind me, I no longer fantasize about what people may or may not one day ask me about my process. Actually, being a real writer is pretty boring. Long gone are the sumptuous days of would-be writing, when I had hours to spend waxing romantic about my favorite pen. Hell, I don’t even have the time now to write by hand. I have a writing quota to fill and then I have to get home to put my daughter down for her nap. If it’s a particularly good writing day, I might even have time left to get most of my FitBit steps outside.

My fantasies now are more along the lines of remodeling the kitchen with money I’ve made from my writing.

When I moved out to LA in my early 20s to try to break into TV writing, I remember reading an interview with the hugely successful TV writer/producer Shonda Rhimes. In it, she said something along the lines of, “You have to know you’re going to be successful when you start out. If you don’t know that, why bother?” And I balked when I read that, because I had absolutely zero inkling that I would ever be successful at that. And obviously, I wasn’t.

But this time feels different. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger on the morning before he became Mr. Universe, “It’s one of those days when you know you’re going to win.”

on killing my novel

I’ve now put six weeks into writing “The Last House in Levittown”¬†after putting it on hold for three years, and last night I realized that I’m not interested in finishing¬†it¬†anymore.

burning-book-001

This happened once with a play–I started writing it when I still lived in Los Angeles over six years ago, and then my entire life upheaved and I landed in NYC in a much, much better place. But still I had this part of a play, called “The Creation of Monsters”–what a great title, right! I was between projects in a writing workshop at the time, and I was nostalgic for what I felt this play could have been. My teacher told me to sit with it for an afternoon and see if I could find my way back into it, and if not, move on. He said plays have a shelf life, and once they expire, the best parts will come back in a new form. (BTW what a wise and wonderful teacher!)

My answer to that was to start a brand new play, first¬†called “The Lights of the Parkway”–then I got rejected from all the top playwriting programs, again, and decided to focus on fiction, where I had total control over the process. I turned my scenes¬†of a play into a novel, calling it “The Last House in Levittown”–WHAT A GREAT TITLE, RIGHT!

That was 3+ years ago. Since then, I got married, I quit my longterm, soul-sucking job, I had a baby–many, many other things have happened and¬†I have gone through at least one¬†evolution from where I was back then. And in the meantime, the shelf life expired–whatever¬†I was grappling with when I came up with this story of Penny and her father, out to get each other on the fringes of a new society, I no longer care about (probably something to do with my father? serious yawn!). But I had nursed this idea as “my one great idea!” “this one will really put me on the map!” “people who i really respect really loved¬†it back then!” etc.

When I told this to my husband last night, he replied that he had sensed this for a while. We both have experienced a lot of getting tied to old ideas over the years that wind up holding us back. The classic sunk cost fallacy, combined with two people who know we’re very good at what we do, can lead to some very precious thinking that can be, at best, counterproductive.

So here is to sloughing off the old and embracing the new–and faster and faster each time (hopefully). I’m not sure what that will look like¬†yet,¬†but I know that in writing “The Last House in Levittown”, I created a vibrant, addictive (to me) new future-world–I think I’ll stay in it, just move on to a more interesting place, character, and storyline that better suits the now-me.

It’s also come up before¬†in my self-analysis that both of my finished plays star a 17-year-old girl. And the storyline I’m most interested in in my¬†“Last House” world is that of a teenaged girl.

When I was growing up, my most voracious and addictive reading period was probably 10-14 years old. So maybe in a world where every story has been told at least a hundred times, and probably better than I¬†could ever tell it at least once, the most exciting idea¬†for me, going forward, is to be the first person to tell it to someone. Maybe that’s why reading was so much more exciting to me back then–books were the wide, open frontier that introduced me to the world of ideas.

So, I’m not sure how to proceed from this point–except to keep writing. Stay tuned! ūüôā

week two: life gets in the way

week-two

Remember week one? That was so great.

Week two started with us getting insulation installed on the entire first floor, which turned our just-cleaned home into a war zone one night before my sister came. Then she was here, the day after she left a contractor came, and by then everyone was exhausted for days.

My writing schedule went to shit. I didn’t write Tuesday, Thursday or Friday. Additionally, I read¬†some bleak reports on¬†the self-publishing author outlook. Basically, the e-pub market is saturated right now, and it’s¬†harder than ever to get traction. Amazon is using its genius to try to take as much off the top (i.e., from the writer) as they can. I should have done this years ago (Sorry! I was still trying to be a playwright!).¬†Hugh Howey seems to be traveling the world in his yacht right now drinking mai-tais and taking shirtless selfies¬†on tropical sands, while I and my fellow indie writers¬†hustle and¬†weep. For a lot of indies, it’s a full-time job and they seem to spend more time on self-promotion than on writing, while¬†I’m a stay at home mom who has a few nap-time¬†hours a day to divide among¬†all the other things I have to do.

I spent 100% of my free time on Thursday trying to figure out how to post to the blogging site Medium, based on a book marketing chat I had followed the night before on Twitter. And after all that, I finally accomplished¬†it only to have zero people see any of it! Medium is another full-time job for the people who do it well, and so¬†I decided I could only do so much at a time re:¬†social networking and abandoned that avenue for now. But sometimes it’s just going to feel like wasted effort, because you don’t always know what will pay off until you try it. And maybe it will still pay off at some future time.

But here is the “upside of the downside”–even with all that, I still wrote about 1000 new words, which is more like 2000 when you factor in the words I deleted in order to¬†rewrite. And I even though I was too busy to stick to my new exercise schedule at all, I was apparently also¬†too busy¬†to remember to eat, and I lost two pounds!

I’ll be posting the first excerpt of Chapter 2 on Friday, which I am still rewriting. 2000 words be damned, rewriting one early chapter¬†is a slog that feels like going backwards instead of forwards. This is probably why NaNoWriMo forbids it entirely, but¬†I press on.

If you missed Chapter 1 on Friday (something about an inauguration), you can read it here.

week one, complete. and i’m fee-ee-lin’ good. ‚ôę

weekone72
I’d like to first just pause for a moment in¬†awe that¬†there are eighth notes in this post’s browser address!

Week one has been great–I met and exceeded my writing goals (300 words/day on weekdays)–The Last House in Levittown now stands at 9,210 words.¬†I updated my blog template to be more user-friendly and to better streamline¬†my content,¬†and even added a widget to the homepage to update my daily word count. I also added another widget that makes it easy to follow my blog through either WordPress or by e-mail. I also love saying the word “widget”.

I just plugged in 50k words as a “novel” there because I think that’s what NaNoWrimo says–sort of arbitrary at this point, and a certain number of words does not a novel make, even though¬†you do need¬†a certain number of words to make a novel. I won’t know until I get there how best to break it down in its final version–maybe releasing it in smaller segments, not sure. More to learn about the shape this story will take and also about different publishing strategies before then. For the¬†near future, I’m mostly just concerned¬†with¬†churning out pages.

I’ve just¬†started to learn more about¬†the e-publishing business. Currently reading “Let’s Get Digital” by David Gaughran, which was recommended to me by¬†the author¬†John Birmingham, who recently made the leap himself (although he was leaping from mainstream publishing, whereas I will be leaping from obscurity). ¬†I’m simultaneously¬†reading JB’s newest self-published novel, a great time-traveling romp called A Girl in Time, although I haven’t had¬†enough time yet to read it as rompily as he probably intended. On Gaughran’s¬†blog, he says that curating a mailing list is of unbridled importance and I should have done it yesterday, but I might be unique in that I decided to e-publish before I even had anything to e-publish. So, I’ll get to it when it feels right.

The blog is my central command–ground zero of ground zero, if you will, and it’s been a bit frustrating getting it off the ground¬†in terms of readers. But this is¬†only the first week I’ve published twice, and Friday’s post has had¬†over 50¬†views¬†(but only after¬†two¬†hours with no¬†hits, in which I kept googling¬†“how to¬†boost blog traffic”¬†while¬†rocking¬†myself, gently.) I’m cross-promoting it on Facebook and to Twitter,¬†where I just opened a new¬†account (my old account, @babesmcphee, went viral one afternoon in 2009 and although that’s one of the most fun and rewarding things to happen to me¬†yet, it kind of stigmatized¬†the account for my own personal purposes¬†and I had long since stopped using it.).

Twitter seems to be both dying and not–I am getting hits from it, but not many. A lot of people who were using it heavily no longer are. I still think is potentially¬†worthwhile over time, although right now it feels a bit nippy over there as I am hanging out in my underwear with only 35¬†followers! So if you want to see me in my Twunderwear, or even better, follow me, check it out at¬†https://twitter.com/christyhelzner. I was playing one of their hashtag games on Friday¬†and one of my #TrumpNoir tweets got 1300¬†impressions according to their analytics, so I’m just having fun with it and am happy to see where it goes, or not. I also got like, three free eBooks from authors¬†just for following their pages. Interesting data!

(update: one link¬†was broken, one required signing up for the author’s mailing list, and one required signing up for¬†a¬†newsletter–but it was specifically geared to¬†indie publishing, anyway. so i got one free e-book.)

I’m also closing¬†in a blog routine¬†of one regular¬†post, one novel excerpt, and one progress update per week. I’m going to start posting my novel from the beginning soon, but I have to rewrite Chapter 2 first because I got rid of Penny’s boyfriend (see previous post). I’m sticking to my 300 words/day for weekdays, but¬†weekends are for special projects like that.

Thank you for reading along, and stay tuned! ūüôā