Out In the Open: One Author’s Creative Process Exposed

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My process for starting a new story is pretty simple.

  1. I have an inkling of the location where the story takes place. I definitely have the main character profile figured out (gender, age, background).
  2. I identify the genre of the story (very important so that you know the expected genre requirements).
  3. I pick a name for my main character.
  4. I might jot down a few notes that serve as an outline in the loosest possible way. This is because secretly I love the idea of being a plotter and declare to myself that this time I will be more organized.
  5. I give myself a deadline for finishing the story (following up on #4).
  6. I buy myself a lovely new planner so that I can assign myself a daily word count goal and track it.
  7. I sit down at the keyboard and start to write.

That’s it. At some point rather early on (usually within the first 10,000 words), the notes get tossed to the side because my characters have taken over. After writing as many stories as I have, I have gotten used to that happening, which is why I don’t bother doing a ton of plotting upfront. (For all you plotters out there, I bet that comment makes your skin feel itchy.)

As much as I love the idea of trackers, word counts, Excel spreadsheets, and the like, #6 gets tossed out the door because I’m clinging to dear life just trying to make sure I write something everyday. Some days, life gets the better of me and nothing gets down on the page. Other days, I am a writing goddess and bust through 10K words across several writing sessions in one day.

I tell you this because I’m currently gearing up to write another story. I’ve written about 800 words on it so far. It’s actually a story I’ve started and stopped several times because I haven’t gotten the front end quite right yet. This time though is different, and I’ll tell you why.

My character has a face. She has a name. She’s made herself known to me.

Until you feel that strong sense of who you’re writing about, the writing can feel flimsy, awkward, and disconnected. It’s work. Now I’m not saying that writing isn’t work, but when you aren’t connecting with the characters you’re writing about, it’s the kind of work that sucks out your soul.

Definitely no fun.

Two nights ago, as I was contemplating where I was going to go next in my writing journey, I stumbled across a cover reveal that I did over a year ago, and I remembered this little story that had gone nowhere.

And then BAM! She was there in my head. I had her and she couldn’t stop talking to me. I know more about her now then I ever have, and I know it’s time to tell her story.

That’s the amazing thing about opening the casting door and letting the characters in at will. Who shows up will always surprise you.

This is the first story that I’m going to “write out in the open”, if you will. In a post I did a few days ago, I emphasized the importance of simply finishing the story. To many people, that step feels very hard. So I’m going to let you into my world to see how I do it from beginning to end. That serves three purposes- you guys will be able to see that I am actually working on something new, I’m holding myself publicly accountable, and you’ll get to see first hand how the creative process works for me.

Happy Writing? 😉

(photo credit fabrizio q)

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When Authors Upset Readers

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I don’t rant often. At least not in public. But people who know me know that I have two big beefs with two big name authors.

Mr. Stephen King: Good ole SK and I go way back. Hell, he was a large part of the inspiration for me taking pen to paper to begin with. I cut my horror teeth on books like “IT” (which incidentally is still one of my favorite books of all time). For one reason or another though, it took me years to pick up The Gunslinger, which is the first book in his Dark Tower series. I think it was because it felt too fantasy/western-ish for me. (What- no vampires? No possessed cars? No kid with telekinesis? Next…)

What happened next surprised the crap out of me. The intertwining story of Roland, Jake, Eddie, and Odetta drew me and captivated me. I couldn’t stop. There are seven tomes in the series (some rather massive), but I plowed forward reading day and night. I read pretty fast, but it still took me almost two weeks to reach the pinnacle of the story in the last book. Then it was over, and I wanted to scream and throw things at the wall.

Not because it was over, but because of the way that King wrote the ending. I HATED it. I couldn’t believe that was how he chose to close out the epic plot. I felt sick. My mind was full of these characters, and what had been done to them. I was heartbroken for days.

And even though this happened in 2009, I’m still ticked off about it.

Mr. George R.R. Martin: I started reading Game of Thrones before it debuted on HBO- which I think mainstreamed the series. It took me a little while to get used to George’s writing style (particularly due to the continual violence against the female characters), but I was intrigued by the Stark family and growing tentacles of plot that followed each of the main characters.

Then (*spoiler alert*) he went and killed off poor Ned Stark at the end of the first book. I remember putting my iPad down thinking “WTF JUST HAPPENED?”.  Dumb me, I continued reading the next book.

You know the old saying “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me?” Well, I let old George fool me more times than I cared to count as each of my favorite characters (and I had to keep promoting new ones to that VIP status) fell to George’s killer pen. Finally, at the end of book 4, I said enough was enough. I won’t read anymore of the books because there isn’t really anyone left that I truly give a crap about.

Even Jimmy Fallon gets it.

You’re not fooling me again, George.

I’m a lot smarter about all of this stuff these days. With the internet, you can find out what’s going to happen throughout a series ahead of time, and then you can decide if you want to invest the time and energy to take the chance on it or not. (I’m looking at you, Charlaine Harris and Veronica Roth.)

So why the rant?

As frustrated, annoyed, angered, ticked off, hurt, sad, and bitter I am about these two series, I can’t deny one simple truth. I’m all of those things because the author was able to tell a story that sucked me in and got me emotionally invested. I connected with the characters in that magical way that makes them feel almost as real to me as the people around me. In the moments I spent with them, there’s no where else I’d rather have been.

That is a magical thing. And one that you don’t expect the author to abuse.

Right or wrong the author is the one that gets to make the decision on where the story goes and what the characters do. They invite us into their head and their worlds. They are sharing their creations with us, even though I feel quite possessive of them myself  (as if the story was written just for me). The only thing I have control over is whether I will continue to give them my attention or not (which is actually a pretty powerful thing when I think about this from my author perch).

Me and SK will continue to be buds. He’s proven himself with his other books that continue to entertain and delight me. Me and George are likely on the outs for good, but I’m not really sad at all about it.

Do you have a favorite author who did you wrong? Tell me about it in the comments!

Happy Reading…

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Tending To My Book Garden

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You might have noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the new release front of Cege Smith books. I wrapped up the last book in the Bloodtruth series in March, and then kind of disappeared for awhile.

There’s a few reasons for this:

  • I have the luxury for the first time since February 2012 of picking where I want to go next without having to worry that I’m disappointing readers (because you were waiting for the next book). I could write a sequel to Ageless. I could write a companion story to the Shadows trilogy. I could start something brand new entirely. It’s a bit heady really.
  • I was feeling a bit of burnout. 25 published works since November 2011 is pretty nutty when you think about it. By this time last year, I had published 3 short stories, 1 novella, one novel, and was halfway through a 2nd novel. That pace is exhilarating and exhausting, especially when still trying to find time for family and holding down a full-time job.
  • I realized that I had finally had the time and space to do some tending to my book garden.

This last point is really important for anyone who has jumped on the hamster wheel of being an indie author. There is always something to be done, whether it’s writing your next manuscript, promoting your work, or balancing your writing life with everything else you feel like you should be doing. A lot of things get prioritized much lower on the list and sometimes sacrificed altogether.

Dean Wesley Smith shared a great blog post on this recently in his “Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing” series. The post, called “Put the Book Up and Leave It” goes into great detail about the importance of tending to your book garden. I didn’t even really realize it, but this is what I’ve been doing since publishing A Heart’s Deceit in March.

I have three complete series under my belt, and honestly, the Shadows series has been the star performer since day one. I had some fantastic success with making Edge of Shadows free as part of the early days of the KDP Select program, and I also managed to complete the trilogy in just a tad over a year. I’ve only rebranded the covers once, although I continue to tweak the blurbs. It does well with promotions, and so I often feel like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Love it or hate it, that trilogy has earned out its production costs in spades and so, for now, to me it ain’t broke.

I’ve always thought that the Bloodtruth series suffered from the anti-Twilight backlash. Those characters are some of the nearest and dearest to my heart, and that is probably why it was the series that took the longest to finish. I so wanted to do Angeline’s story proper justice. Still, it wasn’t until I rebranded the covers late in 2013 and ran a successful Bookbub promo on Heiress of Lies in January that I felt like it was finally starting to get its legs. With the final book now done, I’d say it’s treading water and showing some very positive signs of momentum.

That brings me to the Twisted Souls series. It pains me to say that this series has yet to find its footing with readers. I’ve made tweaks here and there to covers and blurbs (and even the first book’s title), but I’ve never spent a lot of dedicated attention to it to try to figure out what went wrong. It’s a strange, quirky take on the zombie mythology, with some dystopian horror elements mixed in. That’s probably part of the problem too. It doesn’t fit well within any specific genre.

So I decided to spend some of my newly found down time rebranding that series and trying to find it a home with readers. So far, I’ve had positive comments about the new covers (which I personally love) and so I went ahead with my plans to finally put the series in paperback. I’ll keep tweaking, but I think the major work has been done. Perhaps this will be the year that series finally breaks even.

The future is full of promise, and I’m excited to see where the second half of 2014 takes me. Just know that if you don’t see me writing, I’m probably out back tending to my garden. 🙂

(Photo credit: Raddish + Rose)

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The “I Want To Publish A Book” Process: Step 1

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It took me a long time to embrace the label of “author”. As in, I probably had eight or nine published books out there before I stopped mumbling about my accomplishments when asked, and started answering with a sense of confidence and joy.

Since November 2011, I’ve published 25 novels/novellas/short stories under 3 pen names. I’ve completed three series. I’ve sold over 10,000 books, and had tens of thousands more downloaded for free. The craziest part of it is that I’ve done it all on my own (with help from very talented cover designers, editors, and beta readers, of course). I’m the captain of my own publishing ship- which is scary and exhilarating all at the same time.

So it’s come as no surprise to me that as more people understand what I’ve done and observe my (very) modest success, they’ve started to ask me questions on how to do what I’ve done. In my early days, when I was looking at the steps for self-publishing, I read every blog and forum post on the topic, devoured the few books that were there, and prowled the internet for every resource I could find. These days, there are a lot more people who have self-published, and a lot more info to be had. Still, it’s nice to be able to be able to talk to someone who has first-hand experience directly.

I could talk about this stuff until the cows come home. Seriously. I have an enormous stash of info in my head of what I’ve learned, what’s been successful, what I’d do differently, and what I’m planning to do next. (What’s the next stage of my career based on what I know today kind of stuff.) I believe I can literally drown someone in the details.

I have one qualifying question though before I launch into all of that. Because no matter what, it is truly Step 1 for any journey down the self-publishing path:

Have you finished writing the thing you want to sell?

99% of the time, I’ve found that the answer is “No”.

Erg. Hmm.

Then the next thing they’ll say though is “I really just want to know about the process”.

Here’s the thing. The process will never get off the ground unless you have a finished manuscript to work with. Again- I can drown you in lists and resources of what you can do to package up your work, how to get it uploaded to the various retailers, and some insights on marketing and promotion. I have a whole host of tips and tricks around what to do and what not to do. But all of that is meaningless without something tangible to sell.

In fact, I think focusing on the publishing process before you have finished your writing project can be detrimental to the whole thing for a few different reasons:

  • It gives you a reason to procrastinate. Hey, I’m a writer. I find that I will give myself almost any excuse not to sit down and get my words in. I’m a freakin expert at that. Don’t give yourself a shiny new object that takes your eyes off the end goal: finishing the story.
  • It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Google “Self-publishing” and do a little scrolling. Everyone has something to say on this topic- whether they’ve actually done it or not. Everyone’s an expert. It’s really hard to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff, or spot the people out there trying to shill stuff to newbies who don’t know any better. The process can feel big and scary and hard the first time around (and I’m not lying- it is). But, it’s a whole lot easier to navigate when you have a finished manuscript in hand.
  • It’s easy to get discouraged. Once you start reading about the mountain of work that is required to self-publish, the self-loathing that sets in with your first bad reviews, and the amount of time that is spent trying to get eyeballs on your work, you’ll likely want to throw your hands up and give up. (Been there too.)
  • You’re delaying the experience of typing “The End”. There’s nothing like it, and I still get goosebumps when I type those words on any of my manuscripts. People are in such a rush to publish that they forget the joy that comes from being a storyteller. You miss out on the amazing rush that comes from being a creator. It’s heady and very cool, and you’ll want to enjoy every second of those moments with your characters before you hand them over to the world.

So net net, here’s the best piece of advice I can give you if you want to publish a book.

Finish it first.

Worry about the publishing process later.

Happy Writing!

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Give Me Balance, Or Give Me…Death? Another Resolution Post

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Five days into 2014, I have to admit I’m feeling pretty good about my New Year’s resolutions. I know, I know. It’s only been five days, but you have to start somewhere. As I reviewed my list of potential resolutions during the last few weeks of December, I realized that I could easily drive myself bonkers trying to be “Cege v2.0” in 2014. But if I’ve learned anything about myself over the last thirty-eight years, it’s that I latch onto goals, have a short burst of energy, and then burn out, and crash 2-3 weeks later.

Then I ran across this meme which completely changed my perspective on approaching my resolutions:

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It was time to pull out the KISS method to create my resolutions (Keep It Simple, Stupid if you’ve never run into the expression before.) Hence I refocused my resolutions on changing engrained behaviors, which should lead to the results that I want.

So let’s start here:

BALANCE

2013 felt lopsided to me for many reasons. I started out the beginning of the year with an extremely aggressive production schedule for my writing that included rolling out a new pen name. I actually did pretty well on that front through the first quarter, but that output wasn’t sustainable when my personal life fell apart in a way that dramatically altered many aspects of my life.

By the time I recovered, I felt so derailed that I slowed down even more. The result of that? The delay of the conclusion to both the Twisted Souls and Bloodtruth series.

Careful examination of every diet and weight loss program I’ve ever attempted yields an interesting thing. After finding initial success, things fizzle out because I never spend the time to change the behaviors that caused me to overeat to begin with. I went into it every time full force, but then burned out, and was right back where I started from.

I’m an extremist. I’ve learned over the years that I get short-term results by immersing myself into whatever activity I’m doing, and that works. But it never sticks long-term. I need to learn patience, celebrate small milestones, and keep an unwavering focus on keeping my feet on the balance beam of life, and that includes not acting like a crazy person when the newest diet fad comes around.

It applies to my work, my play, my diet, and my mental health. Achieving BALANCE will push me higher and further than any short-term burst of productivity.

WRITING IT DOWN

This probably sounds silly coming from a writer. I put words to paper and computer screen all day long every day. But that’s my stories and messing around on Facebook and Twitter. That’s not outlining a life plan that clearly spells out what I want to accomplish and how I’m going to measure if I’m successful.

We’ve all probably hear about the Harvard (or Yale) class study that studied the effects of writing down goals. The problem with that study is that is never actually happened. But, an educator at Dominican University did her own study and was able to confirm the results of the supposed Harvard/Yale study. When you write down your goals and hold yourself accountable (in collaboration with a partner), you have a greater chance of achieving your goals.

To keep things organized and keep myself from being distracted, I plan to write down short and long-term goals in a place where I see them daily, and reassess them often to adjust as needed. That will keep the goals and action plans fresh and relevant.

No doubt about it. Sometimes not making New Year’s resolutions seems like the path of least resistance. But I’m still optimistic, and I’m going implement the tweaks to behavior that I mentioned above.

That’s it. Two things, but two things that if I stick with them can mean a tremendous difference in my life for many reasons.

What about you? What are your 2014 resolutions?

Photo Credit: dleell

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