Writing and Publishing

“Here are some tips on writing dialogue,” she said.

I’ll never write a post about how to plot. It’s not my strong suit. My attempts at plotting typically involve letting my characters run all over the place and hoping they do something coherent at some point.

StimpyWriting
(via Spümcø)

But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to write decent dialogue. I love the flow of it, the rhythm, the pauses and the beat. Good dialogue always serves a purpose. It reveals little things about your characters in slick and subtle ways. A passage of skillfully-written dialogue is like a dance between the speakers, measured and justified.

Obviously, everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s a ramble, and it’s all based on my own experiences as a writer and a reader. It’s what I offer when I’m asked for dialogue advice. You might disagree with some or all of it, and that’s cool! It’s subjective. Having said that, here’s what I’ve learned about writing dialogue . . .

To write good dialogue, you need to listen. Listening has always come naturally to me because I’m a super-quiet introvert who would rather let others dominate the conversation, but anyone can learn to listen more effectively.

Eavesdropping is a great way to do this. Yes, I’m suggesting you be nosy. Go somewhere fairly busy, like a coffee shop, where you can hang out for a while. Get a flat white or a frappuccino or an iced tea, park yourself at a table, and listen. Without being obvious about it (pretend to read a book or play with your phone), pay attention to the conversations going on around you. Imagine those people as characters in a story. Notice the cadence of each comment, the tone, the pauses. Feel how the dialogue ebbs and flows. Is it snappy or slow? Are the speakers happy? Impatient? Upset? Indifferent? Distracted? What can you infer from listening to them for a minute or two? How would you translate those inferences into words in a manuscript?

You can practice with movies, too. Before watching a movie you’re not too familiar with, look up some quotations and dialogue online (you might even be able to find the entire script). Read portions to yourself and picture them playing out on the screen. Then watch the movie and see how close you were. Notice how much more information comes across through the actors’ performances. Writers don’t have that advantage, so we need to include enough nuance to let the reader visualize and “hear” the conversation.

After writing a passage of dialogue, I always find it helpful to read it out loud. Some lines sound so different out loud. A line might seem to work fine on the page, but when you hear it, you’ll realize the rhythm is a bit off, or the phrasing sounds unnatural.

When I’m reading a book with especially good dialogue, sometimes I’ll read passages out loud simply because it’s enjoyable to do so. I want readers to enjoy the dialogue I write that much, and I bet you want the same for yours.

Finally, a few things to look out for when writing dialogue:

Characters using each other’s names too often. Again, listen to real conversations and notice how seldom most people use names unless they’re trying to get someone’s attention or really emphasize a point. This can get tricky when you’re writing scenes involving multiple characters and you need to show who’s addressing whom, but if your characters are constantly saying things like, “Jane, how was your day?” or “I paid that bill last week, Roger,” or “I’m running to the store, Allie, do you need anything?” consider revising to minimize some of that. Use names in dialogue when you (or your characters) have a good reason for doing so.

Dialogue that’s overly formal and stilted, or that avoids contractions and other spoken shortcuts. I’m not telling you to jump headfirst into writing in dialect (which is SUPER tricky and potentially offensive if it’s not a dialect you share), but you don’t want your characters speaking like robots: “We are going to the store, and later I will stop by the post office.” That might work for some characters (if you’re writing Downton Abbey fanfic, for example, go for it!), but when I see, for example, teenage characters in young adult contemporary speaking like that, it can be really jarring. Compare the above line to something like, “Hey, we’re gonna run to the store. I’ll go by the post office later.” Dialogue doesn’t need to employ perfect grammar; often, it really, really shouldn’t.

Careless tags and description. The unspoken parts of dialogue-heavy scenes are just as important as what’s actually said. Choose tags (said, asked, exclaimed, yelled, whispered, etc.) with care. The right tags will blend into the dialogue; the wrong ones will stand out (this is not the time to grab the most creative synonym your thesaurus can deliver) or cause an uncomfortable amount of repetition. Personally, I like to avoid tags as much as possible and let the action illustrate who is speaking.

MammothCover3D002Here’s a snippet from Mammoth that illustrates the above points. It’s a fairly unimportant bit of dialogue that exists mostly to get Mellie and Eli, the paleontology program’s senior interns, out of the dorm for a bit so shenanigans can happen, but it shows how I balance multiple characters, use action to note who’s speaking, and choose tags that blend into the narrative:

That evening, we’re watching a zombie show in the common room when Mellie speaks up. “So guys? Can Eli and I trust y’all to your own devices for a few hours?”

“Depends,” Brendan says. “Why?”

From a chair in the corner, Eli scowls. “I don’t like this.”

Mellie shushes him. “There’s a special showing at the Drafthouse that we really want to see.”

“That you want to see,” Eli mutters.

“Take us with you.” Brendan leans back with a negotiator’s grin.

“It’s an anniversary showing of Dirty Dancing.” Mellie’s tone grows bubbly. “The best romantic classic ever!”

“Never mind,” Brendan says.

“So . . .” Mellie raises her brows at us.

I shrug. “Sure, go.”

“I still think this is a shitty idea,” Eli says.

Mellie jumps up and tugs on his hand, pulling him off the chair. “Come on. Nobody puts Eli in a corner!”

Eli grunts.

In thirteen lines of dialogue (I count Eli’s grunt as a line, heh), I only used four speech tags, and even that feels like a bit much. And only one of them is more unique than “says.”

But you’ve gotten hints about the characters. From the dialogue and the action that surrounds it, you get a sense that Mellie is playful and bossy, Eli is a grump, and Brendan is a bit of a schemer. Mammoth’s main character, Natalie, only gets one spoken line, but since she’s the narrator, everything here is filtered through her point of view, and what she focuses on lets us infer things about her as well.

The characters don’t always speak in complete sentences. They use contractions like it’s and there’s and y’all (the book takes place in Texas, after all). The only time a character says someone’s name is when Mellie specifies that she’s asking a question on behalf of both herself and Eli.

What are some books that you feel handle dialogue especially well? Let me know in the comments!

Writing and Publishing

Rejection: How to Deal

I feel really old when I think about my history with rejection. When I first got serious about sending queries and submitting work to agents and publications, almost no one in the business used email as a default, and rejections took the form of slips of paper or little cards or photocopied form letters. Sometimes they showed up with bonus grease stains or a brown ring from a jostled coffee mug. One of my writing professors told me that he used to pin his rejection letters to his office wall. Seeing them all the time kept him going, purely out of spite. After I heard that, I held onto most of my rejections as well:

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That’s only a sampling. There were a lot. Those slips and scraps represent my efforts to publish several books and a number of short stories. There are probably some poetry rejections in there, too. And those are just the hard-copy rejections; I’ve got tons of email rejections saved, too. I should probably just burn/delete the whole mess, right? Why hold onto hundreds of disappointments?

But I’m proud of that pile. Those notes are proof that I tried, that I’ve been working at this since I was in college. I swept all those NOs up in a folder, tucked them away and kept fighting, even when I was almost too intimidated and disappointed to manage, even when my anxiety disorder tried its best to swamp me into stopping.

Rejection is part of the industry, but understanding that on a rational level doesn’t really do much to lessen the sting. It hurts whether it’s your first rejection or your five hundredth. If you’re thinking about submitting your work somewhere–or if you’re already deep in the query trenches–here are a few thoughts that might help you deal with the lows, at least a little:

Accept that rejection sucks. IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe you’ve spent months or years drafting a story. You poured your heart into it. Sharing a manuscript like that in a professional context leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and sometimes all your effort gets shoved aside with a form letter. (Or with no response at all, which I think is worse. Silence is the chilliest form of rejection.) That’s frustrating as hell! Let yourself be mad or upset for a little bit–just don’t wallow. Don’t let it weigh you down. Letting it out is healthier than holding it in and/or trying to convince yourself you’re not feeling it.

Vent in private. Whatever you do, DO NOT reply to rejections. Even if you’re frustrated. Even if the rejection felt rude. Don’t do it. Instead, find a friend or two who are willing to listen. In person, online, over the phone–whatever works. You might want to talk to someone who’s at a similar stage of the process (in that case, remember to return the favor when it’s their turn to vent). Most of the friends who listened to me complain weren’t querying themselves and didn’t always understand the process, but that worked fine for me. I just needed someone to listen while I went “BLAH!” for a minute or two. So go “BLAH!” and then breathe and let it go.

Reframe rejections as practice. The critical feedback in this business never ends. If you don’t get used to it, you’ll be miserable. Working through your early rejections will make the edit letters and the unfairly cruddy reviews that much easier to process later on. The rejections typically continue, too, even for a lot of successful writers. They’re not going away, but you can learn to get used to them.

Remember that if someone doesn’t feel strongly enough about your work to represent or publish it, they’re not the ones you want representing or publishing your work. It’s not personal. It’s just not a good professional fit for either of you. You want to work with people who are going to champion your projects, fight for your best interests, and help shape your career.

Work on something else. THIS. This is the biggie. Always have another project going. It’s a welcome distraction and a reminder that the story you’re shopping around right now isn’t the end of the road. If this one doesn’t find a home right away, maybe the next one will–but that can only happen if you actually write the next one.

I’ve long since shelved most of the projects that collected all those rejections in the photo, but I didn’t let that pile of NOs stop me. If I had, I wouldn’t have written or sold Spookygirl or Mammoth, and I wouldn’t have several more WIPs on the way. I kept going. So can you. Kate McKinnon would totally back me up on that:

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(NBC Universal)

(And hey, if you’re curious about how to avoid the mistakes I made in those early querying days, check out my post on how not to query.)

Life, Writing and Publishing

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Tom Petty may not have had experience in book publishing, but still . . . HE KNEW.

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(Geffen Records)

Publishing moves at its own pace. If you’re on deadline, you might feel like there’s not enough time and OMG where did the day go and HEY LET’S PANIC, but there’s also a lot of waiting around in this business. Maybe an agent requested your manuscript (yay!). Or maybe you’re on sub and editors are reviewing your submission package (double yay!). Whether you’re waiting for betas to check out your newest manuscript or your editor to sign off on your latest revisions, here are a few ideas to distract you from constantly refreshing your email or obsessively checking your phone.

  • New project! This is the gold standard for dealing with the delays in publishing. Grab one of those plot bunnies hopping around in your head and get to work. Whether you’re a careful outliner or a true pantster, you’ll worry less about work-in-progress #1 if you’re wrapped up in work-in-progress #2. Plus, you’ll eventually finish and submit #2, and then you’ll have a whole new round of waiting and hoping to deal with–which just means it’s time to start #3!
  • Cheer on other writers! Look, you’re already glued to Twitter or Instagram, right? If you’re not already doing so, boost some new releases. Take a sec to congratulate fellow writers on signing with an agent or finishing a manuscript or announcing a deal. That support can mean a lot, especially when so many of us feel like social media is mostly a lot of screaming into the void. You might even make some new writer friends!
  • Read! Um, too obvious? Tackle that TBR pile. And when you finish a good book, recommend it on social media or leave a nice review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. I was going to include a list of my own recent reads in this post, but at this point it’s long enough to need a post of its own.
  • Hobbies! Have you been wanting to learn to knit? Practice the ukulele? Plant an herb garden? Now’s the time! I rarely have a moment to dig out my embroidery or sewing projects when I’m neck-deep in drafting, so when I’m between projects, I love working on . . . other projects! That aren’t writing!
  • DIY/repairs! Okay, minor home renovation projects aren’t always fun, but most of us probably have a few of them floating around in the backs of our minds. I recently redid some of the caulk in my bathroom because that’s the kind of exciting life I lead. But hey, it’s done!
  • Try to sell your house! Okay, probably not. But I’m currently living in a house that’s on the market, and it’s providing plenty of distractions. Most of them aren’t good distractions (“Oh, you had plans for today? Nope, there’s a showing this afternoon, so you’re spending the morning cleaning only for the real estate agent to cancel at the last minute, what fun!”), but they’re distracting either way*.
  • Dark magic! Oh, you know, just put a hex on whoever sent your most recent rejection, or sign away your soul in return for the promise of a nice publication deal. I’m kidding, I’m kidding! (Or am I? The waiting game can get you to consider all kinds of possibilities…)
  • Scream! Try it. It might help. And breathe, and remember that the waiting won’t last forever.
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(Fox)
*Once this place sells, I’m totally writing a guide to coping with an anxiety disorder while living in a property that’s up for sale, because that is just a whole other mess.
Writing and Publishing

How (Not) to Query

Every step on the hopeful journey to publication is fraught with potential horror, but there’s something especially cringe-worthy about the querying process. It’s a different brand of ugh. I started querying literary agents in the early 2000s, and I unsuccessfully shopped a number of manuscripts.

When I was getting started, there weren’t as many query-related resources as there are today. That was before most agents started blogging. I’m not sure if AbsoluteWrite existed yet, but if it did, I certainly wasn’t aware of it or other sites like it. There was no YA Twitter where you could connect with other writers and find critique partners. I went to Barnes & Noble and found a book about querying–it was full of amazing advice like “Find unusual ways to make your letter stand out! Include little gifts with your queries! Fill the envelope with glitter!”

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DON’T DO ANY OF THAT. Those aren’t exact quotes, but they’re close. I can’t imagine that I still have that book, but if I come across it, I’ll share its dreadful wisdom.

Is it any surprise that I made a lot of bad choices when it came to querying? I’m occasionally decent at it now (you can find the final version of Mammoth’s query over on Eric Smith’s blog), but that wasn’t always the case. Since I love pointing out my own inadequacies (my therapist probably just developed a sudden headache and has no idea why), I’m going to share a few of the mistakes I made in my first query letter around 2003. Don’t do these things.

The first project I queried on my own was an urban fantasy called The Shades of Shadow. Y’all. I wrote the query letter from the POV of one of the main characters. Seriously, I went all out. I designed his fancy letterhead and I bought special paper and everything. It was adorable and terrible. DO NOT DO THIS. The letter was also two full pages long–while it’s not an absolute rule, especially now that most queries are emailed, I recommend keeping them under a page. In an effective query, every word counts. You don’t want to ramble.

Let’s check out the opening paragraphs (since I’m too embarrassed to share the whole thing):

What would you do, [agent name], if a character from your favorite novel showed up one evening at your front door? My name is Aidan Brennan, and I am the sort of character who does just that. That’s also exactly what happens to Miriam McKay in THE SHADES OF SHADOW, the manuscript for which I’m seeking representation. SHADES clocks in at 308 pages and is the beginning of a series; the next two volumes are in progress.

I also happen to be a vampire, and I’m well aware that you’re rolling your eyes at my admission. It’s a mistake to pigeonhole my series as nothing more than “vampire fiction,” or even worse, horror or sci-fi. My vision for the series is far more mainstream than that – my writer and I are aiming for a new commercial realm of character-driven supernatural realism, an invasive and suspenseful remolding of the concepts of fiction and fact. After all, there’s more gray area between the two than most people are willing to admit.

Oh no. Oh Jill, you sweet summer child. At least I remembered to replace [agent name] with each agent’s actual name in the copies I mailed. Let’s break this down. In addition to writing from my character’s point of view . . .

  • I used awkward clichés like “clocks in at.”
  • I refused to name a genre and tried to make one up.
  • I dismissed and insulted several other genres.
  • I talked down to the agent (I blame Aidan for this, heh).
  • I did this for TWO PAGES.
  • I opened my letter with a “what would you do” question.

That last detail isn’t as cringe-worthy as the rest, but it’s been done to death and it’s rarely an effective hook. If you can’t grab an agent’s attention with your query, you’re indicating that you might have an equally hard time grabbing readers’ attention with your book.

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via tenor.com

The genre details were awkward because I demonstrated that I had no idea where my project fit into the market. Offering a few decent comps would have been way more effective than trying so hard to set myself apart.

Interestingly, the response to this letter wasn’t as negative as you might expect. My dream agent was actually really amused; she addressed her (very kind and personalized) rejection to both Aidan and me, and I got several full manuscript requests from other agents. Nothing came of those requests (because the story itself was a mess), but still.

Because of that, my last querying tip is this: Don’t stress too much about the possibility of making a querying mistake. Y’all, if I could get full requests with that query, anything is possible. Do your research, read some examples of good queries, ask a few critique partners or trusted friends to take a look at your letter, and trust in the story you’re trying to sell.

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via giphy.com
Writing and Publishing

Pre-Order Campaigns: What I Learned, Whether They’re Worthwhile, What I’d Do Differently

When I was planning Mammoth’s pre-order campaign, I read several blog posts from other writers (like Eric Smith and Rachel Lynn Solomon) discussing campaigns they’ve run. Those posts were incredibly helpful, and since I learned a lot while organizing my campaign, I decided to do a write-up of my own. Maybe it’ll help someone else.

This won’t be short. Grab a snack. Dig in. (HAHAA YES I AM STILL MAKING PALEONTOLOGY REFERENCES I WILL NEVER STOP)

First of all, is it pre-order or preorder? I prefer pre-order.

A pre-order campaign is a way to reward people who order your book before its release date. Pre-orders are important. I’m no publishing expert, but from what I understand, a boost in early sales numbers looks good to your publisher and can influence other sales. If early demand for your book is high, more bookstores and sellers are likely to stock it. You want people to pre-order your book, and with so many amazing books coming out these days, it’s not getting any easier to get buyers to commit to yours, especially when it won’t launch for a month or more. I appreciated every pre-order Mammoth got, and I wanted to show that appreciation.

Pre-order campaigns are as complicated as you make them, but they’re always more complicated than you’d expect. Decide how much time you can realistically put into your campaign, and have a budget in mind. Whatever you think it’ll cost, increase that by at least 50%. It will cost more than you expect, and it’s better to have a surplus than to run out of money.

If the campaign is your idea, go for it. If it’s something your publisher is pushing for, ask them to cover at least some of the costs. Heck, ask either way, just in case. You never know.

Your budget isn’t just for the swag itself. It’s also for any related packaging costs, as well as postage. SO MUCH POSTAGE. Keep postage in mind when figuring out what kind of swag you want to include–flat items like stickers and bookmarks are so much easier and cheaper than bulkier items to ship. Research the rates, especially if you want your campaign to be international.

And if you don’t have a lot of experience with packing and shipping, keep things EVEN MORE simple. I ran an Etsy store for nine years and shipped something like five thousand little stuffed monsters all over the world, and that experience came in really handy. So did a lot of leftover supplies I’ve held onto. I would’ve floundered otherwise.

For Mammoth’s campaign, I set up a separate email account for people to submit their pre-order proof (usually a screen grab of their order confirmation). Keeping the requests in an account of their own, rather than having them get lost in the vast caverns of my main Gmail accounts, was really helpful. Some campaigns have web forms instead of email, so that’s another option.

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I designed my own bookmarks, stickers, bookplates and postcards, basing most of them around the fossil-heart design from the cover. The additional sketches are my own. I’m not a professional graphic designer, but I have a lot of experience designing promo items, and I think I did okay. If you’re not comfortable doing that yourself, and it’s not something your publisher is doing for you, don’t forget to figure the cost of hiring a designer into your budget.

(Yes, one of my stickers features my cat, Gatsby. It’s a long story. He’s an honorary smilodon.)

I got most of those items printed through GotPrint.com. The quality was great and the turnaround time was very reasonable.

I also created paleontology-themed keychains, which I assembled by hand. I used to help my dad with his hobby of importing jewelry and related components, so I knew how to source the charms, and I put together a hundred keychains while watching a movie. The cost was well under a dollar per keychain, not including my time.

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I also wanted to do a run of enamel pins, but that was out of my budget, so I used my button press (a professional model by Tecre–it’s an absolute beast and I love it so much) to make sets of one-inch pins. I had the press and a ton of supplies left over from my Etsy days, so the cost per button was extremely low. They took a considerable amount of time to assemble, but I kind of love doing mindless work while watching Netflix.

Since not all of my items were flat, I didn’t want to risk shipping them in normal envelopes. My go-to choice in my Etsy days was padded envelopes, but those don’t offer protection for flat items like bookmarks. For the campaign, I bought rigid mailers in bulk. (I’m not linking my source because their politics are absolute garbage and I’m searching for an alternative.) The mailers protected the flat items while having just enough room for keychains and buttons.

I packed the mailers assembly-line style. First I packaged the buttons and keychains in their little baggies. Then I wrote my thank-yous on the postcards. Then I counted out how many of each item I needed, and I sorted the items into individual piles. Each pile went into an envelope. Then I went down my pre-order list and plugged each address into Endicia, and printed the postage.

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One of several batches of swag ready to mail

I used USPS to mail everything. Because the mailers were rigid and not uniformly flat, I paid package shipping rates. (I miiiiight have been able to get away with paying for a cheaper option, but I didn’t want anyone receiving a postage-due envelope because some postal employee somewhere got overzealous.) Again, my Etsy background came in handy–I still have the Endicia account and the Dymo label printer I used back then, and the resulting discount saved me about a dollar per envelope (and I printed my postage from home, so I didn’t need to stand in line at the post office).

I also set limits. International shipping costs have gotten increasingly bogus*, so I only offered flat swag that could go in a normal envelope to anyone who pre-ordered from outside the US. I felt kind of rotten about this, but I tried to keep it as fair as possible without maxing out my credit card in the process. I also limited the keychains and buttons to the first 75 US pre-orders. In the end, I didn’t hit that limit, but I’m glad I had it in place. There are so many unknowns to consider in terms of potential results. I know of campaigns that have gotten less than 50 requests, and campaigns that have gotten more than 500. That’s a big difference in terms of cost and time.

Also, consider the environmental aspect of all this. Envelopes, any additional packaging materials, the swag itself . . . It adds up. Consider using recycled and recyclable supplies. You can avoid this aspect by offering digital bonus items (I gave people who pre-ordered Mammoth early access to a companion short story and a “fashion field guide” from Natalie’s blog).

There’s also the aspect of fairness. Not everyone can afford to pre-order books, so if you can have an option for those who request the book at their local library (which is also really helpful!), it’s a cool thing to do. Digital bonus items are great for this, as is flat swag if you can afford the postage.

So was it worth it? I mean . . . probably not? Getting the word out without constantly spamming my social media was so hard. But I heard from several people who weren’t aware of Mammoth before they found the campaign, and who then pre-ordered because of the campaign, so there’s that. Plus, I had so much fun putting it together. Like I said earlier, I can happily spend an afternoon bingeing Netflix while doing mindless work. It made me miss my Etsy days. Plus, now I hand out the leftover swag at local events, so it still helps me promote Mammoth.

(I even considered starting a side hustle doing pre-order campaign packages for other writers, but I’m not sure I could get the cost down enough to make it worth it while still covering my time. But maybe. It could be an interesting project for 2019. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy all this?)

The one element I think wasn’t worth it was the sweepstakes. I offered two prize packs within the US and one for international pre-orders (again, because of shipping). I don’t think they got much attention or encouraged anyone to order, and they were costly to ship. Plus, there are so many rules and legalities to consider. On the other hand, the winners have been SO HAPPY, and I’m a people pleaser, so that element worked well for me.

Would I do another campaign? Probably. I’d skip the sweepstakes aspect, and unless I came up with an irresistible idea, I’d consider sticking with flat swag to make mailing cheaper and easier. For example, I’d love to hire an artist to create character portraits for trading cards or small art prints. I also really like the idea of digital bonus content, especially from an environmental aspect, but I don’t know if that’s tempting enough to generate any pre-orders.

One last thing: Sadly, there are ways to fake order confirmations, and some people will go through a lot of fuss to get something for free, even if they have no interest in actually ordering your book. If you run a campaign, keep an eye out for anything that looks fishy.

I think that’s about it! Sorry for the length, but I really did learn so much, and there’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking of running a campaign yourself. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!

 

*No, seriously. When I started selling on Etsy in 2006, it cost about $3.00 to ship a three-ounce padded envelope to, say, the UK. Now it’s about $13.00. I CRY. It cost me more to ship a button set, keychain and bandana to the UK than to ship a four-pound box via USPS Priority Mail halfway across the country. I knew that was the case, but if a writer organized an international campaign without being aware . . . What a punch to the gut. As of 2018, an envelope of flat swag weighing less than one ounce only costs $1.15 to ship internationally–that’s a lot more reasonable and easy to budget for.
Writing and Publishing

Mammoth: Cover Concepts

Can we talk covers for a moment? I’m still not over the darling cover art Turner Publishing came up with for Mammoth:

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I have ALL THE APPRECIATION AND GRATITUDE for creative director Madeline Cothren and artist Jo Walker because this design still makes me fall in love every time I see it. Mammoth is about hard, unyielding things — fossils, the reception women receive in male-dominated fields, the kind of raw ambition that can result in reckless decisions — but it’s also a soft, sweet, optimistic story about discovery and vulnerability and love. Somehow, this cover captures both sides of the narrative.

I mean, come on — a heart made out of half-buried mammoth bones? It couldn’t be more perfect. I SWOON.

However, Mammoth almost looked completely different.

Several years ago, when I was unagented, I considered self-publishing Mammoth. I held off because I couldn’t come up with a cover concept I liked, so I never got as far as commissioning an artist/designer to create anything for me. I knew I didn’t want a photograph of a model meant to look like Natalie (the book’s main character, plus-size fashion blogger, and resident paleontology geek). I liked the idea of representing Natalie without actually depicting her, so in early 2016 I played around with this mock-up in Photoshop:

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Totally different! A pair of dig site tools and some random bits of dirt scatter over a skull image from one of Natalie’s sketchbooks. (She usually sketches fashion ideas, but I can totally imagine her drawing a fossil here and there.) The title’s scribbled with Natalie’s signature lipstick. There are retro-inspired polka-dots and a black/white/red color scheme Aunt Judy would adore. There’s a bit of a skull-and-crossbones theme representing how Natalie occasionally goes rogue when a paleo discovery’s at stake. But overall . . . It’s harsh. This design is like Natalie early in the book, when she’s strong and flawless on the outside, but there’s no hint of the evolution she undergoes during her time at the dig site. The story’s softness is missing. I never moved forward with this concept, obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t. (Especially since I made such a mess of the brush bristles in Photoshop! I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to design.)

It wasn’t a total loss, though. I’ve gotten to recycle a few of its elements in swag designs. My skull sketch is on bookmarks, info cards, buttons…

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Mammoth had to wait a few more years for a perfect cover, but it has one now. ❤

(If you like its final cover design, why not add Mammoth on Goodreads?)

Writing and Publishing

You Are Allowed To Disappoint People.

Should authors read reviews of their books? OH BOY. Let’s talk about this for a sec.

One of my best friends is currently reading Mammoth. “You know,” she said the other day, her tone hesitant, “this one’s a lot better than Spookygirl.”

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I kid. She’s right.

I like to think I’ve learned a lot in the years since Spookygirl. I love that book, I do, but its road to publication was unusual (winning the ABNA) and it might have benefited from the extra steps attached to more traditional publication methods. A savvy agent would have called me out on certain details before the book even got near an editor, and I might have been a bit surer about whether I should leave some plotlines open (since I originally envisioned the story as a trilogy or series) or tie up everything neatly.

I was anxious and curious and new to publishing, and I read every Spookygirl review I could find. So many were wonderful! What surprised me, however, was how constructive a lot of the more negative reviews were. I learned so much about relying too much on stereotypes. About the risk of populating too much of a story with throwaway supporting characters. About when to dig deeper. I really did listen, and I’m grateful to readers who took a moment to explain why they didn’t like the book instead of just hitting that one-star rating.

(IMPORTANT: I’m not saying you should tag authors in your negative reviews! I’m not saying you should send authors your criticism. No, nononono. That’s kind of cruel, and some readers seem to delight in it. Don’t do that. But know that some of us do appreciate your honesty, even when it’s critical.)

I thought a lot about whether I should do the same with Mammoth reviews. After all, I used the lessons I learned from Spookygirl reviews when I wrote and revised Mammoth. Shouldn’t I want to keep learning?

Erm, hold up. That’s where my therapist would stop me and call me out on using “should” language. Shoulds are tricky. They seem so sensible, but they’re a great way to load yourself down with pressure and expectation and anxiety.

Mammoth is a deeply personal story. I put a lot of myself into Natalie and her struggle to love and accept herself. The book deals with sensitive topics like weight and self-image, and there’s no one right way to tackle those things. There’s no universal experience when it comes to being fat. Some readers will identify with Natalie’s path. Others won’t. I fully expect criticism from those whose experiences have differed from Nat’s, who wanted something else from the story, and that criticism is valid. But at some point I’ll have to draw a line and protect my own anxious, scattered brain a bit, along with my heart, which is so thoroughly invested in making sure Mammoth’s fashion-blogger-science-geek realizes just how awesome she is.

They say that you can’t please everyone. To a people pleaser like me, that just sounds like a challenge.

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Nah. I’m tossing that saying aside and going with “You’re allowed to disappoint people” instead. Every book out there (and every movie and every show and every song and and and) disappoints someone. If you’re preoccupied with that, you won’t be able to create your best, strongest, bravest work. You’ll risk diluting your brilliance into something bland. You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that, either.

The disappointment will be out there, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you have to go digging for it.

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Learning to dig at Waco Mammoth National Monument (then Waco Mammoth Site), 2013.