AC: Writing, writing, writing—both archaeology and storytelling takes a lot of skill and time at the keyboard. The irony is that I opted away from being an archaeologist in my younger years because I felt like there was a little too much writing required. It wasn’t going to be near as adventure-filled as Indiana Jones made it seem. Now, having over thirty published books in my rear view mirror, I roll my eyes at my younger self. Although, truth be told, the overwhelming number of bugs involved with many dig sites, along with exposure to the heat and humidity makes writing novels in the comfort of my home much more appealing, especially as I grow older.
However, I do still find archaeology fascinating. Not so much the procedural side of the career, but the adventure and discovery and historical enlightenment that comes with digging into the past. That is why I have a series starring an archaeologist heroine. I’m living vicariously through my character, and have a lot of fun researching the past along with her while planning those books.
B&P: Do you approach your writing from a “what if” perspective, and how does that affect your non-writing life?
AC: I live in a “what if” world 24/7 both on and off the pages. Being a natural born worrier, “what if” has hovered at the fringes of my thoughts whether I wanted it to or not. I do believe that this mindset can be beneficial when it comes to creating stories. It helps to open my mind to all sorts of possibilities for the plot, for characters, as well as for the left-brained side of the story writing business.
Take marketing. This beast is wily and constantly changing its colors. To stay ahead of the wave—or just somewhere near the top—you have to think forward and play out several “what if” scenarios. For example, what if I drop a few hundred dollars on a single ad and I don’t make my money back? Another example might be, what if I invest a lot of time and money to change my covers for a particular series and it ups my sales by 25%? Will that mean I should change my other series’ covers that seems to be doing okay as is?
This also plays out with my personal life. What if I choose to take a weekend off and binge a television series with one of my kids? How will that affect the deadlines I have set in place for the next book release? I’ll stop there because I could “what if” us off into the sunset and drive everyone nuts.
I think it’s important to find ways to take a break from the “what if” life. It’s not easy, and I haven’t mastered that quite yet, but I have figured out ways to take breaks now and then.
AC: Not well, I fear. Ha! Seriously, it’s tough. I have times when I feel like I’m doing a bang-up job, and then there’s times when I think I’m crashing and burning.
One of the wonderful things about writing full-time is that I’m home a lot for my kids. I might be sitting at my desk working, but if they need me, I’m right there. I can adjust my schedule to fit in a school event or to run them to the store for an item they need for a project.
One of the harder parts about writing full-time is that I’m home a lot with my kids. That means I might be in the middle of an action scene where it’s important to really be “in there” with the characters and one of my kids walks up to me and asks me if I’ve seen their favorite shirt, yanking me out of the scene.
Mainly I try to juggle this career as best I can with motherhood. When they were little, I would wait to do a lot of work until they were asleep. Now that they are older, I can fit writing and author business in while they are doing homework. They’ve grown up with author parents, so to them, things like traveling for weeks over the summer for book signings and hearing their parents talk about characters as if they’re real people is normal.
B&P: How would you describe your novels in one sentence?
AC: Character-driven stories sprinkled with humor, mystery, suspense, romance, supernatural elements, and whatever else feels right.
B&P: What techniques do you use to improve your skills?
AC: I study movies that I enjoy a lot. I’ll watch them over and over—20 or 30 or more times. I’m a visual learner, so it helps me if I watch body language, listen to dialogue, study setting for emotional effects, imagine directing the movie and how I’d move the characters around the set, and imagine the music that would be playing during a scene. To focus on all of these different pieces, it requires multiple viewings. During certain parts of the film I might try to imagine how I would write that on the page and yet keep the pacing appropriate for the scene. Or, I might jot notes on how I would show a certain emotion on the page that an actor was able to portray with a few lines of dialogue and subtle body movements.
Don’t get me wrong, I also study my favorite books. I try to figure out what the author did to set up a laugh, to inspire me to fall in love with a hero, to make me really hate a villain. I note how the layout of words on the page can affect my mindset of a reader, attempting understand the cadence of a scene that moved at just the right speed. Note words chosen for showing emotions or describing a scene.
I don’t tend to take classes on craft. For some reason, that shuts my brain down. However, when it comes to marketing and bookkeeping and other more left-brain leaning topics, I enjoy finding articles on the subjects or listening to others speak about tactics and their experiments.
B&P: I’ve read that you have multiple series (5, I believe) running simultaneously. How do you keep that straight in your head?
AC: For me, keeping the different series straight is similar to keeping different people’s lives and surrounding stories separate in real life. For example, one of my sisters has five children. When I talk to her, it’s like entering her story world. Her children and their children all make up that particular series. I’m able to keep who and what straight, at least most days. The same can be said for one of my sister-in-law’s family. I’m very interested in her children and their lives as well as her own life and how things are going. This is how I keep the different series separated in my head. Violet Parker from the Deadwood Mystery series might know the Morgan sisters from the Jackrabbit Junction Mystery series, but they each have their own whirlwind lives going on that are entertaining in their own rights. Sometimes one of the Morgan sisters will go north and show up in one of Violet’s stories, or maybe a character from the Deadwood Mystery series heads south to Jackrabbit Junction, Arizona for a book. This is similar to real life where we have many crossovers.
However, there are tons of details that I keep track of when telling a story that I can forget about in real life without many consequences. Everything from eye color to a preferred perfume to a favorite drink for each character. This requires a database file and—for me—the help of a world keeper. Years ago, a wonderful woman walked up to me at a book signing, mentioned having read my books, and asked if I’d like help keeping track of details within each series. I was thrilled to find someone who wanted to help with this task. Ever since, Diane Garland from Your Worldkeeper has been tracking all sorts of fine details on each book and character. She works for many authors now, sharing her left brain with several of us who write series books.
B&P: What did you do to find your storyteller voice?
AC: I kept writing in spite of rejections from agents and publishers. I didn’t change my mixed-genre style even though publishers wanted me to pick one category and stay mostly within the walls of that particular box. It wasn’t because I was being a rebel, but rather it was due to accepting that my storyteller voice had a particular style and I was going to need to fine-tune it but stick with what came out on the page. This didn’t happen overnight. I wrote my first book (using old fashioned pen on paper) almost twenty years ago. I landed an agent with my fifth full length novel. My fifth, sixth, and seventh books were rejected multiple times before I changed course and formed a small press to publish that seventh book (Nearly Departed in Deadwood) after it won multiple awards but still was rejected from a large publisher. With each book, I’ve worked to improve my ability to tell a story. Now, over 30 published books later, I’m still working to hone my storyteller voice. I think this will be a life-long learning process for me, sort of like perfecting a golf swing or pruning an overgrown forest into a beautiful park.
B&P: Do you have an agent? Do you self-market? How did you get on the USA Today Bestseller list?
AC: Since I’m an “indie” (independent) author, I don’t have an agent or a publisher to help get my books out to the public. That’s not to say it’s out of the question. I’ve contemplated taking on an agent and moving into the role of a hybrid author, but at this time that is not a path I’m interested in traveling. I do have an agent agency that I work with for two of my series in the audiobook realm. For the other audiobook series, I work directly with the narrator and we collaborate to create the files in audio.
I do self-market and some days that can be grueling. At other times, I enjoy experimenting with different marketing and promotional ideas. In the marketing world, things are shifting constantly. I’m required to learn new software, explore different styles of advertising, have a presence on multiple social media platforms. Marketing takes up 50% of my time more days than not. Writers who are aces at marketing and promotion do very well as indie authors. They understand how to build a brand and find new readers using various marketing methods—where to put their hard-earned dollars and what venues to avoid. I’ve learned a lot about marketing over the years. Some of this knowledge has come from reading books on sales and marketing, some of it came from watching what others are doing to succeed, and much of it came from my own experimentation ending in some good ROI results and some not so good crash and burns.
As for the USA Today Bestseller title, that came with a mixture of years of writing the best books I could and promoting those titles to gain readership, plus landing an ad in the right venue for the right price. It also includes a little bit of luck at hitting the charts at just the right time. Make no mistake, there is a lot of hard work needed for an indie author to land on the USA Today Bestseller list, but many have done it.
B&P: What is a bad writing day like? Good writing day?
AC: A bad writing day is when I can barely get 200 words on the page, and everything that I have written feels flat and boring, and all I want to do is sit on my couch watching movies while eating Italian meringue buttercream frosting straight from the bowl by the spoonful.
A good writing day is when I easily crest 3000 words and the dialogue is funny, the narration is tight, and I don’t want to stop writing even though my body is starting to get tired and my vision is growing blurry. Oh, and I’m still eating that buttercream frosting from the bowl by the spoonful, but for some magical reason the calories are melting away as I type merrily along.
B&P: What is the worst part of being a pro writer? Best part?
AC: The worst? Besides bookkeeping, which is tedious for me at the best of times, probably trying to juggle all of the different hats I have to wear when what I’d really love to do is just focus on writing stories. For example, in one day, I might work on promoting one book Online, create a sales invoice for a retailer’s book order, write back cover copy for another book, set up the schedule for our annual Deadwood Fan Party, create some promotional products to giveaway at book signings, give a podcast interview, listen to a sample of an audiobook in production, and write a couple thousand words for a new book. It can be overwhelming some days, frustrating on others.
The best? Being able to make my own schedule and adjust it to spend time with my family. If I need to join my kids for a school event, I’m able to shift things around so that I can be there for them and then work into the evening to finish what needs to be done. The flexibility is wonderful and has allowed me to enjoy some fun field trips, volunteer for class events and parties, and spontaneously clear my schedule to spend time with them going to a movie, on a hike, or even on a day trip adventure. I also enjoy sitting at the table in the morning drinking coffee with my husband, sharing news headlines, and deciding when we want to get started working on book writing business. I have twenty-four hours in a day to accomplish what’s on my to-do list. I love that I can choose when I do what.
B&P: If you started out again, what would you do differently and why?
AC: I would focus more energy on improving my craft rather than trying to write to a publisher’s whim. When I first started, I was trying to write stories that would snare a contract with a publisher. Had I known that I’d find success as an indie author, I wouldn’t have put energy into what is required to have a manuscript accepted by a publisher. I could have started learning about marketing and sales earlier, too, and focused on what would be needed to run my own business, rather than trying to write the perfect synopsis and query letter.
B&P: Advice for new authors? What is the most important thing for them to know?
AC: Remember that this is a long game. Perseverance is key. Rather than starting out thinking that you’re going to write a book and be super successful right out of the gate only to be disappointed when things don’t go as well as you’d hoped, keep in mind that success comes in steps for most. They don’t call it “climbing the ladder of success” because you get to shoot to the top in an elevator (I call those few who manage that winning the author lotto). In reality, those who are doing well in this career have worked for years before being called “successful.”
Also, enjoy your journey along the way—the awards you win, the reviews you receive, the readers you meet. Every author’s journey is different. If you try to match someone else’s successes, you’ll soon fail and end up quitting altogether. I have a note on my refrigerator that says: Comparison is the true thief of joy.
B&P: Anything I have not asked you that you would like included?
AC: I write stories to entertain. I don’t intend to change anyone’s life one way or another. I just want to take readers away from reality for a bit, give them some laughs and maybe some chills, and then send them back to their lives with smiles on their faces and the gumption to continue onward and upward.
I think it’s important to decide early on in your career what it is you want to accomplish with your writing. Many go into this field wanting to make big headlines or big money. That’s fine if that’s their goal. Knowing what you want to achieve with your writing career will help you decide which route to take on the road to success.
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