Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Evolution of a Title

Titles are important to me. I've never been able to throw myself into writing a new book until I've come up with a title I love. I'm just not inspired by "WIP" (work in progress). At the beginning of each new story, I brainstorm and tweak until I settle on a title that conveys the right tone. It keeps me true to my original vision and gives me something to write towards. 

The title of my first book, Harvest of Dreams, came easily. I struggled a bit more with the second, A Man Like That, but The Treasure of Como Bluff was really the only choice for my dinosaur-hunter novella. Unwritten Rules was a different story. With it, I was changing sub-genres from Western historical to romantic suspense. I needed something sharper, more contemporary. Also, I was planning a series for the first time and wanted something I could build on for additional titles.

Initially I had planned to call the second book in the Phoenix, Ltd. bodyguard series Boiling Point. In this story, the heroine goes undercover as a personal chef but doesn't know how to cook. As a title Boiling Point is short and punchy (which I like), and connects to the cooking aspect of the plot, but to me it sounds more like a serious thriller than my sassy, romantic version of suspense. So I've been working to come up with something I like better.

I brainstormed a list of thirty possibilities with cooking references: everything from Out of the Frying Pan to Up in Flames. Then, because I learned a few things with Unwritten Rules, I checked Amazon for similar titles. That knocked out many of the more cliched titles. I'm willing to accept a few other books with the same title as mine, but not a few dozen. From there I whittled the list down to five:

Cooking up Trouble
Up in Flames
Fuel to the Flames
Undercover in an Apron
Sauteed, Not Stirred

Then I chose my two favories:

Undercover in an Apron
Sauteed, Not Stirred

I think both suggest sassy suspense. I'm leaning toward one of them but would appreciate any feedback. What do you think? Which is your favorite?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My KDP Select Free Days Results - Part 2

In Monday's post, I gave you the straight skinny on my experience during my recent KDP Select Free Days promotion for my romantic suspense Unwritten Rules. If you missed it or would like a refresher, I suggest you read the post below then come back. Today I'm sharing the numbers you really want to see - the reviews and sales figures - as well as what conclusions I can draw after little more than a week.

I ended my Free Days on a Friday night with 19,651 free downloads, so let's look at what happened over the course of the next week. Keep in mind that when I started the promotion, I had just six reviews for this book. I took all counts first thing in the morning.

16 sales, less 3 returns (Fortunately, a friend who had recently gone through this program warned me about the returns. A few people will download the book before realizing it's no longer free and ask for a refund.)
24 sales, less 5 returns
24 reviews; 19 5-stars, 4 4-stars, 1 3-star
31 sales, less 5 returns
27 reviews; 22 5-stars, 4 4-stars, 1 3-star
35 sales, less 5 returns
28 reviews; 23 5-stars, 4-4 stars, 1 3-star
Wednesday (I started to get a bit concerned here)
36 sales, less 5 returns
28 reviews
Thursday (still concerned, but this was Thanksgiving Day)
39 sales, less 5 returns
28 reviews
44 sales, less 5 returns
31 reviews; 25 5-stars, 5 4-stars, 1 3-star
47 sales, less 6 returns
33 reviews; 26 5-stars, 6 4-stars, 1 3-star
55 sales, less 6 returns
33 reviews

Also during this time, Amazon Prime members borrowed 4 copies. Since I will receive almost as much per copy from Amazon's special "pool" for these borrows as I do for a sale, I'm allowing myself to add them to the total count.

So, was it worth it? I think so. Fifty-nine sales are not very many compared to almost 20,000 free downloads, but I'm convinced they're 59 sales I probably would not have had otherwise. The most encouraging factor is that momentum still seems to be growing. During the first day and a half of December, I've had another 6 sales and 5 borrows, as well as another 5-star review. 

Now let's talk about reviews. I know many authors say they never read their reviews. I'm not one of them. I always read my reviews. I take great satisfaction in knowing I've delighted or entertained a reader - particularly a stranger - and this free promotion was my first opportunity to reach a significant number of strangers. I've never had more than 5 reviews for any of my previous books, so 34 good reviews tells me I've achieved one of my writing goals - connecting with readers. I pay attention to the elements people say they particularly enjoyed and will use that information when I plan and write my next books. 

One of the most gratifying aspects of these reviews is that many of them obviously come from non-romance readers. When they tell me the pacing and suspense elements worked for them, it means something. I've also received three great reviews from men, which tells me my writing may be even more mainstream than I hoped. Here's my favorite:

"As a guy I never thought I would read a romance novel but my wife had this out and the cover did catch my attention. My taste in fiction is pretty much John Grisham but he does not publish enough for my reading. The book will definitely keep your attention to the last page as one clever and mysterious plot line after another leaves the heroine and her entourage in dangerous and endangered situations. The only thing predictable in the book was the eventual romance. As someone who has lived in Chicago, Texas and the Central Coast I loved the detailed descriptions of these three places. The book alternates between writing from the male and female point of view so when I tired of reading about shopping trips I was quickly taken to the male point of view. I will look for other books by this author. This might make a good movie."

How can I not feel good about a review like that?

I know the numbers so far are minuscule for a successful author, but they're huge for me. None of my small-press published books did this well in such a short period of time, possibly because the publisher wasn't taking advantage of this program at the time. However, I have seen a definite bump in sales of my backlist, even though they are Western historicals rather than contemporary romantic suspense. In the week after my free period, I sold 16 of the older books, including 6 copies of a novella that hadn't sold a single copy since January. 

Although none of this is going to make me rich, it's a validation that I'm doing something right, and sometimes that's all we need to keep going.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My KDP Select Free Days Results - Part 1

When I decided to self-publish Unwritten Rules, one of the first decisions I made was to release it through Amazon's KDP Select program, and the main factor in that decision was the ability to utilize the "Free Days" option. As many of you know, if you grant Amazon exclusive sales rights to your ebook for ninety days, they allow you to offer it free for up to five days. While it may seem counter-intuitive to offer your book free in order to increase sales, that's exactly what many authors have reported, and I wanted to have the option to try it myself. 

Even though Unwritten Rules is my fourth published book, I am still basically an unknown author searching for ways to increase my discoverability--the magic factor that allows complete strangers to discover and purchase your work. I found numerous books on this topic and read several of them as I planned my marketing strategy (such as it is). The authors offered advice on various ways to try to make Amazon's secret algorithms work in your favor. As with most advice, some was useful, and some I discarded. One point that did make sense was that you want your book to appear toward the top of various category lists so more potential readers will see it. That's what this freebie venture is all about.

Since I am an unknown, most (if not all) sales of my book during the first couple of months were to people who know me personally. I did the usual Facebook and blog tour things, and might have picked up an additional sale or two, but I doubt it. By the beginning of November, sales had completely stalled. The week before Thanksgiving, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns--the Free Days. I documented every detail of the experience and intend to share it honestly with you here. I promise not to sugar coat anything or try to make myself sound more successful than I really am.

I chose 11/19 to 11/23 for my free days, uncertain if I would use them all but wanting the flexibility if I needed it. I had a list of sites that advertise free Kindle books and started notifying them about ten days in advance of my promotion. After a couple of days the biggest two, Pixel of Ink and Bookbub, advised me they would not be featuring my book, and I started to worry that I might not get enough exposure to get many downloads. 

These are the sites where my freebie appeared:
A couple required a minimum number of reviews (4 or 5) with a minimum average rating of 4.0, and that held me up initially. As an unknown, reviews were not exactly pouring in. I had to resort to asking friends and family to post reviews (something I've never done before) in order to get the small number required. As soon as I did, I was ready to go.

During the promotion, I checked my statistics every couple of hours and recorded the pertinent statistics so I could chart my progress and hopefully pull the plug at the most strategic point.
Here's an overview of what happened:
Day 1
11:37 a.m. - 1,766 downloads, #316 in Free Kindle Store, #12 in romantic comedy, #21 in romantic suspense
5:05 p.m. - 5,655 downloads, #83 in Free Kindle Store, #4 in romantic suspense, #5 in romantic comedy
10:30 p.m. - 8,271 downloads, #22 in Free Kindle Store, #1 in romantic comedy, #2 in romantic suspense

Day 2
9:00 a.m. - 9,712 downloads, #16 in Free Kindle Store, #1 in romantic comedy, #2 in romantic suspense
3:00 p.m. - 11,196 downloads, #17 in Free Kindle Store, #1 in romantic comedy, #2 in romantic suspense
9:45 p.m. - 12,928 downloads, #23 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic comedy, #3 in romantic suspense

Day 3
9:00 a.m. - 13,927 downloads, #19 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic comedy, #3 in romantic suspense
3:08 p.m. - 14,954 downloads, #18 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic comedy, #2 in romantic suspense
10:00 p.m. 15,969 downloads, #25 in Free Kindle Store, #3 in romantic suspense, #3 in romantic comedy

At this point, I gave serious thought to halting the promotion (which you can do at any time). The book had dropped off the first page in the Free Kindle Store, and I suspected it might continue to fall. However, it was still performing well in the individual category lists, so I decided to make a final decision in the morning.

Day 4
9:00 a.m. - 17,013 downloads, #21 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic suspense, #3 in romantic comedy
Since the numbers had improved a bit, I decided to continue the freebie but keep a close eye on the trends.
1:40 p.m. - 17,866 downloads, #19 in Free Kindle Store, #1 in romantic suspense, #3 in romantic comedy
6:45 p.m. - 19,023 downloads, #30 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic suspense, #4 in romantic comedy
10:00 p.m. - 19,651 downloads, #31 in Free Kindle Store, #2 in romantic suspense, #4 in romantic comedy

I decided the the KDP Select Free Days had done their job, so I cancelled the promotion. Nearly 20,000 readers had downloaded my book. That's as much discoverability as I could hope for. Now all that remained was to see if it had done any good.

Check back Wednesday for my conclusions and sales figures for the remainder of November.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cover Reveal - Charlene Raddon's new book Taming Jenna

Please join me in welcoming Charlene Raddon back to The Second Half. Today she's sharing with us the cover for her brand new Western historical romance, Taming Jenna

It's gorgeous, Charlene. Congratulations! Please tell us a little about the story.

Deserted by her father at the tender age of seven, Jenna Leigh-Whittington had taught herself to ride, shoot, brawl…and steer clear of the opposite sex. But now, in a lonely Utah canyon, the Pinkerton agent has drawn her gun on a rugged stranger—only to discover that, far from the dangerous outlaw she’d been tracking, he is Branch McCauley, hired gun…and the most irresistible rascal ever to tempt and torment a woman!
If there’s one thing McCauley trusts less than a female, it’s a female who packs a six-gun. But what a woman! Vowing to bring the sensuous hellcat to heel, McCauley has no inkling that their passionate battle of wills has just begun. Taming Jenna will be the most seductive—and satisfying—job he’s ever taken on.

Don't miss the video for Taming Jenna

Charlene will be  holding a drawing for a $30 amazon gift card for all those viewers who visit each stop on her blog tour and leave a comment with contact info. She will also be awarding three copies of her new book to randomly chosen participants. 
Here's her tour schedule:

Charlene Raddon began her fiction career in the third grade when she announced in Show & Tell that a baby sister she never had was killed by a black widow spider. She often penned stories featuring mistreated young girls whose mother accused of crimes her sister had actually committed. Her first serious attempt at writing fiction came in 1980 when she woke up from a vivid dream that compelled her to drag out a portable typewriter and begin writing. She’s been at it ever since. An early love for romance novels and the Wild West led her to choose the historical romance genre but she also writes contemporary romance. At present, she has five books published in paperback by Kensington Books (one under the pseudonym Rachel Summers), and four eBooks published by Tirgearr Publishing. 

Charlene’s awards include: RWA Golden Heart Finalist, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award Nomination, Affair de Coeur Magazine Reader/Writer Poll for Best Historical of the Year. Her books have won or place in several contests.

Currently, Charlene is working on her next release. You can find her on the web at:

Thanks for visiting us today, Charlene. Taming Jenna looks like a real winner, not to be missed! 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Have You Hugged Your Husband Today?

Husbands are fragile, especially at our age. I have received several reminders of this fact during the past few weeks. Within days of each other, the husbands of two friends began chemotherapy for advanced cancer. Their families are determined and upbeat, but terrified nonetheless. Then just this week, another friend suddenly lost her husband to a heart attack at age sixty-three. OG is sixty-four and reminds me daily that he's a delicate flower. That was funny when neither of us believed it; it's not so funny now.

The hardest lesson of aging is coming to grips with your own mortality. I think this is especially difficult for men. For the first few decades, they live as if there's no tomorrow, as if they're immortal. When youth and strength begin to fade sometime in mid-life, the process can be slow at first and easily ignored or discredited by excuses, but by sixty it's impossible to deny. That piece of furniture or machinery they once lifted with ease seems to have doubled in weight. They can no longer run that extra mile without gasping for breath. Aches and pains show up with increasing regularity.

I don't know about your husband, but OG is not going gently into that good night. He's resisting with every fiber of his being. As a result, he's racking up injuries that will likely be with him for the rest of his life, and that's hard to accept. Last spring, we bought him a new (very heavy) barbecue. Instead of asking a neighbor or waiting for me to help, he unloaded it from the back of his truck alone and dragged it up the sidewalk to the patio by himself. The result was bilateral rotator cuff tears that have resisted physical therapy and my not be amenable to surgery. Last month, he replaced the glass door in our shower. To get it to fit properly, he had to reduce the width of one of the long, metal pieces with his grinder. He was too angry and impatient to wear hearing protection, despite my pleas, and now he has relentless tinnitus that may never improve. 

I'm frustrated because he refuses to take care of himself, but I understand. It's very hard for a man to admit he's no longer young, strong, and immortal. All I can do is love him and do my best to make the transition to this new phase of life easier and more palatable. It isn't easy and is only likely to get worse. Maybe that's why the stereotype of grumpy old men continues to ring true.

What about you? Have you got any secrets to aging gracefully? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Those Devilish Details

The phrase "the devil is in the details" is generally attributed to German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a man who understood the importance of fine-tuning the creative process. We writers recognize that details are essential to vivid writing, but they also bring life to our physical environments--our homes, gardens, and public spaces. 

OG and I have finally reached the "detail" point in our remodeling project. The bones of the house are complete: the structure, plumbing, heating, and electrical. The carpenters are finishing the exterior trim details that will turn the house from a big, flat-sided box into a charming cottage. Inside, tile has been laid in the bathrooms and laundry room and doors and trim are stacked in the living room and kitchen while the plasterers finish the walls. The project is barreling ahead at full speed toward the promised finish date of December 15th.

The first few months were easy. We watched and waited while footings were dug and walls went up. The roof color was the only choice we had to make for quite a while. That's all changed. Now it seems we have to make several choices a day, each of which will affect the others and our ultimate enjoyment of the finished product. Wall colors, counter tops, backsplash, and hardware must all coordinate in satisfying ways.

After so many months and so much money already spent, it's tempting to scrimp on the small things toward the end of a big project, but OG, in his wisdom, has  convinced me it's these details that will bring us small flashes of pleasure every day we live in the house. In that spirit, I've chosen these knobs for my kitchen and master bath cabinets. The beautifully detailed grapevines speak to the region and remind me of the vineyard across the valley that I see from my kitchen window.

For the guest bath and laundry room, I chose these rust-colored iron knobs. They're supposed to be some sort of flower petal, but they remind me of the artichokes growing in the fields of the Central Coast. 

Sometimes the volume of choices seems overwhelming, and I worry that I'll regret some decisions. But if I can keep my head and focus on the details, I hope the "whole" will take care of itself. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A New Cover Project - A Chance to Learn Something New

My latest personal project was to make Unwritten Rules available in paperback. To do that, I had to learn how to format the interior for CreateSpace. I also had to to design a cover with a front, back, and spine. CreateSpace has an easy-to-use template, but I needed to learn how to rotate and move text for the spine as well as create a back cover image that would allow adequate legibility for the book description. Online tutorials answered the text question, but the back cover design required some artistic experimentation. I settled on using a different section of the image I used for the front and reducing the opacity. However, that meant I also needed an opaque fill layer underneath the image to cover the markings on the template. The final result was exactly what I hoped for and I learned several new techniques, so I consider the project a resounding success!

Fresh off the success of my own print cover, I felt confident enough to undertake a print cover for another author. If you've been following this blog, you've seen the three ebook covers I designed for the Secrets of Ravenswood series of novellas by my friend Jannine Gallant, We'll Never Tell, She'll Never Rest, and He'll Never Know. Recently Jannine decided to offer the novellas in a single print book and needed a new cover. 

She was looking for something that captured the suspense feel of all three books and featured an image of three women, representing her heroines. We weren't able to find a good image with three women, but we did find this wonderful image with a single figure. My challenge was to turn one woman into three. What do you think?

For the back, she had the idea of using the same scene but with no figures, as if the women had vanished into the mist. I reduced the opacity and was able to erase the figure. The result is perfect for her book.

We were able to take one beautiful image and manipulate it to create the perfect front and back--a cost-effective solution for the author and a wonderful learning experience for me. I consider that a win/win all around!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Top Four Formatting Tips

The past month was a major technological challenge for me. I formatted my new book Unwritten Rules for both ebook and paperback. Yaay! I had been dreading the process ever since I decided to self-publish several months ago. I could have hired someone to do it, but I’m stubborn and hate to back away from a challenge. Many of my friends had conquered the formatting beast, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the same.

I’ve always enjoyed learning new skills, but formatting is a bit like Dorothy Parker’s quote about writing—“I hate writing. I love having written.” Well, I hate formatting but love having learned how to do it. At least partially. I’m going to be upfront and admit I only prepared my book for Amazon through KDP and CreateSpace. I wouldn’t mind having it available in other formats and channels, but that’s a much more complex process and I need time to recover from this experience before I even consider tackling the Smashwords “meatgrinder”.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not the least tech oriented. I’ve never had computer instruction of any kind. I never needed more than the bare basics for my job or my writing, so that’s exactly what I picked up. The whole concept of html, etc. makes me break out in hives. However, I did manage to launch my book into the world in two formats, so I thought I’d share a few things I learned along the way.

  1. Educate yourself. I knew I didn’t know anything, so I read as much as I could before I started. The most useful source by far was Catherine Ryan Howard’s Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. I can’t recommend this highly enough. She talks the complete novice through the entire process step by step. I had to make a few modifications because her instructions are for a non-fiction book, but most of it was applicable. I also read the free Building Your Book for Kindle from KDP, but it didn’t have enough detail to answer many of my questions. We’re talking rank beginner here. I picked up a few good tips from Geri Russell’s talk at the RWA National Conference, but the online class I took was too tech-heavy for me. I don’t have the patience to go through my 87K, dialogue-heavy manuscript and code every quotation mark in html (not to mention all the other punctuation, etc.) KDP allows you to upload a properly formatted Word document, and that’s what I did—but not until I’d nearly made myself blind trying to do it the more complicated way.
  2. Use tabs instead of indents. For some reason this was the first bit of advice I got from my friends. That meant I had to go back and remove all the tabs and switch to indents, but that proved much easier than expected. Of course, it caused another problem later because I didn’t realize that the “first line” indent would apply to every first line, including all the front matter and the chapter headings. To properly center my chapter headings, I had to go back and remove the extraneous indents. That leads to my next tip.
  3. Try to think like a computer programmer. By this I mean think logically and in a very basic way. This is hard for writers; we tend to extrapolate and embroider. Computers are stupidly logical. In addition to the indent issue, I initially had trouble with the pagination in the print version. The chapters are divided by Section Breaks – an entirely new concept to me. It’s easy to understand in theory, but the details can sometimes trip you up.
  4.   Locate and learn the features of Word. I wish I’d done this first because it ultimately caused me more trouble than anything else. I only switched from Word 2003 to Word 2010 a few months ago and had never taken the time to explore all its features. If I had read Word 2010 for Dummies first, I could have saved myself hours of frustration. The clearest instructions in the world are no better than mud if you don’t understand your     basic tools.

If you’re considering self-publishing, I encourage you to try formatting your own book. It will probably be much easier for you than it was for me, and there’s a real satisfaction in being able to say “I did it!”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Monkey Mind

I didn't sleep much last night, again. Before my head hit the pillow, I knew I wouldn't. Yesterday was just one of those days. If your monkey mind works overtime like mine you know what I'm talking about. The Buddha said the human mind is filled with drunken monkeys, chattering and running around, unable to focus. Mine certainly felt like that last night.

There's so much going on in my life right now I have trouble turning it off to sleep. On the writing front, I released the Kindle version of my first indie book, Unwritten Rules, last week and am waiting for the letter carrier to deliver my proof copy of the print version this afternoon. If it looks good, it will go live on Amazon next week. The project of publishing this book has consumed so much of my energy during the past few months I almost feel at loose ends now that it's wrapping up. 

But of course, much of the work is just beginning. I feel guilty for not having done more promotion for this new book, but I need several more reviews to make the most of the free days on KDP I'm planning for next month.  All this and much more spins through my brain as soon as the lights go out. There's always something more I should be doing. 

On top of my work, OG is remodeling our shower, so every morning is full of swearing, tile sawing, mortar mixing, and more swearing. Fortunately it's looking pretty good so far, as I knew it would. Unfortunately OG is not one to suffer in silence when faced with a problem or obstacle on a home improvement project. It can be more than a little distracting.

Additionally, our daughter is teetering on the edge of landing her first full-time job. After five years of grad school, she decided not to continue pursuing her PhD in Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology. The situation in Egypt has become untenable for scholars, and there are no teaching opportunities in Western universities. On top of that, she's looking forward to a more "normal" life after having been in school for most of her twenty-seven years. She began looking for a job several months ago with no luck, which has been supremely stressful for all of us. Finally in the past couple of weeks the tide started to change. She got first one interview then another, with a follow up scheduled for Monday. We have our fingers crossed, but nothing is certain and it's enough to give any mother sleepless nights.

And then there's the new house. We're about three months from completion, and things are happening fast. Yesterday we solved an anxiety-provoking problem with the siding, and I met with the landscaper for the first time. I can't wait to see the design he comes up with for my new gardens. It's also time to choose the colors and a lot of the final finishes. As a result I lay awake at 2:00 a.m. with visions of cabinet knobs and flowering shrubs dancing through my tired brain. 

In truth, although I was tired this morning, it was a good tired. Things are happening, and none of them bad. It's an exciting time. Six months from now I wonder if I'll be bored. I doubt it. But maybe at least my monkey mind will settle down for awhile.

Friday, September 6, 2013

OG is Bored - Heaven Help Us!

Hopefully by now you are well enough acquainted with OG to grasp the importance of that statement. Before we moved to California, he had an entire sixty-year-old house to work on. There was never a shortage of projects to keep him out of trouble. Since the move he's been cooped up in a condo half the size where most of the work has already been done by professionals.

You'll note I said most. Until last week, there remained one potential do-it-yourself project--the shower in the master bath hadn't been touched in forty years, and the tile was starting to buckle. No longer! Our daughter visited us for Car Week on the Monterey Peninsula in the middle of August, and two days after she left OG ripped out our shower. It turned out to be a very good thing.

Beneath the tiles, we discovered plywood--nothing more. No waterproofing of any kind, just soggy, moldy plywood. If you know anything about construction, you know this was not an approved method even forty years ago. OG cut out the plywood, re-plumbed the shower with a non-scald balancing valve (yaaay!), and is putting up concrete backer board. Next comes the tile, then a new shower door. 

I have no idea how long this may take, but I told him I'd like it finished by my birthday the first week of October. He laughed, but I have enough experience with his home improvement projects to be cautious. When he remodeled the master bath in our last house, it took six months. He's quite skilled, but (oddly) not quite as young as he used to be. Besides, with any construction project things happen. They just do. You might as well expect it and make peace with it.

Since he started this project, OG has taken a bit of a physical beating. The shower stall is small, and it's hard on the legs to spend a lot of time working in a crouched position. His hands are scraped from cutting and screwing the backer board, but having a project with a goal is well worth the aches and pains.

OG retired a number of years ago and has always struggled to keep himself occupied. In contrast to the many years he spent working in an office, he prefers to work with his hands on projects that produce a tangible result. Since I retired from insurance and we moved, I've been very busy with my career as a writer and designer, but OG hasn't had much to do. The shower project has been good for his psyche, if not
his body.

Our contractor is building him a workshop under the family room in our new house, where I hope he'll find enough interesting things to do to keep boredom at bay for several years to come. If he can't stay busy at home, I might have to resort to renting him out just to preserve my sanity.

Monday, September 2, 2013

My Biggest Project Yet

In January, I began the journey to a new portfolio career comprised of writing, book cover design, and editing. My first several projects were cover designs I've shared previously on this blog. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning a new set of skills and applying it to a new creative medium. I'm pleased with the results and look forward to enhancing and refining my graphic design skills in the future. My current project, however, has been a much larger undertaking.

I'm thrilled to announce the release of my fourth book Unwritten Rules. After publishing three books with a wonderful small press, I decided to take the plunge into the world of independent publishing with this new one. For a number of reasons the time seemed right. I was switching sub-genres from Western historical romance to contemporary romantic suspense and would no longer be able to work with my previous editor. Also, after designing several book covers for a friend, I wanted the opportunity to design my own. In my new business, I will be helping other independent authors realize their dreams, so I wanted to be familiar with the entire process.

It's been an exciting journey with a few bumps along the way (formatting is not my friend), but I'm satisfied and proud of the final product. And after all is said and done, that's the greatest reward.

Here's a blurb about the story:

Things aren’t going Madelyn Li’s way. Her bodyguard agency is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, her grandmother keeps hatching plots to marry her off, and someone is trying to kill her latest client. All she wants is to safely escort thriller writer and former CIA agent Carter Devlin on his cross country book tour and collect her check, but two obstacles stand in her way: a shadowy assailant and her own growing attraction to her dashing client.

Carter Devlin has agreed to accept the beautiful and determined Ms. Li as a bodyguard primarily to appease his publisher. After all, who would want to kill a beat-up, retired ex-spy on a book tour? But when the attacks turn deadly, he soon learns there’s more to Madelyn than a pretty face and tempting body. Will the spark become a flame before a killer snuffs it out?

What have you been up to lately? What projects are you most proud of?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Switching Gears - Another Benefit of a Portfolio Career

For the past few weeks, I've been working hard on the edits for my contemporary bodyguard romance Unwritten Rules. It's now with one of my beta readers for what I hope will be a last read-through before I publish it later this month. Even when I'm satisfied with the text, I still have a major hurdle ahead. I'll need to format the manuscript for ebook publication--something I've never tried before. I've read articles on the subject and taken an online course, but I know I'm in for several days of hair-pulling frustration. 

To give myself a break before tackling the challenge of formatting, I decided to switch gears and work on cover designs. After living, breathing, and dreaming words for weeks, spending time with visual images was a welcome change. I came up with a couple of preliminary options for a Christmas novella I hope to publish this fall. If I don't finish it in time for the holidays, I'm not going to beat myself up. It will still be a wonderful story next year. That's one of the best things about self-publishing--I write to my own schedule.

I also started work on samples for pre-made covers I hope to offer through my new business, Creative Author Services, once I get it up and running. Although I expect to custom-tailor covers for each individual author, I want to give potential clients an idea of my artistic vision and graphic style. Ebook covers need to make a strong visual statement to attract readers even in thumbnail format, so I've tried to put together simple, striking images. By the time I open CAS for business, I hope to have a full array of examples. Here are a couple of early mock-ups.


Some people create a portfolio career from multiple jobs out of necessity, as a way to achieve full time employment. That wasn't my objective. After retiring from my full time job, I was looking for a satisfying variety of pursuits. I love being able to switch gears and engage both sides of my brain, and I expect to continue to enjoy it for years to come.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Progress at Last!

I promised to keep you updated on the progress of our mammoth remodeling project, and I'm proud to report that I finally have something to report! After weeks of delays, Monterey County approved our building permit for the additions last week, so work on the master bath and family room additions has begun. The contractor had told us he planned to dig the footings yesterday, but when OG and I went out to the house Sunday afternoon, this is what we saw:

Here's a picture I took yesterday of the foundation guy jackhammering into the rock for the footings for the family room off the back:

And here's my new office:

A big mound of lumber has been delivered, the roof has been removed, and carpenters were framing the skylights this morning. The contractor assures me they will now make record progress, but he tends to be a very optimistic fellow. We're a few weeks behind schedule, but I plan to remind him regularly how much I'd like to be in the house by the first week of December. After 24 years of living in Minnesota--where no one in their right mind would consider moving in December--it sounds funny to even talk about it. However, as long as I have time to unpack the Christmas ornaments and decorate the tree before our daughter arrives, I don't care.

This week is Car Week here on the Peninsula, and our daughter is flying out from Chicago this evening to attend several auto-related events leading up to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance on Sunday. She and OG are both car nuts (I have minimal interest), so they should have lots of fun together.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

I'm Not as Young as I Think

How can that be? I'm pretty active, and like all baby boomers, I think I look younger than my age. Why do I feel like an old woman today?

You may recall I reported I'd taken up yoga a couple of months ago. I loved it, and things were going well. For some unknown reason, this week has been different. Tuesday, I couldn't stretch as far, and my hamstrings were unusually tight. No problem, I thought. I'll just stretch them out, and they'll be fine. Thursday, they were a bit tighter and threatened to cramp when I did the same routine I've been doing painlessly for two months. Today I couldn't even make it the whole thirty minutes. The muscles and tendons felt like they were tearing loose from the bones. Yeow!

Fortunately OG is an old hand at athletic injuries as a result of running track and playing football in high school. He diagnosed over-stretched hamstrings, slapped an ice pack on the worst one, and prescribed ibuprofen. Ever the good patient, I complied and it seems to be working. I can climb stairs, and I successfully managed to shave my legs in the shower. I'll take a couple of days off to heal and see how I do.

I have no experience with sports injuries (can you count yoga as a sport?). I've never broken a bone or even sustained a serious sprain. As a result, the pain took me by surprise. At first I simply chose to ignore it. I'm used to discomfort going away if I ignore it. After all, I'm young, fit, and flexible. Right?

Not so much. For the first time, I have to face the fact that my body is aging and learn to listen to it. I need to accept it--maybe even learn to like it. More important, I need to learn to take care of it. One of the most sobering realizations of reaching the mid-century mark is that we only have one body, and we have to live with and adjust to whatever happens to it. I'll keep exercising every day because I want to remain as active as possible for as long as possible, but I'll treat my body with the kindness it deserves. We have a long way to go together.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Updating my Author Brand

There's a lot of talk in writer circles these days about the importance of defining your brand. Much like a wireless phone provider or auto manufacturer, an author's brand encompasses the the desired public image of his or her product. T Mobile wants customers to identify their service with a hip, young brunette sporting hot pink. Chevrolet targets their truck ads at rugged, hardworking men like farmers or ranchers. S.C. Johnson describes itself as a "family company", a definition that emphasizes the trustworthiness and quality of their products.

So what is my brand, and why do I need to update it? I never gave the concept a thought when I began writing decades ago. I wrote the kind of stories that appealed to me as a reader, and my first three published books were Western historical romances. However, my tastes as a reader and writer have changed, along with the tastes of the majority of romance readers. Western historicals still enjoy a certain dedicated readership, but they are no longer as popular as they once were. My newest book is completely different--a humorous contemporary with strong suspense elements--and because I've decided to publish it myself, the issue of developing an appropriate author brand is even more important.

When changing genres, as I'm doing, many authors choose to write under a different name. But unless you abandon all earlier titles, that requires multiple websites and online personas--way too much work for me compared to the potential payoff. Realistically, I was never a big enough name in Western romance to worry about damaging an existing brand. I decided to establish a new brand that would reflect my new style but which could also encompass my earlier work. Besides, I might decide to write historicals again someday.Should I decide to abandon romance entirely for mysteries or family sagas in the future, I would probably use a pseudonym, but for now my own name will suffice.

To prepare for the task of creating a brand, I took an online course for authors on Creating A Marketing Plan, which included a lesson on branding. I also read several articles on the subject. Then I set out to define myself, starting with the question: What words do you want readers to associate with you and your books? I took into account self-defined strengths, as well as comments from readers and reviewers, and came up with the following: warmth, wit, and a touch of whimsy. I think those words describe me as a person and a writer, regardless of the sub-genre I choose. And putting my brand into words helps me keep it in mind as I write.

Finally, there's the issue of visual branding. Our products--books--have a certain look that tells readers what to expect. It might be softly romantic, darkly sensual, or lightly humorous. Historically, large publishers and their marketing departments have commissioned covers to promote an author's brand (although I know many authors who have been disappointed by a cover). Small presses usually take less care. The covers for my Westerns are lovely but do not suggest any type of author brand. 

By self-publishing, I can control that. I choose the look and content of my covers. But with control comes responsibility, and it's scary. I have to do it right or risk compromising and weakening the brand I'm working so hard to develop. I'm also re-doing my website to reflect my new brand. I'll unveil it here when it's finished, and you can tell me what you think.

It's a brave new world, and I'm jumping in with both feet!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Copyediting for the Twenty-first Century

I'm old-fashioned and willing to admit it, but I didn't realize how far behind the times I was until I began the copyedits on my upcoming release, Unwritten Rules.

In January I announced my plan to self-publish my next book. I loved working with the small press that published my first three books, but I wanted to spread my wings and try something new. My main impetus was the desire to create my own cover and hone my editing skills--both necessary since I plan to start my own business offering those services to other writers as part of my new portfolio career. 

Last week I finalized the cover design and am delighted with the results. Unwritten Rules is my first contemporary romance, and the cover captures the sassy, modern tone of the book perfectly. If only the copyedits were as easy.

For the past several years, I had noticed what appeared to be the demise of punctuation in printed material of all types and assumed it was a question of style and author preference. Turns out I was right. However, those preferences are no longer individual; they have gained the weight of printed authority in no less than The Chicago Manual of Style and other influential style manuals.  

When I began writing decades ago, I used Strunk and White's slim little volume, The Elements of Style. It was chock-full of common sense advice and recommended using commas every place you would normally pause in verbal speech. I added that to my existing arsenal of absolute rules drummed into me by years of junior high and high school English teachers. Unfortunately I graduated from high school a LONG time ago. Practices and standards have changed, and I missed the boat.

Two of my first purchases when I decided to embark on my new portfolio career were The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn and my own copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. I suspected (correctly) I needed updating as well as authoritative references. These resources introduced me to the concept of "open punctuation" and convinced me to give it a try. I can't begin to count the number of commas I've removed from my manuscript: after introductory adverbs, before terminal adverbs, between co-ordinate adjectives. Thank heaven the punctuation gurus still allow serial commas. I need to be allowed to retain a few favorite old habits.

I now recognize the kindness of my previous editors who made no effort to reign in my comma addiction, and I'll do my best--in my own work and that of my clients--to keep modern and up-to-date. Even in the face of near-fatal comma withdrawal. I promise.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's Time for a Six Month Check-up

Six months ago today I began my new life, my Second Half. So much has happened in that time, it seems only fitting to stop and take stock of the changes. 

Health: Six months ago chronic stress from my job had caused me to lose a third of my hair, and I was sleeping no more than four hours a night. I had also lost a substantial amount of weight, although most of that was voluntary as I joined OG on his weight loss program for better health. Today my hair has grown back (I even have a fun new haircut!), and I sleep around seven hours most nights. I exercise six days a week and have recently  added yoga to my routine. OG exercises daily, and his 55-lb weight loss has allowed him to throw away his cholesterol and blood pressure medications. In addition to our exercise routines, we're both more active in general. The beautiful weather and convenient location of our condo encourage us to do many of our errands on foot. We enjoy exploring and searching out new places and activities and have already found a number of new favorites.

Home: The biggest change. Moving is always difficult and stressful, but we were lucky enough to sell our home in Minnesota without much hassle and relocate to Carmel, California. It's a good thing we already owned a condo here because the new house we purchased in March has a good basic floor plan and spectacular views but is unfit for human habitation. We are basically rebuilding it from the studs out. At this point demolition is complete, and the new heating system and interior framing are well underway. Friday, we spent 2 1/2 hours with the lighting designer choosing fixtures and developing the whole lighting plan. Our contractor says we're still on schedule to complete the project at the end of November, and I hope he's right. So far it's been a fun experience and not too stressful, aided by the fact that we're not trying to live in a construction zone.

Work: Before I retired, I spent several months thinking about what I wanted to do in my new life. Since I was already a published fiction author, I knew I wanted to continue writing. However, I also wanted to expand my literary horizons a bit. I decided to start my own company offering editing and book cover design services to independent authors. Although I have not yet formally launched the company, I have been learning the intricacies of Photoshop and have designed three covers for a friend's indie-published novella series. I've also designed a cover for my own first venture into self-publishing. I figured if I hope to work with other self-published authors, I need to understand and experience the process first hand. That book, a contemporary bodyguard romance entitled Unwritten Rules, should be ready for release in the next couple of months. After that, I hope to complete and self publish a Christmas novella in time for the holidays. I want to remain flexible and not drive myself crazy, but I think it's important to have goals. We'll check back in six months and see how I've done meeting them.

Finances: I would be remiss if I didn't address this important topic. After all, money doesn't grow on trees, and I don't want to pretend it does. Before I took the big plunge and retired  earlier than planned, OG and I took stock and decided we could afford it. I hope that's still true (I think it is), but we really don't know yet. Right now we're living off cash assets and haven't started drawing any actual retirement income. I expect that to happen later this year after we move into our new house and sell the condo. At that point, we should know exactly where we stand financially. Health insurance has been one of my largest concerns, as it is for most early retirees. For now we're on COBRA from my former employer. It runs out right about the time OG becomes eligible for Medicare next year, and I'll have to buy an individual policy. I just hope my good health continues and the Affordable Care Act lives up to its name.

So there you have it: the last six months in a nutshell. OG and I have given up the security of a regular paycheck and moved half-way across the country, away from everything we've known, in search of a healthier, more fulfilling life in The Second Half. I think we've found it. I'm grateful for where we are and what we have every minute of every day. (And I think OG's coming around, too!)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Late to the Yoga Party

I've taken up yoga. 

Big deal, you say. Many of you have been singing the praises of yoga for years. It is a big deal to me--one more new life-enhancing activity to add to my Second Half. I've always liked the idea of yoga but relegated it to the "maybe someday, when I have time, if I feel like it" category, along with things like scuba diving or learning to play bridge. 

When I embarked on my new life in January,"someday" became "now". Stress had nearly crushed me, and I needed to find new ways to cope and heal. Yoga sounded like the perfect addition to my list of stress-relief strategies. For the first few months, however, I was still too busy to try it. We sold our house, bought a new one, moved across the country, and embarked on a massive remodeling project. Paradoxically, I needed to reduce my stress before I could experience the stress relief of yoga. I needed a routine that allowed  time and space to search for peace. Eventually, OG and I settled into something resembling a routine, and two weeks ago I decided I was ready to give yoga a try. I'm much less stressed than I was six months ago and better able to tackle something that requires concentration. 

The common advice to those wanting to take up yoga for the first time is to look for a class. Now I'm in reasonable shape and still pretty flexible, but I know what I don't know. At fiftysomething, I wasn't comfortable facing an instructor and a group of other students until I figured out if I even like yoga, much less if I'm able to do it. So I did what I always do--I researched. I checked out several how-to books for beginning yoga students and selected Yoga for Dummies, by Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne.

I'm thrilled say the book is exactly what I was looking for. It's a comprehensive, easy-to-follow, introduction to yoga with a special section on beginning yoga after age 50. I was able to learn the poses and Level 1 routine quickly and have been performing it every other day, alternating with days on the treadmill, for the past two weeks. I haven't hurt myself, and I believe I do feel calmer and more flexible. In a few weeks, I hope to advance to Level 2, but I'm not going to push myself. Even the simple poses seem to bring real benefit.

One drawback, however, is that I now want to move into the new house even more quickly. It wasn't easy to maintain my concentration this morning with racket from the gardeners using gas-powered leaf blowers outside and a construction crew demolishing the interior of the unit next door. It's going to be a LONG six months until we move into the house and I can have the peace and quiet yoga both demands and deserves.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Monkey Business

We have a saying in our house: "You can never go wrong with a monkey...or a chicken." Some animals are naturally funny, especially monkeys and chickens. One of our favorite episodes of The Big Bang Theory features Ricky, Amy Farrah Fowler's chain-smoking simian lab subject. If you haven't seen it, you must. He is one BAD monkey!

Those of you who have been following this blog may recall the post entitled "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", in which I celebrated the joys of whimsy in my Second Half. Since OG is having a bit more trouble making the transition to living in California, we're making an effort to add whimsy to his new life, too. For Christmas, our daughter (a giant fan of Spanish soccer) gave OG a stuffed monkey named Marti (dressed in a Real Madrid hoodie) to keep him company by his computer. When we moved, OG decided Marti would make an excellent personal trainer and set him up on the treadmill. 

For OG's recent birthday, our daughter sent a whistle for Marti to help keep Dad on track with his exercises, and I gave him this card. The monkeys bounce and bob; I couldn't resist.

However, I believe my Fathers Day present tops them all. I found this monkey on a tricycle at Grigg's Nursery when I took my mom to look at fairy gardens. OG was so amused he insisted on going back the next day to get plants and a chicken to complete the piece. Now, this is what we see from our living room window. Just look at those expressions! It's hard to have a bad day with these two around.

And, in case you wondered, I AM wearing my monkey socks as I write this post.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Who Loves Fairy Gardens?

I love fairy gardens. Who doesn't? They combine two of my favorite things: gardening and miniatures. The best fairy gardens whisk you away into a wonderful world of make-believe on a tiny scale, much like a dollhouse but complete with a magical outdoor setting. (Does anyone else remember Thumbellina?)

I loved playing with my dollhouse when I was a little girl. I had some furniture and accessories that had belonged to my mother, and we bought a number of additional pieces over the years. When my daughter inherited the dollhouse, she and I used to visit a fabulous miniature shop in Minneapolis to add to the collection. We both cherish the memories of those special excursions, which were precursors to innumerable fun girls' days since. The dollhouse has moved on to one of my nieces, but I still have two boxes of furniture and accessories to pass down in case I'm lucky enough to have a granddaughter one day.

My mother was in town a couple of weeks ago for her first visit since we moved, so I took her to my favorite garden center, Griggs Nursery in Carmel Valley. I wasn't looking for fairy gardens because I'd never seen them there. However, as soon as we arrived, we came face to face with this one. Doesn't it look like The Shire? I can almost see Bilbo and Frodo, can't you?

Mom and I were instantly captivated. We looked around and came across several more. They're quite pricey but SO charming.

Then we found a display of fairy garden accessories, and I was inspired. I promised Mom I'd plant my own fairy garden as soon as we move into the new house. I can hardly wait!