career

Getting the Most Out of Your Creative Day

This post is part of an ongoing series for HBIC Nation, a community that helps creatives learn, grow, and dominate in their fields. Our motto is Dream. Do. Dominate. You can find out more by going to HBICnation.com or joining the HBIC Nation Facebook Group. I recently transitioned from working a full-time day job and writing on contract for a publisher to writing full-time. I’ve been dreaming for years about making this jump. I figured I’d wake up, roll out of bed, and the words would just flow. If my fantasy was a formula, it would look like this:

All the time in the world + Writing full-time + Dream fulfilled = All the books in the land

Wasn’t I adorably naïve?

Instead of being the writer utopia I’d imagined, all of this uninterrupted time was daunting. In the past, my day job forced me to be extra disciplined and protective of my writing hours. I was getting stuff done before because, ironically, I had so little time in which to do it. It turns out that for me the formula looked like this:

No time + Deadlines + Stubborn determination = 4 books a year

Obviously, I was happy that I had one focus in my professional life instead of two, but without the structure of a demanding schedule I was feeling lost. I was too unstructured.

Fortunately, I have lots of creative around me who don’t work traditional day jobs. Instead, they create their own schedules that work at the pace of their own artistic flow and — this part is key — still get the work done.

I reached out and got a lot of great advice from women who’d made this jump before me, including from HBIC members Alexandra Haughton and Tamsen Parker. Then I took a step back to assess my own working habits and came up with these things that have been working for me.

Survey Your Week

I’m going to come right out and admit that I’m not great at future planning. At least not long, long-term future planning. However, what I am good at and find incredibly helpful is looking at the week ahead.

Every Sunday I sit down with my bullet journal and brain dump a list onto a piece of paper. I write down my appointments, important emails and calls, and every project that I know I need to get done next week.

Here’s a sample list of things I jotted down on my weekly to do list:

• Email London networking contact • Finish The Taste of Temptation draft • Make notes on Patreon • Dinner with Maegan, Tuesday • Agent/Editor lunch, Thursday • Podcast interview, Friday • Pick up dry cleaning • Long run • Cancel cable

See what I mean about brain dump?

One thing I don’t do is write down every little step to get those projects done. Finish The Taste of Temptation draft could look like this: finish hero realization scene, write grand gesture scene, write epilogue, finish transitional heroine scene you neglected to write because you got excited about other things. That, however, doesn’t help me see the big picture for the week. The nitty gritty details? Those are more likely to cloud up my view. Apparently I’m exactly who that seeing the forest through the trees adage is about

Make a Daily List and Make It Early

Once I’ve got a weekly list (which I make on Sunday nights), I get down to my big organizational tool: day-to-day task lists. The night before I start writing down everything I need to do the next day. Monday gets planned on Sunday night, Tuesday gets planned on Monday night, and so on. I do this because it helps me shut off my brain and keeps me from working 16 hour days. If there’s a to do list for tomorrow, those things can get done tomorrow.

This day-to-day list is where those nitty gritty tasks I avoid putting on my weekly list become helpful. They keep me on task and help break big projects down into actionable steps.

I’ve also found it to be helpful to sometimes write out a little schedule for myself like so:

7:45 a.m. — Shower, breakfast, morning pages 9 a.m. — Morning writing session 11:30 a.m. — Run errands, lunch 1 p.m. — Afternoon writing session 5 p.m. — Email catch-up 5:30 p.m. — Run

3 Daily Goals

If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a lister. I put everything on lists, and that sometimes makes it hard to figure out what absolutely needs to get done and what can potentially get pushed to another day. Because of that, I like to highlight the three biggest things that must get done on a given day. I literally write a 1, 2, 3 next to them to mark that they’re my priorities, but you can use this prompt to help you organize:

Today I Will: 1)   ____________________

2)   ____________________

3)   ____________________

If those three tasks get done, the day’s a win for me. (Don’t we all need little wins for motivation?)

Make Time for Admin — And Keep It

Admin has been a huge pain point for me for a long time. The problem isn’t so much sending emails, writing blog posts, and social media. It’s getting myself to stop once I start. There’s always one more thing that I could be doing. One more newsletter draft. One more Facebook post. One more tweet. It’s enough to make an HBIC want to pull her hair out.

I’ve started to think about admin like I think about my writing time. I build out space in my week for it and I protect it fiercely. However, I’d say I go one step further when I work on admin during the predetermined time because I’m protecting the rest of my life from it creeping out and taking over everything.

On Sundays I’ll go into my CoSchedule app — an expensive but worth-it-to-me content marketing tool — and set up my blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagrams for the week. If I have a newsletter I’ve got to send that week, I’ll make sure that’s ready to go and scheduled in MailChimp. I’ll fill up my Buffer with snazzy content from friends and make sure I’ve got some things ready to go if people I know have launches or book sales during the upcoming week.

Then, after all that is done, I close CoSchedule and walk away. Other than making sure that my content is going out into the world, I try not to open it again. I’ll jump on Facebook and Twitter from time to time, but that’s mostly for interaction and catching up on everyone’s news rather than promoting my content. The temptation to cut into writing is just too great. All of this content creation is supposed to serve the writing, not hinder it by taking excessive time and mental energy away from me.

I’m still learning my own best practices for working as a creative full time, and would love to hear what works for you whether you’re working on a side hustle or your art is your full time gig! Leave me a comment or shoot me an email at julia@juliakellywrites.com, and be sure to check out HBICnation.com.

Welcome to HBIC Nation

A few months ago I spent the best weekend I've had in a long time with five of my fellow authors. We holed up in a house in the middle of the Virginia countryside surrounded by rolling hills and cows mooing in the distance. The six of us were there to reconnect, write, and recharge. On the second to last day, after eating a huge picnic out under a tree on the unseasonably warm February weather, we stared talking about how being a part of this group of six had gotten us through the good and the bad in our careers. Personally, everything changed for me as a writer when I found a community that both supported and taught me, but that wasn't unique. All of us had stories to share about what "finding our people" meant to us.

Sipping wine and soaking up the unexpected sun, we began to wonder about how to share that experience with other people. The more we talked, the more we realized that all six of us wanted to do the same thing: foster a community for creatives where they could find support, grow, and celebrate success. We didn't just want to cater to writers but musicians, actors, designers, and others as well because we firmly believed that we can all learn from each other.

HBIC Nation was born on that February day. It's a website, a Facebook group, but most importantly it's a place for creatives to gather. An HBIC is a Head Bitch in Charge—because we know "bitches get stuff done"—and we welcome all HBICs who dream big, do the work, and dominate.

You can join HBIC Nation by going to our website, clicking on the "Citizenship" tab, and signing up. We're also kicking off a supportive, inspiring Facebook group where we'll start applying the principles of HBIC Nation right now. Expect to be challenged to think about your career, celebrate the HBICs who inspire you, and enjoy getting to know your fellow creatives!

We also have shirts for sale because who can launch an empire without a great logo for continuing inspiration? Use this link to get 15% off your purchase automatically until May 11. (No promo codes required.)

We hope you'll join us, and we can't wait to see how you'll grow!

#5forFriday: Moving, Hotly Anticipated Books, and Scrivener

It's been a busy week! Here are the top 5 things I've loved, learned, and listened to:

  1. OMG I'm moving to London! I talked about the decision to move out of NYC in a post earlier this week, and while I'm thrilled I also still can't believe it. (But I'm sure it'll start feeling real once I bring the suitcases out and empty my apartment.)
  2. I got to speak to Sarah Aswell from SheKnows about my top 10 most-anticipated romance novels for the rest of 2017.
  3. This M. O'Keefe book is free right now and you better believe I grabbed a copy.
  4. On this month's First Draught we talked about Scrivener (i.e. the writing and organizational software that makes it possible for me to write several books at once). Here's a link to the podcast.
  5. This song by Odessa is giving me life this week:

Why I Started Writing Romance

Many authors' stories start the same way, with some variation of "I've been telling stories since I was a little girl." I'm not any different, although I don't remember telling love stories when I was a little girl. Instead, my first "book" (which was one page long) was a mystery. Both my parents are avid readers, and my Mum has what sometimes feels like an encyclopedic knowledge of mystery and crime fiction. Between that and hearing the woman wailing as she faints during the wonderfully macabre Edward Gory's Mystery! opening credits from my bedroom every Thursday night as a child, I was pretty much destined to start off there.

I've talked before about reading my first romance novel. It was a sweet, wonderfully zany Zebra Regency Romance that I took home with about a half dozen others from a deep discount book store on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. While I'd always read voraciously as a child, I truly gobbled these books up, soon moving on to more complex plots with more intense romances (ie the hero and heroine started doing more than just kissing on the last page). The only natural step after that was to write one.

I started tinkering with an idea for a book the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My family had just gotten a new computer, so I commandeered a desk that my sister was just using to store junk and parked the huge desktop on it. Then, I got to work.

The book, which I never finished, was called Charlotte's Choice and it was a second chance at love romance. I wrote by the seat of my pants — something I would later learn through several long, painful lessons isn't suitable for me — and finished about 25,000 words by the end of the summer. That alone felt like an incredible achievement. I'd never written that many words before!

This is where, unfortunately, I stalled out. I worked on that book on and off for the next three years, hauling a paper manuscript around with me from home to college and back again. Then, I graduated, and my focus became grad school.

I attended Columbia's University's School of Journalism in the broadcast program. I mention that only to say that the program compresses what most schools take two years to teach into 10 months long. They were the hardest 10 months of my life. I had two exacting introductory reporting professors who held marathon days of class on Mondays and Tuesday. Then there were radio broadcast and editing classes, TV broadcast and editing classes, workshops, law, ethics. If I wasn't in the classroom or desperately trying to grab some sleep after late-night editing sessions in the Avid lab, I was probably out reporting in South Brooklyn (or with friends at a bar if it was Friday or Saturday night because I was still a grad student and let's be realistic). It was a seven-day-a-week job getting that MS.

Somewhere in the middle of that mess of a year, I was laying on my futon late-night and watching Dancing With the Stars in an desperate attempt to turn off the analytical, journalism side of my brain. That was when I realized I wasn't enjoying my life. Everything was so focused on getting this degree, I felt completely drained. I've since heard Sylvia Day talk about needing to top up the well, as though creatives — or anyone really — have a finite amount of creative energy and inspiration. We keep the levels high by consuming things that stimulate us. Books, movies, media. We need a mental break from whatever it is that we're making in order to then go and do our job in a healthy way. Even though I didn't know to call it that, I'd drained the well as a journalist and was running on dry.

That was the night that I decided I needed to exercise my long-neglected creative side. I turned the TV off, pulled my laptop out, and started writing. It was a historical romance about a poor relation who resorts to writing and the earl courting her cousin who falls for her hard. By the end of the night, I had the first chapter of To Woo a Writer.

Writing it, however, wouldn't be quite so easy as that first chapter. For about three years I picked up and put down the book. In the meantime, I wrote a novella and shopped it to a now-defunct Harlequin line. I still have the slip of paper my rejection was printed on. I doubled down on my efforts to finish the draft of To Woo a Writer only to be distracted by other things because writing is hard and it's easy to set aside things that are hard and get to them later.

Finally, in 2012, I decided that it was time to — for lack of a better phrase — put up or shut up. I'd been talking about wanting to get published for a long, long time and I still didn't have a completed, full-length novel to show for it. I made the decision to finish the book and started saying no to some social engagements that would take me away from writing and leaving others early so I could go home and write. In two months I typed The End.

The book was a mess (first drafts are always a mess), but it was done. Done! I called Mum, told her I was revising it and I'd need her to read it if she was up for it, and began hacking away at book. After a couple rounds of revisions, I pulled out my copy of Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents (bought and flagged with Post-In notes in an optimistic moment), and drew up a list of agents that accepted romance. I ranked the agencies, and began sending out queries for representation. By October, I'd signed with Emily Sylvan Kim at Prospect Agency who is still my agent.

The story of getting from representation to contract is another long one. To Woo a Writer is still bubbling away on the back burner of my hard drive. I love it, but with so much distance and growth since writing it, I can see its flaws. Before the Governess series was picked up by Pocket Books, I wrote two contemporary romances (one of which will be published this August and the other of which is so bad it will never see the light of day), and self-published two contemporary romance anthologies. Getting that first contract took a long time. Then again, so did writing that first book.

How a Book Becomes a Book

On Thursday, I turned in the developmental edits for my upcoming contemporary sports romance Changing the Play which will be published under a new pen name, Julia Blake. Authors know that this is cause for celebration. Developmental edits are a big deadline, and getting them out of the way is a huge relief. But others might be wondering what that actually means. Even though I'd published independently before signing with Pocket Books, I had to admit to being fuzzy on the whole publishing process at traditional houses. Today I'm going to try to walk you through some of the major steps that gets a book from draft to publication using my experience with the second in my Governess series, The Governess Was Wanton.

The First Draft

It seems logical that the first step in publishing a book is to actually write the book. Depending upon where you are in your career and the terms of your deal, however, there might be a whole negotiation before you ever write a word of prose. (Selling on proposal is a topic for another day.)

When my agent sold the Governess series, we had one completed book (The Governess Was Wicked) and proposals for two others (Wanton and The Governess Was Wild). Those proposals were really just two to three page synopses of what would happen in the book were I to write it.

If you have a completed novel when you strike a deal, the editor can begin working on it immediately. However, you've sold on proposal or there are multiple books in a deal and not all are written, this is the time when an author's got to get to work. When my Governess deal went through, my editor was able to get cracking on The Governess Was Wicked immediately, and that meant I had to get writing Wanton STAT.

I wrote Wanton over about five weeks, revising it up until the deadline. Then, blurry eyed and tired, I turned it in to my editor. That was stage one complete.

Developmental Edits

My editor took my first draft of Wanton and read it through. Then she wrote me an edit letter which is a document with recommendations about what to change, which parts need to be strengthened, and what new directions she'd like to see the story go in. Often these are very big picture changes to a book that develop character and plot (ie developmental edits).

In the case of Wanton, the edit letter included a big ask: rewriting the ending of the book because it was too similar to the ending of Wicked, which would be published immediately before itGetting a note like that is nerve wracking because it seems like such a huge undertaking. ("I have to rewrite the whole end of a book? How do I even do that?!") In the end, however, my editor was absolutely right, and the new ending has one of my favorite scenes I've ever written.

Accepted Into Production

Once you've handed in your dev. edits and your editor has gone through them, they might ask for another round of edits. However, if they're happy with the changes made, your book will be accepted into production. Rejoice!

This is typically when authors get paid some part of their advance. (Advances are split up into parts. I've heard of a lot of different advance structures. So far I have been paid half on signing and half on acceptance of the manuscript.)

Line and Copy Edits

Next my editor did a line edit of Wanton (think a very close, line-by-line reading of the content of the text with lots of comments and markups in track changes) before she hands the book off to a copy editor. Some editors may send the line edits to their authors for approval and changes first, but the way we work I got the line edits at the same time as the copy edits.

The copy editor is looking for technical, grammatical problems with the manuscript. This is also the stage where the manuscript is checked for consistency. Copy editors have to be very detail oriented, and I've got a huge amount of respect for them because their job seems impossibly hard to me.

When Wanton went for copy edits, the copy editor made a list of all names, places, and dates referenced in the book. This is like a little bible that your book (and your series if you wind up writing multiple books in the same world) has to adhere to. They're looking for consistency in names, timelines, physical descriptions. It turns out I'm not a strong timeline writer (I'm trying to get better!) so ages and dates are challenging for me. I received several notes on Wanton about whether someone was 28 or 30, what color some else's eyes were, etc.

When I got back my line and copy edits, everything was marked up in track changes. This was my time to then accept or reject the changes in the manuscript. If I agreed with my editor and the copy editor, I would accept a change. If I didn't, I would STET the edit in a comment, which basically meant, "I don't agree with you, please leave the text as it was." With historical romances you have to be particularly careful because not everyone is as familiar with conventions of the time like how siblings were addressed. (I'm the eldest of two sisters, so I would've most often been referred to as "Miss Kelly" and my younger sister would've been "Miss Justine" until either or both of us were married.)

This was also the time where I got to write my dedication and my acknowledgements pages.

Proofs

Once you send back your copy edits, it's time for the pages to be set. This is the first time your book looks like an actual book. Since Wanton was published exclusively as an ebook, this meant that my editor sent me a PDF proof of what the book was going to look like on an eReader screen. This is particularly exciting because in my case it meant seeing the title page, pretty chapter headings, page breaks, etc.

The purpose of looking over a proof is to make sure that all of the changes from the copy edits made it in. It's also a time to sweep for typos. Thankfully I was far from the only set of eyes on the book because at this point I'd read my own manuscript at least eight times. Try editing something you've written and read that many times. It's...hard.

Proofs are the only time that I actually print out and hold my book anymore. I mark up actual pages with colorful pen (my favorite is pink which, now that I think of it, may delight or irritate my proofreader) and then send photographs of the galleys back to my editor to point out where I found typos.

Proofs are not the time for major content changes to a book. They are, essentially, a last check of the book to make sure everything looks okay.

Publication

Rejoice again! You have a book that readers can actually read!

There's a lot more that goes into prepping a book for publication including back cover copy and marketing, but that's a whole separate blog post for another day. In terms of the editorial process, you're done and ready to move on to writing your next great novel because writers never stop writing.

How Bullet Journaling Changed Everything

Last year was a game-changer for me. My first books with a publisher came out, and I switched roles at my day job and took on more responsibility than I've ever had before. The only way I was able to keep on top of those big, big changes and everything that came along with them was because for the first time in my life I found a planning system that works for me. Some people are planners and some people aren't. I'm definitely the planning kind, but in 30 years of searching I hadn't found a system that I liked. I've tried everything from simple pen and paper lists to complicated apps that give you lots of options to categorize and tag your tasks. Typically I'd use a system for a month thinking I'd found something I could stick with, but then each and every time I'd cast it aside because it didn't fit.

It turns out, I was looking for a planning system that "looks like my brain" and mimics the way I think. I found it when I discovered bullet journaling.

I'm not going to teach you how to bullet journal. There's a whole website dedicated to that and the video above is a good place to start. (I'm also not terribly artistic so I won't be showing off inspirational, beautiful bullet journal pages.) What I am going to do is tell you why this system worked for me.

Remember how I said I needed an organizational plan that looks like my brain? Bullet journaling has stuck with me for more than a year because it's flexible and nimble, just the way my brain is. I use a squared Moleskine Cahier notebook in a larger traveler's notebook for my bullet journal. That means no strict calendar pages or pages that I'll leave blank and that will bother me when I'm on vacation. Perfect.

My bullet journal is basically two types of to do lists and a meal planner. When I sit down each week, I start with a spread of two blank pages. This is my weekly spread. The left-hand side is a meal planning page with each day broken down into lunch, dinner, and an afternoon snack (especially important on days when I know I'll be working out after my day job). I use that page to plan a week ahead of time when I'm going to be cooking and build a grocery list next to it.

A weekly spread with meal planning on the left and a weekly to do list on the right.

On the right side of the weekly spread I create a to do list for the entire week. This isn't every minor task that needs to get done, but the big picture things or tasks I don't want to forget about if they're a few days out. I don't separate out personal life, day job, and writing because I've found that if I do I neglect the tasks that I'm less enthusiastic about. (Who really wants to pick up their dry cleaning when it's 18 degrees outside?) If it's all in once place, I can't avoid it.

Check out two daily to do lists for the price of one!

The second type of to do list I use is a daily one. I wanted to save paper in this example so I collapsed Saturday and Sunday onto the same page, but you can see that each task is listed. If I didn't finish a task on one day, I carry it over and write it down the next day. The list is always changing and very flexible, but it's always there. Since I'm adding everything from writing to appointments to household tasks, I always know what my time constraints look like at a glance. If I go on vacation, I can set the bullet journal aside and not worry about wasting paper.

Many people are attracted to bullet journaling because of the "collections" (more permanent lists that can easily be found because many bullet journalers also create an index and page numbers for their collections). I use a separate notebook to write down all of the books I read each year, and this year I've expanded to include a list of all of the movies I watched. For now, however, that's enough for me. I've realized that the best organizational system is one that you actually use, and the weekly spread, meal plan, and daily lists are what works for me.

What if any planning system do you use? I'd also be really curious to hear what readers to do keep track of their books. Goodreads? A paper list? Let me know by leaving a comment!

Making Great Romance Novel Covers

Today I’m taking a moment away from getting ready for the release of The Governess Was Wicked (Sept. 12!) to brag about one of my very talented friends. In addition to writing romance, Alexandra Haughton has a business called Romanced by the Cover which provides beautiful custom and premade book covers to authors.

Last week, Alexandra wrote up a fantastic article for The Verbs about working with a cover designer to get a design that best reflects your book. In the article she broke down several different genres and created covers that reflected those genres’ demands. The coolest part is that she used my name and author brand for historical romance and mocked up four covers for a book I hadn't even dreamed up yet called Undressing the Duke.

The covers are pretty incredible. Alexandra did a wonderful job of not only finding stock photos (a frustrating challenge in historical romance because you’ve got to get the frocks right), but also matching the tone and look of the cover to the title. I'm also really fond of some of the fonts she picked, so much so that I actually asked Alexandra to use them when she made the cover for my Wattpad free read The Lady Always Wins.

The Lady Always WinsYou can check out all of the Undressing the Duke covers as well as covers for Alexis Anne (erotic romance), Lindsay Emory (cozy mystery), and Mary Chris Escobar (women's fiction) by clicking here. And be sure to check out Romanced by the Cover for more cover art as well as Alexandra’s latest release, The Last Plus One.

UPDATE: You can now read part 2 of Alexandra's series on working with a cover artists by clicking here.

What I Learned at RWA 2016

It’s been just over a week since I came back from the Romance Writers of America National Conference. That means I’ve had some time to process, and I have some takeaways to share.

I’m not going to be wrapping up RWA. There are other people who do that much better than me (and if you read Lindsay Emory’s wrap-up you’ll get a pretty good idea of what my conference was like right down to the half-naked man posing on a bar because we spent a lot of time together). Instead, I’m going to share a few things that I took away from RWA both as a writer.

I Need a Business Plan

Here’s how I feel about business plans:

 

via GIPHY

Clearly there are many things I’d rather do than write one including but not limited to walking over hot coals, being audited by the IRS, and eating pickles (ugh, can’t stand the things). However, after years of putting it off I’ve come to realize that it’s time for me to suck it up and act like the pro I think of myself as.

I’m still working my way through a formal business plan (hey, they take time to write and research), but I’ve done two things in the week since I’ve been back home from the conference. One was fill out Mel Jolly’s 2016 Game Plan Template. She breaks down professional, personal, and financial objectives for the year and then asks you to list the actionable steps you’re going to take to actually make your goals happen.

While it’s scary sometimes to write down concrete things that we want, it’s also really powerful. It helps focus what you’re doing and helps you bring everything you do professionally back to one question: “Is what I’m doing helping me meet my objectives?”

The other exercise — which was a lot more enjoyable because I got to shamelessly dream big — was Ally Carter’s lists from her blog post "A Letter to Baby Author Me (Circa 2004)." She advises writers to jot down five things that would make you really happy in your career, five "best case scenario" things that could happen in your writing career, and five of your wildest dreams. I did that, and now I’ve got the document living in my cloud storage so that I can pull it out once a year and check on my progress.

You Need an Author Branding Plan

One of the big, scary objectives on my 2016 Game Plan was “Create an author branding plan.” What I’m looking to do is develop a consistent look and feel for all of my social media and web platforms — including this website and blog — that reflects what readers will find in both my historical and contemporary books.

It’s harder than you’d think to narrow down the themes that run through your books and your online persona, but Alisha Rai and Courtney Milan gave a great workshop at RWA about starting to narrow down your brand. If you’re an author who attended and bought the conference recordings, their workshop was called “It’s All About the Audience: How to Find Readers and Build and Keep Your Audience.”

Focus Your Energy on Newsletters

Sarah Wendell and Mel Jolly did an excellent workshop on newsletters for authors. While a lot of the information was advice I’d heard before, getting it all at once in one session helped synthesize it and make things stick. One of my takeaways was consistency. It also helped to hear someone tell me that although I might feel like I'm pestering people with my newsletters once a month, these are people who've specifically asked to receive news.

I’m a believer in building and owning your newsletter if you’re a publishing professional because I’ve seen dramatic changes at social media sites in the last year. If you invest all your growth into sites where you don't have direct access to readers, you're risking losing control of your primary marketing tool. Facebook reach and page accessibility is completely dependent on what Facebook’s developers want to with the algorithm. Twitter and Instagram have also undergone changes recently. The only thing you have complete control over is your newsletter list (which you should be exporting once every three months to make sure you have all of those addresses in case your newsletter provider folds).

Sometimes Old School Is Better Than New School

I had a fantastic time signing books during the Pocket and Gallery open house at RWA. I got to meet a bunch of readers, and give away a lot of books which always makes me happy. However, I wound up with a stack of about 300 postcards left over from the signing.

Ready to sign @pocket_books #RWA16 open house!

A photo posted by Julia Kelly (@juliakellywrites) on

What I decided to do was to reach out old school. I bought a bunch of A7 envelopes, stuffed them with postcards, and mailed them to every family member, friend, romance reader, and giveaway winner I’ve ever run into. Now, as this post goes up, there should be postcards dropping into people’s mailboxes across the country as well as Canada, the U.K., Martinique, and the Netherlands.

I like old school snail mail as a marketing technique for a few reasons:

  • I personally love getting mail, and I suspect that it’s a nice thrill for readers to get something other than magazines, bills, and junk mail.
  • It’s another way you can touch readers and put your books in front of them.
  • It’s a reminder to people who haven’t preordered your book yet that it’s coming out.
  • It’s a way to make sure that all of that beautiful paper swag you have hanging around actually gets used!

I still have dozens of post cards, but I did send some along to Colleen Hoover’s Bookworm Box donation address. If you’re able to send books or swag, it’s a great program.

Lots of snail mail going out to readers this week!

A photo posted by Julia Kelly (@juliakellywrites) on

Connecting With Other Authors Is Worth the Conference Expense for Me

Probably the most important thing about going to conferences for me is getting to see the incredible, intelligent, talented women I only see once a year.

It’s hard to describe the reasons why RWA is so important to someone who isn’t a writer — not to mention not in the romance industry — because it’s such a foreign concept to most people. The best thing way I can try to explain it is that RWA and conferences like it is all about a community of readers, writers, and industry professionals who all speak the same language of books and genre coming together. I have a great group of core friends as well as many acquaintances whose friendship I value. They’re also unendingly generous and knowledgable, and it's good for my career to hang out with them.

Finally but Most Importantly

Romance and the larger publishing industry still has a lot of growing to do in terms of welcoming and respecting authors of color, different abilities, and sexualities. I was thrilled to see two LGBTQ romances win RITAs this year — For Real: A Spires Story by Alexis Hall and Him by Serena Bowen and Elle Kennedy — but I both heard about and witnessed microaggressions and outright hostility toward some members of the community.

Everyone should feel like they have a place at RWA and in the larger industry. That starts with welcoming people into the community; supporting authors of color and LGBTQ authors who tell stories about characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and characters with different abilities; and demanding the industry value those people in the way it currently values white, het, cis gender authors and stories.

Romance can do better.

7 Things I Learned When I Went Through My Old Writing

For the first time since Labor Day, I don't owe anyone anything. I've met all my deadlines, and I'm project-less (at least I am until copyedits come back on two of my books). It's glorious. I've been taking this rare free time to read, cook, catch up on Outlander, and do some serious spring cleaning. But while I was totally on board with deep cleaning my apartment and sorting clothes for donation, I kept ignoring the big task that's sat on my to do list for years: cleaning out my box of old writing.

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About seven years ago, when I moved into an apartment with my friend on the Upper East Side, I bought myself a huge plastic filing bin and a bunch of folders. I printed off all the old ideas that had just been sitting on my laptop, and started organizing. I filed away a whole bunch of concepts, character sketches, plot maps, synopses, and in some cases partial manuscripts of up to 45,000 words. Then I never looked at anything in that box again.

I'm sad to say, that box moved with me and has been sitting on top of the cabinets in my studio for five years.I'm not even sure I opened it up to add things. Sunday night, I decided that enough was enough. I had to sort through every piece of paper in there and figure out what to keep and what to toss.

I learned a lot in the two hours it took for me to sort everything in my box. I haven't had a chance to read everything in it (there's only so much wine in the world and I can't drink it all in one nostalgia-laden, cringe-worthy old writing session). I do plan to read everything, however, because among all of the — sometimes very — rough sketches in there are some ideas. Some good ones. Ones that could at some point become books.

So, here's what I learned when I made myself look at all of the ideas I thought were good enough to write down seven years ago.

Be prepared.

Yeah, you should probably be ready for a few "Why did I write that?" and "Wow, that's better than I thought" moments, but that's not what I'm talking about here. To go down nostalgia lane, you need to be properly prepped with tools. I dragged out a trash bag, mixed myself a Negroni, put on Hasley's BADLANDS, and set to work.

 

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I like organization...and that's not necessarily a great thing.

The first thing that jumped out at me when I started attacking my mound of paper was that I like organization. Like really like it. My box of concepts was stuffed full of neatly printed, binder clipped paper. Everything was grouped with its appropriate project (some of them have amazing names, but more on that later). Things were split into folders that I'm sure made plenty of sense seven years ago. Everything looked neat.

Same goes with the content of those files. I always thought of myself as a pantser until I buckled down and started writing really serious. Now I will not start a project without at least a synopsis and often a few notes on character, plot, timeline, etc. mostly because I can't remember the details of what I pitched if it's not written down. If my agent sells a series, I need to remember months down the line what books two and three are supposed to be about. I thought I'd become a plotter because of professional survival.

I once knew how to read this plotting tool. I now have no clue what I'm looking at.

Turns out, I loved plotting when I was starting out. I had notes. I had deeply detailed character descriptions. I had synopses. I was all over the organization...

...so where are all of the manuscripts that should have come from such excellent plotting?

Some just didn't work. It happens. Not every idea becomes a book. Some manuscripts can be fixed, but I've also written a few that couldn't.

What concerned me a lot more was that I could see a bad pattern developing in this box. I used plotting as a crutch. If I broke a plot down in every possible way I could think of, I could tell myself that I was still doing work even if I wasn't producing workable, completed drafts. But look! I had all of this paper. I was working.

Nope. That's busywork and not productive work.

Breaking out of the habit of constantly researching and making notes is another long blog post, but suffice it to say I did it out of necessity. I made deadlines and forced myself to stick with them. Suddenly I couldn't spend days ripping apart a manuscript that wasn't even close to being complete. Making myself put together a manuscript and start submitting it to agents changed a lot of things.

I'm an office supply junkie.IMG_5470

I pulled a lot of binder clips off of duplicate manuscripts. A lot. I have so many hanging and regular folders, I shouldn't be allowed into a Staples unattended ever. Same goes for stationary stores. How many legal pads does one woman really need?

My sister was a pretty good editor when she was 20. 

It's generally not good when someone unequivocally hates your main character. It's generally great when they tell that to your face and don't let you write a bad book that no agent or editor is going to want to buy because of an odious heroine.

And yes, I did read that the first chapters of that manuscript. My heroine was pretty horrible. My sister will be so pleased to hear me tell her she was right (she's also now in a publishing grad school program so good call, baby sis).IMG_5476

A lot of it is bad, but it's still my work and that's pretty cool.

I wasn't as embarrassed as I thought I'd be going through this box. I actually kind of wish one of my close friends was with me so we could comb through the pages. I think it would have been fun.

Don't get me wrong — a lot of what was in this box was bad. Like cringe-worthy bad. But most of it was also straight from brain to paper. It was rougher than a rough draft, and that's okay. What I had was a box of fresh ideas that I was excited about enough to jot down and store away.

I'm looking forward to going through my box of ideas slowly and seeing what's in there. Maybe nothing is usable. Maybe something becomes a book or a series. It's the promise of possibility that's exciting.

Writing makes you a stronger writer.

Someone I was once close with used to love Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 rule. The short version is that Gladwell argues it takes 10,000 of practice to become an expert at something whether it's hockey, piano, whatever.

While I don't completely buy into Gladwell's argument, I do think that consistent, conscious engagement with writing will make you a stronger writer. You've got to be open to learning and mentoring and criticism, but if you put in the time consistently your writing will change over time.

This box represents lots of hours and lots of writing. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard writing. Is all of what I wrote in 2008 good? Nooooo. But did I get better? Yes.

When I told my old roommate I was digging through my writing from when we lived together and that some of it was "utterly awful stuff," she said something really smart:

"We all do this. We all look back on old work and think it's terrible. It means you're growing!

And you'll grow until you stop."

She's a pretty brilliant lady.

You'll find some gems.

If you're like me, you'll uncover some gems while digging around in your own box of concepts. I found four rejections from when I submitted a literary short story to a bunch of journals. Those make me laugh now, but the thing that made me happiest was finding an old photo from college. It was taken on move-in day of my freshman year with my roommate who would go on to become one of my two closest girlfriends in college.

So enjoy this photo of me as an 18-year-old with a ribbon belt (thanks, 2004), and I hope you'll be kind to your past self when you tackle your own spring cleaning.

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The Lady Always Wins, XOXOConnects, and More!

If you've been following me on social media, you know that I'm right in the middle (literally) of writing book two of a three book trilogy about Victorian governesses that's tentatively set to release next year. It's been a busy, busy fall already but I'm poking my head out of the writing cave today to share a few more things that I think are pretty exciting. The Lady"The Lady Always Wins" 

First off, I've got a new short story up on Wattpad! "The Lady Always Wins" is a super fast read jam-packed with a rake, spinster, some kissing, and a big confession. I had a blast writing it, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it too. If you do, please give me a vote and leave a comment! That helps other readers on Wattpad find "The Lady Always Wins" too.

 

#XOXOConfessions

I wrote "The Lady Always Wins" because my publisher, Pocket Star, is hosting a writing competition for readers that's going on right now. All you have to do is write up a quick short story (2000 words or less) and post it to Wattpad using the tag #XOXOConfessions. The grand prize is a publishing contract with Pocket Star, the digital-first imprint of Simon & Schuster! Full details are available here, and definitely check out the stories already posted to vote for your favorite!

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#XOXOConfessions  is actually part of the bigger XOXOConnects all-day readerfest that's happening right on your computer Oct. 24 from 12-8! Writers, editors, and bloggers will be hosting Q&As, teaching workshops, and celebrating everything romance. It's all digital so you don't even have to get out of your PJs if you don't want to.

I'll be on the historical roundtable with Sabrina Jeffries, Meredith Duran, and Candace Camp at 5 p.m. EST. It's running on Google Hangouts just like my First Draught show does, so be sure to watch live!

The entire schedule of events has been posted (and includes some huge names in romance).  You definitely don't want to miss this one!

That's the latest from me. It's back to the writing cave for now!

How to Organize Your Writing Life: Tracking Characters

Espresso Shot (4)When you're a writer, the struggle to stay organized is real. Different drafts. Different books. Different projects. Release days. Blog posts. Facebook parties. No matter the stage of your career, we all have responsibilities pulling us in different directions. Organization is key to making sure that everything gets done when it should without leaving you feeling completely overwhelmed.

Every Wednesday throughout the month of May, I'm sharing some of the tips and tricks that I used to keep my writing life in order. We've already covered your calendar and your daily writing goals. Today we're tackling tracking your characters.

Keep Record

I started to keep notes on all of the characters that appear in my books about three novels, four novellas, several short stories, and countless pitches into the process. I really, really regret not starting from day one. I'm still playing catch up on entering all of my character names as well as their defining characteristics.
So here's what I recommend. No matter where you are in your writing career, build a spreadsheet for your characters. Start it now. Today. And keep it updated. It will save you when you're editing manuscripts you haven't looked at in awhile. Even better, you can build your mini character profiles while you're writing and keep yourself on track as you draft.

What to Include

Your character spreadsheet can be as extensive or minimalist as you like. Here's a look at the things I track:
  • First name
  • Last name
  • Title (mainly for historicals)
  • Book the character appears in
  • Role (hero/heroine/antagonist/secondary character)
  • Race
  • Height
  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Profession
  • Additional notes
Once I enter all of that information in, I use Excel's sort function to alphabetize by first name. That makes it easy to find characters fast, and it also helps me notice any trends. I have a tendency to like men's names that start with an "E" and women whose names start with a "C." I don't know why, but having a visual remind of that is hugely helpful.

Use Your Spreadsheet

Just like a calendar or a to do list, a character spreadsheet is only helpful if you actually use it. When I'm writing, I have it popped up in the background. If I write about a new character, I'll add their traits to the sheet. Similarly, I refer back to that sheet if I'm drafting and I can't remember the color of a character's eyes (something I seem to be incapable of). Doing this will save you a lot of annoying stopping and starting while you're editing a manuscript--especially if you haven't looked at it in a few weeks.
If you are interested in getting a copy of my character spreadsheet, just send me an email to juliakellywrites@gmail.com, and I would be happy to send you my template.
Good luck, and happy writing!

How to Organize Your Writing Life: Setting Daily Goals

Espresso Shot (3)When you're a writer, the struggle to stay organized is real. Different drafts. Different books. Different projects. Release days. Blog posts. Facebook parties. No matter the stage of your career, you all have responsibilities pulling you in different directions. Organization is key to making sure that everything gets done when it should without leaving you feeling completely overwhelmed.

Every Wednesday throughout the month of May, I'm sharing some of the tips and tricks that I used to keep my writing life in order. Last week we talked about keeping your calendar straight. Today I'm going to talk about how setting attainable, realistic daily goals can transform your writing life.
The To Do List
 
My to do list drives the day-to-day of my writing career. I use it to keep myself on track and organize my long-term and short-term goals. It's also the place I turn to first when I'm feeling overwhelmed. If you use it well, I promise that it will help you take back control of your crazy writing hours.
I go over my to do list every day and update it. I write down everything that feels like a task to me, even if it's as simple as "pack lunch" or "write 1,500 words." Facing down more than one deadline, I've absolutely written down "take shower." Your to do list isn't going to judge you. It's a tool that lets you write down all of the random things zipping through your head, demanding attention. It also lets you let go of those things and say, "I'm going to take care of you, but you aren't my top priority right now." Once you do finish whatever task is bothering you, you can cross it out. You get a sense of completion, plus you can see physical evidence of all of your hard work. Non-to do list believers, trust me when I say it's an incredibly satisfying feeling.
Once I run out of things to add to my list, I look it over. I mark anything that must be handled that day as high priority.* I group similar tasks together so that I can complete them all at the same time. I usually look for tasks that have been on my list for a few days and try to figure out whether those are really necessary or whether I'm just avoiding them. If I'm avoiding, that's usually a pretty good sign that it's time to get that task crossed off the list.
 Three Daily Goals
I'm guessing that most of you already use a to do list to keep you organized. Now I'm going to show you how I take that information and move it off my list faster. I use a technique I think of as my three daily goals. Every day I write down three things:
  • Three Goals
  • Red Flags
  • Successes
The three goals are the the three things that I'm going to do today that will help me move my writing career forward. These could be massive things (finish novella draft) or small tasks (post to Facebook). I recommend a mix. On March 12th, my list read like this:
  • Set One Week in Hawaii cover reveal date
  • Call with Alyssa Cole, 8 PM
  • Finish new hockey scene for sports romance
Each of these things were pulled from my to do list and prioritized. They were also tasks that I knew that I could finish that day. That is one of the key elements of this three daily goals exercise. You're getting things done by breaking your larger deadlines into small, manageable tasks.
The next step is to identify any red flags you might have on that day. These are any activities that are potentially going to eat into your time and keep you from completing your three goals. For me, things like RWA meetings, friends visiting NYC, and unusual deadlines at my day job are the most common red flags. Identifying them can help you plan a strategy to not only comfort those red flags but also complete your writing goals.
And finally, I believe in celebrating little successes, so at the end of the day I write down the things that I did that day that helped further my writing career. I'm not always perfect with completing my three daily goals, so sometimes my list is as simple as, "Posted a release day promo to Facebook." Other days, I hit a good stride and overachieved. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of work success, find something out of your day that is a positive and celebrate that. We're writing big long books. We deserve a little bit of a boost throughout the process.
*I use my Mac's Reminders app since it syncs with my phone. This lets you mark anything high priority with !!!, something I find really helpful when scanning my list.

How to Organize Your Writing Life: Maximizing Your Calendar

Espresso Shot (1)When you're a writer, the struggle to stay organized is real. Different drafts. Different books. Different projects. Release days. Blog posts. Facebook parties. No matter the stage of your career, we all have responsibilities pulling us in different directions. Organization is key to making sure that everything gets done when it should without leaving you feeling completely overwhelmed.

Every Wednesday throughout the month of May, I'm sharing some of the tips and tricks that I used to keep my writing life in order starting with the basics: your calendar.
Keeping Your Calendar
I shouldn't have to say this, but I suspect that it's necessary. If you're going to take your writing career seriously, you're going to need a dedicated calendar. Just like you have to keep track of deadlines in a day job, you've got to keep things straight when it comes to your writing.
I use separate calendars for my writing, day job, and life events. They're loaded into my iCal that syncs to my phone and Mac. I do this because I'm never without my phone, and I can always keep it updated on the fly. I color code my writing calendar in blue so that it's easy to find at a glance, and I can uncheck the other calendars to isolate it when I need a writing overview.
Deadlines 
Whether these are set by your publisher or by you, you need to take your deadlines seriously. You're a professional. You wouldn't blow off a big presentation at work. Your manuscript isn't any different. But even when you take those dreaded deadlines seriously, sometimes they get away from us, making them a whole lot scarier when you finally remember them. If you use it correctly, your calendar can minimize the changes of that happening.
Here's what I consider a deadline in my own writing calendar:
  • Each draft of my book. For my latest indie release, One Week in Hawaii, that meant my first, second, and third drafts. Then, once copy edits came back, my final draft. I was working with anthology partners so I also included the dates I had to get them back first and second draft critiques back. If you're working with a traditional publisher, you want to note the dates that you need to get all of your various edits back.
  • Blurbs and cover copy
  • Updates to back matter
  • Cover art and formatting if I'm publishing independently
  • Marketing rollout
  • Cover reveal
  • Release date
  • Blog posts, articles, and other things I owe other people. This includes publisher blog obligations as well as blog tours and the occasional Facebook party.
I input each of these things into my calendar in all caps as soon as I find out about them. This means that I'm positive I have the most up to date information about what I owe who and when. If there is a change of date, the first thing I do when I find out about it is update my deadline in my calendar. My apartment could be on fire, and I probably would still stop to make a calendar adjustment. If I don't, there's  a 25% chance I will forget.
Writing Life
Your writing life is everything else that takes up your time or you need a reminder about. Some people block out time on their calendars for their daily word count to make sure that they know that's a permanent appointment. These are their office hours.
Since I have a day job and I write when and where I can, I don't keep office hours. I do, however, write down just about everything else I do related to my writing career. Here are some of them:
  • Conferences
  • Workshops and signings
  • Articles for my blog
  • Website updates
  • Teasers, excerpts, and other materials for any upcoming releases
  • Swag/business card order reminders
  • RWA chapter meetings
  • Writing dates with other authors
  • Broadcast dates for First Draught, the writing talk show I co-host
I use my writing life calendar in conjunction with my to do list which includes emails I owe people, social media post reminders, maintenance on sites like Goodreads and Amazon's author page, and little day-to-day things that need to get done. Just like I mentioned in deadlines, the moment something comes up that will require my attention it goes on the calendar and possibly the to do list too.
Using Your Calendar
Writing all of this down is just half the battle. Now you actually have to put that beautiful (possibly color-coded) calendar to good use. I open mine every day and look at two views: the daily view and the monthly view. I'm looking for any red flag, deadlines, or projects that may have slipped my mind. I also try to do a three month look ahead once a week so I know that I'm looking ahead to. This helps minimize deadlines creeping up on me (especially blog posts I've promised to other people as those have a nasty habit of lurking in the shadows of my calendar).
Hopefully this gives you some jumping off ideas about how you might start managing your writing calendar to make it work harder for you. Now it's your turn to share. What advice can you give to writings looking to optimize their calendars and stay organized?

What I Should Have Asked My Agent

Getting an agent was a tiring, emotionally draining process. I wanted to make the right move for my career, but how was I supposed to do that? I did some research and went through all of the steps you’re supposed to. I looked over the contract my agent sent me and asked a lot of questions. That was good, but now that I’ve had some time to develop relationships with other authors at different stages of their careers and heard the stories—good and bad—I realize that I’d missed some major points. I’m fortunate that I lucked into a good agent whom I trust, but if I could do it all over again, I would tell myself to ask the following questions before signing just to make sure we were on the same page.

  • How does your agent-to-be handle non-compete and option clauses? If she doesn’t tell you straight off the bat that she will do everything in her power to fight them or change the language so that it is less restrictive on you, you might want to look elsewhere.
  • How does your agent-to-be handle rights? Not only do you want to make sure you can get your rights back if your publisher folds, she also should know how to handle digital, foreign, movie, and merchandizing rights. If she works with another agent or lawyer in those negotiations, who is that person?
  • What if you want to be a hybrid author? For many writers, a clear delineation between traditional and indie publication doesn’t make sense for their careers. They do both. How does your agent-to-be feel about you working on indie projects? Would she want a cut of an indie book that she does not represent? Is she supportive of you going solo for part of your career?
  • Can you break up with your agent if you need to? No one wants to think about an agent/author relationship going south, but sometimes it happens. Read the clauses of your contract dealing with separation very carefully. If you have any doubts about your ability to understand contract language, get a lawyer. You do not want to wind up stuck in a contractual relationship that’s soured.
  • What is your agent-to-be’s style, and what do you want from her? I think this is one of the most important questions to ask yourself. Some agents will do serious, line-by -line developmental edits. Others would rather you work with critique partners to get your manuscript in shape so they can focus on selling. Some are very friendly with clients while others keep clients at a more professional distance. You don’t have to be best friends, but you should be working with someone whose style fits yours.

Don’t feel ashamed about asking your prospective agent lots of questions openly. You’re doing what you need to in order to help protect the health of your career. Be polite, but also be informed.

And when in doubt, talk to your friends. There’s a good chance that someone in your chapter or in your personal network of authors knows someone else who is represented by a particular agent. Be discrete and gracious, but make sure to get the answers you need before signing.